Setting the Post-Paris Climate Agenda

Photo courtesy of Kim Seng from https://www.flickr.com/photos/captainkimo/6702244011/
Dec 1, 2015

CSIS – UN climate negotiations are sort of like the holiday season. In the lead up there is always huge amounts of anticipation, lots of planning and logistics, and the promise of something new, merry, and important. The event itself is chaotic with lots of complicated family dynamics and the ever-present threat of someone storming off in a huff. The day after often brings plenty of leftovers to be dealt with, presents to be stored, regifted, or returned, and a sense that it is time to move on to all the things that had been put off while dealing with the big preparations.

There is no denying that for the climate community the last twelve months have been one big crescendo to Paris, a carefully orchestrated set of activities and announcements designed to drive momentum and activity toward the big moment. By any stretch this has been a tremendously successful crescendo. The country pledges that have been rolling in since this past spring total over 180 in number and cover approximately 95 percent of global emissions. By the UN’s own estimates, these pledges, if pursued in earnest, could keep the world in the ballpark of limiting temperature rise to 2.7 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Over 400 cities, 1,000 plus companies, and countless members of civil society pledged separate and additional actions. The Pope and several other groups of religious leaders weighed in on the moral imperative to tackle climate change and the United States denied the Keystone XL pipeline project – a major North American symbol of the environmentalist struggle to catalyze action on climate change. Unlike five years ago in Copenhagen , there is a lot on the table this time even before the talks get underway.

As for the event itself, the negotiations in Paris will likely include a great deal of intrigue, a fair amount of horse trading, and lots of stone walling on many of the same issues that have plagued the negotiations for years. Areas of disagreement will likely include the expected legal status of the outcome, the adequacy of climate finance levels, expectations for a long-term target, and the overall ambition in the level of the post-2020 pledges. In addition, members of several governments at the talks are trying to sow doubt among the international community about their government’s true intention or ability to follow through on their pledges. Examples of this include the Polish government signaling their unwillingness to follow through on the EU emission reduction pledge and the U.S. Congress launching several efforts to stop U.S. emissions reduction policies or signal disapproval of any potential for agreement more generally. Most of this is par for the course in climate negotiations.

Despite the expected rancor, the likely outcome will be mostly uncontroversial and perhaps even unremarkable to many folks outside the negotiations in part because the lead up to the negotiations has been so dramatic. Success in Paris means creating a framework through which governments can work to achieve ever more ambitious efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to a changing climate. The apparatus must be able to facilitate a ratcheting up of ambition over time and hold countries accountable for their actions.

By this definition of success the real test comes after the negotiations are over, a point David Victor and James Leape highlight in a recent article. If the pre-Paris crescendo is followed by a prolonged post-Paris cliff of inaction and loss of momentum then the mechanism created by the negotiations – no matter how perfectly crafted – will be viewed as a failure. As anyone who has ever made a New Year’s resolution knows, it helps to have a plan for the days and weeks following New Year to increase chances of success, and it is even better if you can work before the start of the new year to plan for sustained commitment well after the holiday hoopla has come and gone. In this respect, the climate negotiations are positioned to deliver a fair degree of success and in fact have a better track record of achieving progress on the climate policies and actions negotiators want to see happen in the periods in between major negotiations than achieving major breakthroughs in the negotiations themselves.

All this progress is admirable, but as the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon noted in his opening remarks at the conference – all this will not be enough. The truth of the matter is that delivering on the lofty goals of the climate challenge will take a great deal of work on a variety of fronts, both inside and outside the negotiations. A post-Paris agenda likely needs to focus on the following topics:

Decarbonization Pathways : The climate community is split, perhaps more now than ever, on the plausible pathways to deep decarbonization (reducing emissions commensurate with reaching a 2 degree target). Analysis of emissions reduction progress have focused on the near to medium term, out to 2030 out of political expediency. The post-2030 pathways and options for deep decarbonization are much more controversial . Some in the community believe that deep-decarbonization is possible with existing technologies while others, very notably Bill Gates’Breakthrough Energy Coalition and the recently announced Mission Innovation led by 19 countries responsible for over 80 percent of total clean energy research and development, believe that new and improved technologies will be necessary to reach the necessary levels of low carbon energy penetration. These energy system questions are big, complex and subject to a wide range of assumption and modeling peculiarities that make it difficult to declare any one decarbonization pathway as the most logical to pursue. However, as technologies continue to progress and energy systems across the globe continue to evolve, our collective understanding of these pathways must change to incorporate new analysis on what policy, technology or economic incentives are required to make the next step while maintaining an affordable and reliable energy system.

