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What Happens in Paris Won’t Stay in Paris: A Guide to the Upcoming Climate Negotiations

Words by 3p Contributor
Leadership & Transparency
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By Liz Hardee

This December, delegates from both developed and developing countries will gather in Paris for what promises — one way or another — to be the most historic set of climate negotiations the world has ever seen. The stakes could not be higher. According to the best available science, we must be on a downward emissions trajectory worldwide by 2050, in order to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius and protect ourselves from climate change’s worst impacts. Most believe we have only a decade in which to take the actions that would put us on this path.

Many articles on the topic have been quick to point out that the emission reduction pledges made by countries ahead of these talks are insufficient to meet the 2-degree target. This argument largely (and cynically) misses the point: these negotiations are likely to be much more successful than any prior attempt.

Here are a few important points about the Paris talks:

This is the first attempt ever made by all U.N. member nations to set internal emission reduction goals from the bottom up. The Paris negotiations are a starting point, not an ending point. Though many nations have already begun the cycle of setting and meeting emission goals (like the EU member nations, and notably, China), there has never been a comparable worldwide effort; focused from the bottom up, with each country setting what it believes to be a reachable internal goal. It is true that no one country can mitigate climate change alone, but this “show of good faith,” if successful, will prove that it is possible for the world to come together around this planetary problem, and lay the groundwork for future agreements with more ambitious goals.

The ending date for national targets is catching attention. Most countries’ goals have been centered on the year 2030. This is the year, for many, that they expect to have reduced emissions 25% or more from current levels — and the primary reason experts argue that these targets will not be enough. If a country sets a goal for 2030, it is likely that 2030 would also be the first year they would think about revisiting and strengthening that goal. Since greenhouse gases are persistent and can stick around in the atmosphere for long periods of time, goals that can be revisited earlier are more likely to be effective. If you hear environmental advocates call for 2025 targets, this is why.

Momentum is already building, and what happens in Paris won’t stay in Paris. Jurisdictions that have set climate goals know from experience that setting an initial goal is the first step in a process of rapid decarbonization. California, which passed its landmark Global Warming Solutions Act in 2006, recently adopted Senate Bill 350, which significantly increases the adoption of renewables and building energy efficiency, making its already unilateral targets even more ambitious.

France, host to the upcoming climate talks, has recently announced a plan to decrease fossil fuel consumption by 30 percent and increase energy efficiency 50 percent by 2030—above and beyond what is required of the country under the EU’s cap and trade system. These individual and incremental actions have added up over time; in 2016, roughly one quarter of all emissions worldwide will be under some form of carbon pricing (China, so often mischaracterized as “doing nothing” to address emissions, will have a national carbon pricing mechanism next year). As more countries come to the table with plans for meeting those goals, we are likely to see this percentage rise.

The biggest sticking point is philosophical, not scientific. The factor most likely to give negotiators a hard time is not whether any one country’s targets are strong enough; it is whether those countries most responsible for climate change will help those least responsible to implement low carbon development strategies. The Green Climate Fund — paid into by wealthier countries for this purpose — was designed to help. It is estimated that efforts to help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change will cost $100 billion per year, but the Green Climate Fund contains only $10 billion in pledges so far. The success of these negotiations, therefore, rides primarily on whether developed countries can demonstrate a serious commitment to providing aid to developing nations.

In the end, though Paris will not get us to 2 degrees Celsius, it is likely to give us something the world desperately needs: a new hope that a stabilized climate is not out of reach.

Image credit: Flickr/Moyan Brenn

Liz Hardee is the Senior Analyst for The Climate Trust.

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