[UU Voices board member Bill Mc Pherson is an official observer at the Paris Conference, November 30 to December 12.]
1. What is the Paris Conference on climate change? It is a Conference of Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international agreement signed in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and ratified by over 192 countries including the U.S. This is the 21st COP so it is known as COP21. The UNFCCC is not designed to specify limits on the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. It is a “framework” agreement that requires specific “protocols” to designate limits on greenhouse gas emissions. The first protocol under UNFCCC was the Kyoto Protocol, which included only about 40 countries. Major emitters such as the U.S. and China did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol so another agreement is needed.
2. What will the Paris Conference accomplish? The Paris agreement will set voluntary limits on emissions, unlike the Kyoto Protocol that had mandatory limits with an enforcement mechanism. Because limits are voluntary, individual countries will not need to ratify the Paris agreement. The U.S. has made this a central part of its strategy, contending that the original 1992 UNFCCC agreement authorizes countries to set limits and that any agreement in Paris will not be subject to ratification in the U.S. Senate, where it would surely fail to get enough votes. Other countries have reluctantly accepted this strategy, recognizing that they must accommodate the elephant in the room.
3. What are the voluntary limits and how will they affect climate change? The limits are called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), which shows their nature. They are determined by each nation separately, and they are projected into the future (after 2020) as “intentions.” So far, 150 nations with about 90% of the world’s emissions have submitted their INDCs, including all the large ones such as the U.S., Europe, China, Japan, India, Brazil, South Africa and Russia. According to analysis by research organizations, the INDCs announced so far would not meet the target of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, but would raise world temperatures at least 3 degrees C. One area of negotiation that remains open is imposing a five-year review on INDCs to determine if they could keep temperatures below 2C. One research organization listed the benefits of 2C: “…compared to unchecked global warming, keeping the temperature rise below 2C would reduce heatwaves by 89%, flooding by 76%, cropland decline by 41% and water stress by 26%.”
4. What are the areas of disagreement that could threaten success in Paris? The 2C figure is still disputed by some, including low-lying island states, who prefer 1.5 degrees C. Another area is finance: developed country negotiators in Copenhagen in 2009 pledged $100 billion a year in climate aid, and developing countries want that built into the agreement. Another area is “loss and damage,” a concept that high emitters have legal responsibility for climate problems suffered by the low-emitter societies, who are mostly developing countries. This could become an issue in international law.
5. What are the chances for success in Paris? Chances are good, given that some parties (such as the EU) have reluctantly accepted the INDC approach and the U.S. has made pledges that seem both realistic and significant. While world leaders may well sign the document and celebrate the success of the meeting, the real questions will arise as it goes into effect. With U.S. EPA rules on power plants, for example, it would be likely that the U.S. could meet its commitment to a 26-28% reduction in emissions by 2025. Whether we will meet this commitment depends on the next president and Congress.