COP Out: What if There’s No Climate Deal in Paris?

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With the start of the COP21 climate talks, today marks the end of the beginning for global climate action: a decisive step forward.

Or, to put a more pessimistic slant on it, the beginning of the end of a stable climate.

But why be pessimistic? Sure, there’s certainly a lot of heavy lifting to do between now and Dec. 11, but no Conference of Parties has begun with so many members already committed to climate action (170 as of this writing). Delegates are ready and — dare I say it — eager to walk away from Paris with a deal.

“Governments from all corners of the Earth have signaled through their INDCs [intended nationally determined contributions] that they are determined to play their part according to their national circumstances and capabilities,” Christiana Figures, executive secretary for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) said in an Oct. 30 press release.

The mood is reminiscent of the high hopes felt at the outset of COP15 in Copenhagen. Even if COP15 pales in comparison to the opportunity now before us, one important lesson we can take away from 2009 is managing expectations. It’s reasonable to ask: What if we don’t reach our goals in Paris? Does it mean the end of the U.N. COP process? That’s what many said in the wake of COP15, but after the hand-wringing and acrimony eased, did everyone throw in the towel and give up?

We wouldn’t be here now if that were the case.

The lesson of managing expectations learned at COP15 is balanced by the lesson of perseverance. The disappointing outcome in Copenhagen six years ago compared with the ambitious start in Paris today demonstrates the resilience of the COP process.

“I think Copenhagen was that decisive moment for the UNFCCC,” Evan Juska, head of U.S. Policy for The Climate Group, told TriplePundit. “After Copenhagen, the fact that the UNFCCC was able to change course and mobilize wide support for a new approach in just three years bodes well for its future. Years ago that kind of course change would have been hard to imagine. It’s a testament to both the increased momentum for action on the issue, and the leadership of the UNFCCC under Christiana Figures.”

Defining success

Before we get ahead of ourselves theorizing how we move forward in case of failure in Paris, we should first ask what success looks like. At a press conference last week attended by TriplePundit, U.S. special envoy, Todd Stern, laid out three broad but critical items he expects to see in a successful agreement at COP21:

  • Acceleration of the transition to a clean energy, low-carbon, resilient economy
  • Participation from all parties (nations)
  • An unambiguous signal sent to cvil society and the private sector that world leaders have taken the issue on — that there is “no going back.”

Elaborating on these fundamental points, Stern added: “In terms of the critical issues, we need strong mitigation … We need excellent transparency. It’s important that all countries and observers can see what everybody’s doing, whether they’re following through on the commitments and pledges that they’ve made. We need strong provisions on adaptation. All countries have a real challenge in adaptation, and this agreement means to enhance and increase the focus on adaptation.

We also need strong provisions on financial and other kinds of assistance to poor countries that need it, and we need to move this agreement from the old-style, backward-looking bifurcation between two distinct categories into a world which is forward-looking, where there is differentiation across the range of countries. Countries can’t be expected to do more than they’re able to, but we shouldn’t just have this antiquated way of bifurcating climate change.”

The complexity of any international agreement belies the notion that we will come home with a neat and tidy package encompassing every element of implementation. “There are going to be a whole host of steps that will follow the agreement,” Stern said. “First of all, with respect to the elements of the agreement itself, there will be many situations where we include, in the actual agreement text, a paragraph or two on a particular issue where there will then need to be further guidelines … developed hopefully over the next year. We don’t want this to drag out for a long time.

For example, in the area of transparency: We will need enough guidance in the agreement reached in Paris itself to point the way quite clearly to what countries have decided to do. But even with the best guidance possible, there will be a lot more detail; there will be more granular issues that need to be worked out in the course of guidelines that will be negotiated, again, we would hope next year. And that will be true for any number of issues.”

Climate action on the ground

Even with national commitments and global agreements, the nuts and bolts of climate action happens on the city streets, in our homes and businesses. Large-scale commitments are translated into a host of smaller actions like energy-efficiency initiatives, solar panel installations, and building-out electric vehicle infrastructure, to name but a few.

At the regional level, new regulations like the Clean Power Plan in the U.S. allow states to manage their own path to a low-carbon economy. New building and design technologies are already transforming manufacturing and the built environment.

Initiatives like the Compact of States and Regions bring together state and regional emissions reductions contributions through a global reporting mechanism. “In less than a year since it was launched,” said the Climate Group’s Evan Juska, “we’ve seen leaders from state and regional governments spanning North and South America, Europe and Australia announce collective climate targets that would save 7.9 GtCO2e [gigatons of CO2 equivalent] by 2030 — greater than the U.S.’s carbon emissions in 2012.”