Mechanisms for Greater Ambition : Investing in clean energy research and development is important to the challenge of reaching deeper levels of emission reduction but the advocacy and policy efforts pulling lower carbon forms of energy into the market play a very important role. Where will these policy and advocacy mechanisms go to drive greater ambition? Some have suggested linking carbon pricing mechanisms such as cap and trade,carbon tax or even more widely varied policies is the most economically expedient way of creating a stronger, more explicit price signal and therefore driving greater investments in clean energy and low carbon energy solutions. Others believe that in addition to the creation of linked carbon markets, a sector by sector approach to create tipping points where economic growth and decarbonization are not locked in conflict is an effective advocacy strategy leading towards the creation of a new climate friendly economy. The next decade will be a critical phase in the push to create more ambitious emissions reduction policies, commercial strategies, and investment frameworks – one can expect a great deal more creativity to emerge from those in the climate community in pursuit of those goals.

Measurement and Transparency: For better or worse, the international climate architecture that has evolved since the 2009 negotiations in Copenhagen and which will likely advance from Paris is not based on rigid requirements and robust international enforcement mechanisms. It is a system of voluntary pledges, though many are enforced by domestic laws and regulations, put forward by each country in a transparent manner and meant to be reviewed on a five year basis and “ratcheted up” to become more ambitious over time. These pledges serve as the meat of the activity in the agreement and as such will be scrutinized for fairness, comparability, and adequacy. Scholars such as Joseph Aldy of Harvard and Billy Pizer of Duke University, note a wide range of metrics can be used to measure these pledges and the calculations themselves entail a number of ingoing assumptions. If international review and consultation are to be the backbone of trust and the driver of greater ambition within the international framework, these measurements will become more important in the coming years. It is safe to say that the same type of scrutiny and pressure in the pledge and review process will apply to corporate and nongovernmental actors as well. In this context, data revisions like the one undertaken in China this year about coal consumption, a positive step in the overarching story about the quality of statistics in China, raise longstanding concerns about the ability to adequately measure and convey accurate information on progress toward emissions reduction. The array of competing analysis coming out of these talks in order to shape and influence the system of pledge and review is likely to be dizzying until a few authoritative sources emerge.

Future of the Energy Industry : The shape of the energy industry is changing and will continue to change with the rise and fall of new, dynamic entrants and the ongoing evolution of incumbent players. In the lead up to Paris, it seems like nearly ever major energy company in the world, along with a large number of financial institutions, made pledges to contribute in some way to a global climate regime. Many companies pledge to operate more efficiently, consume more low carbon energy or finance low carbon activity, but very few of them suggest fundamentally changing the nature of their business. For companies that have undergone a foundational shift, it is the action within energy markets themselves that have forced real change. Some large utilities in Europe and the United States have recognized the need to recast their business, employed new strategies, and taken up the mantel of energy services companies. Other energy companies look at the experience of these utilities and wonder what changes they will need to make to stay competitive in such a fast changing global marketplace. As International Energy Agency Executive Director Fatih Birol remarked at the release of their special report on climate change, oil, gas, and coal companies are not at risk of going out of business as a result of climate policies, but they ignore the impact of climate action on their business at their own peril. To complicate matters, companies like Volkswagen have created a crisis of confidence for consumers who bought into a clean energy brand and climate advocates who seek to support corporations willing to “do the right thing,” and force other similarly branded companies strive to differentiate themselves and their performance. Deep decarbonization, if achieved, can mean lots of disruptive change for industry – both positive and negative. Understanding the nature of this change is important.

The climate negotiations in Paris are a big deal and a lot of work has gone into making them a success. Tis the season to reflect on all the progress made in the lead up to the negotiations which has mobilized impressive levels of voluntary participation. To make Paris the gift that keeps on giving, however, requires a post-Paris agenda that focuses on the things that need more scrutiny and attention now that broad participation has been achieved. A durable framework can provide a solid foundation for such important future action.


Sarah Ladislaw is a senior fellow and director of the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

This Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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