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Progress on climate change beckons in Paris

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 November, 2015, 8:36am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 November, 2015, 2:48pm

Climate change politics will take centre stage next week in Paris. The largest ever gathering devoted to fixing the climate will strive for what has proven elusive for more than two decades – a comprehensive, fair and effective deal that will set us on a path to fix global warming.

The summit starting next Monday is the 21st meeting of the Committee of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Some 50,000 participants will attend. Of all the international climate-related meetings that have taken place since the first one – the 1992 Rio Earth Summit – this is certainly amongst the most important.

Two main reasons for this stand out. For the first time, the aim is to forge a truly global agreement to curb carbon emissions, with the contributions of each economy determined in accordance with the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”

That means the emerging economies that are responsible for the bulk of carbon emission increments today – but not for the accumulated stock of CO2 that takes many decades to dissipate – will assume what they consider appropriate carbon mitigation commitments.

In the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that preceded the prospective Paris agreement, it was only the industrial economies that assumed binding commitments.

The Kyoto Protocol is best seen as a learning experience. Its achievements were modest. It set conservative emission reduction targets and did not open a trajectory that would ensure a global temperature increase of no more than 2 degrees Centigrade. This is the outer limit in warming that scientists reckon will keep us on the right side of manageable climate change.

Commitment to the Kyoto Protocol frayed over the years. The United States never signed. China was outside. Canada and others departed. Today, the emission reduction obligations of signatories account for less than 15 per cent of global emissions.

This brings us to the second reason why the 2015 Paris Climate Conference has raised expectations. The model has changed. The carbon emission reduction undertakings are expressed as “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions”. One can only hope that what INDCs surrender in linguistic elegance, they make up for in substance.

The approach is voluntary and self-declared. It is not the consequence of hard-fought negotiations and compromises over numbers. Enforcement relies largely on peer pressure and domestic politics. This orientation raises the fascinating question whether prospects for cooperative behaviour internationally increase with the degree of autonomy involved in defining commitments.

Over 150 of the 196 parties to UNFCCC have submitted INDCs. They cover around 90 per cent of the economies responsible for carbon emissions. The design and content of the INDCs varies considerably. Estimates suggest that the commitments take the global temperature increase to something like 3 degrees Celsius for the rest of the century – more than the safe maximum.

Paris could still be a major step forward. But a number of issues are outstanding. Will there be adequate mechanisms for reporting, transparency, and accountability? Will the self-determined targets be adjusted periodically to match climate change needs? Will the contentious issue of funding for adaptation to climate change be settled amicably? Will business buy in and be part of the solution? Will intended actions lead to disputes in the World Trade Organization over such matters as subsidies, standards and discrimination? These are among the issues to be managed in Paris and beyond.

A final challenge cannot be disregarded. Not everyone accepts that climate change is man-made or that there is even a problem. This minority can be influential and tends to come from the political right. They believe mainstream opinion is driven by doctrine-think and opportunism.

But absolute certainty about most things is elusive. Would it not be preferable to assume the worst rather than repent inaction?

Perhaps the best approach would be to acknowledge the results of numerous thought experiments. These show that most individuals are innately risk averse. Individual risk aversion should inform the challenge we face in clinching collective action. Safety should trump prolonged sorrow.

Patrick Low is a fellow, Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong

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