Regardless of what happens in Paris,” Juska continued, “this bold climate action by states, regions, cities and businesses will continue to be the main driver of [a] global climate push, demonstrating what is possible and backing up nations’ broad goals with tangible action.”

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Seizing the moment

All comparisons with COP15 aside, there’s a feeling of inevitability. Climate change is not going away; it’s clearly more urgent with each passing month. So, if not now, when?

“You get the sense that more and more countries understand the importance of this moment,” Juska told 3p, “and that no deal in Paris won’t necessarily lead to a better deal down the road.

“There are still disagreements between some countries on issues like finance and ‘loss and damage.’ But in the end, those differences may not prevent a deal.

“Today, with 170 countries having submitted INDCs, including the U.S., China and India, most parties have a reason to see the process succeed, even if they don’t get agreement on all of their positions.

“That’s a key difference between these negotiations and the negotiations of the past, and I think it makes them more resilient.”

Given all the momentum from so many parts of the world and sectors of the global economy, it’s hard to imagine no deal coming from Paris. The question remains what the scale of that deal will be. As Stern put it, “We want to be careful about not trying to achieve an agreement which is just minimalist and puts off decisions too much to the future.

“This is the moment, and we want to seize it,” Stern declared.

When asked point-blank by TriplePundit how the COP process can move forward absent a deal in Paris, Stern demurred: “I’m not going to indulge in the – in thinking about the downside of Paris,” he said. “I’m going to prefer to focus on the upside.

“What I will say is this: The stars are more aligned right now to reach agreement than I have ever seen them … We have a real opportunity. We are riding on the wave of those 170 targets that have been submitted. We know countries are interested in getting this done.

“The situation right now – there’s no comparison, for example, to the most recent major moment, which is 2009, when people were heading into Copenhagen … We have this opportunity; we have this moment. Countries are going to need to be willing now – starting now, starting today, starting yesterday – to depart from some of their fixed positions, seek common ground, find that middle zone, that landing zone where we can actually get this agreement done.

“That is happening. That has been happening. It has to happen more. But we can get this done. I think we will get this done. And I’m not going to think about the alternative.”

So, what if there’s no deal in Paris? We regroup. We move on. Businesses, cities and states, individuals continue to make progress, even in the face of another disappointment at the international level. That effort feeds into another shot for the COP. This isn’t the last chance for a global climate agreement. It’s just the best chance.

So, I’ll join Stern and focus on the upside. Let’s leave what ifs for later, maybe never. Right now, there’s work to do.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/BK 2) Flickr/Moyan Brenn

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

One response

  1. I admire hopefulness, optimism and enthusiasm. I don’t want to rain on this parade. However, I’m going to predict this process to end in failure. It may take a few years, but it will eventually prove out that what happens in Paris will not contribute to the resolution of the climate problem and will ultimately prove to fuel it. I will be right, and it will sadden me to be right because I would love to experience the solution to this problem. I don’t make this prediction on the basis of hopeless or sour attitudes about human beings but a long study of the physics of sustainability. That study leads me to the conclusion it is quite possible for human begins to live in a sustainable society within a sustainable environment – so I do have hope. It’s physically possible.

    I find climate change and its resolution is not wisely studied in a vacuum. The most influential participants to this conference – and I include business representatives present and influencing negotiations – have a verifiable history of behaving differently than they promise on a great many matters outside of the realm of climate, and of disregarding the rights and needs of others. Why should I believe they will be any more good to their words, and more honest, any less self-serving at the expense of others in these conditions, when two of those others are the environment and the climate?

    I can make a very long list of companies who make green proclamations and then act in ways which contradict their words.

    At the same time, there is not one representative of political process or major company present with influence at the conference that I am concretely assured has no history of and is not playing double-handed. So I’m not going to get my hopes up that people who have profited for decades by proffering mirages and mining money are having a collecting epiphany.

    I’m betting – and not bitterly only practically- many at this conference have put their finger to the political wind and figured out how to profit from being perceived as green, which is different than being devoted to building a sustainable society in a sustainable environment. One can’t have the sustainable environment without the sustainable society.

    I would ask this: When should one practically, reasonably abandon hope? When should we acknowledge that a process underway did not, will not and cannot work and abandon that process in order to begin to inquire about what we do not know today but we must know in order to solve the climate problem? I predict when do that we have an opportunity to solve the problem of climate change – and not before. And it we wait too long because were are intimidated by the thought of being called a quitter….

    Already I’m hearing the concessions that COP 21 isn’t going to work but it is going to get us closer and we should not give up hope, we should not cease investing in the COP process. And if that’s what comes of this conference I’ll lose some hope that we can solve this problem because the process underway, which is the political process, has never solved a problem on this planet and it cannot solve climate change, so every investment in this process is by definition a waste of precious and declining resources.

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