Primer for the Paris Climate Change Talks
November 24, 2015
In less than a week, the Paris Climate Change talks, more formally known as the Conference of the Parties (COP), will officially begin. The talks, which are scheduled to occur between November 30 and December 11 have been billed by many as a potential turning point in the international approach to climate change. In the following article, Wonk Tank’s Energy and Environmental Policy Team offers a primer to frame the talks historically and in the context of the issues and plans of some of the major players in the talks.
Climate change has been at the core of energy and environmental policy discussions for the past few decades. Since the Industrial Revolution, global temperatures have risen by 0.8 degrees celsius, and the majority of scientists attribute the rise in temperatures to greenhouse gas emissions, which prevent the escape of heat from the Earth’s surface.  Increasing temperatures pose a variety of threats to global weather patterns, including increased severity and number of droughts, stronger storms, and rising sea levels.
Analysis from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has suggested that the world is on pace to see temperatures rise by 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the 21st century.  This is well above the 2 degrees Celsius threshold, which has often been considered a key inflection point in the scale of the effects of climate change. While the precise ramifications of a 2 degrees Celsius rise or a 4 degrees Celsius rise are not easy to project with great certainty, it is clear that greenhouse gas emissions would have to alter substantially to change the current trajectory. Today, 87% of the global energy is derived from fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gasses.  Identifying how to substitute for energy from fossil fuels and which countries will bear the greatest burden of making emission reductions, presents a major challenge that leaders across the world face and will seek to address at the Paris talks.
History of the Conference of the Parties
The Paris talks represent the latest installment in a series of discussions that have been seen limited progress over the past three decades. In 1992, a treaty known as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was drafted to address global emissions of greenhouse gasses.  Since its creation, the treaty has been signed by 196 parties. Despite declaring a general need to restrain the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, UNFCCC set no clear plans or defined limits. In 1995, negotiations began in what was the first Conference of the Parties (COP), to hone in on a global strategy to address climate change. In 1997 in the third COP, the parties struck a deal known as the Kyoto Protocol, which imposed defined emissions reductions goals on specific countries.  The spirit of the Kyoto Protocol lay in demanding reductions from 40 wealthier nations such as the US and Europe, while not making onerous demands of developing nations. The Kyoto Protocol, however, has largely been ineffective in reigning in climate change because many key players failed to ratify the treaty. In the US, the Senate failed to ratify the treaty, and the Bush administration definitively stated that the US would not comply.
The failure of the Kyoto Protocol to bring about lasting change and the constant upward march of global temperatures has provided cause for the UNFCCC and subsequent COPs, but a comprehensive and broadly supported approach has proved elusive. In 2009, at the COP held in Copenhagen, an accord was reached, which allocated a rise in temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius as an upper limit for tolerable temperature increases and established a fund of $100 billion to support poorer countries in need of support. 
Last year’s COP set the stage for this year’s gathering as a pivotal round of talks. Ahead of the 2015 talks, each country has been asked to submit a set of “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs).  The INDCs will lay forth the reductions that each nation is prepared to make to support the broader goals of the UNFCCC. Instead of attempting to lay down limits and goals for each country, the meeting will use the INDCs in a “bottom-up” approach. At the talks, there will be an assessment of whether the INDCs will suffice in preventing a temperature rise above 2 degrees, and the talks are also likely to see agreements over how emissions and temperatures will be measured over the years to come. One challenge is that it is unclear how emission reductions will be enforced- the UNFCCC is unlikely to have the power to lay down penalties. Nevertheless, the submission of INDCs by over 85% of the world’s nations has set the stage for an incredible opportunity to reach some type of agreement.
In recent years, the US government, particularly President Obama and his administration, have expressed concern about temperature rises and climate change. Most recently, this has been seen through the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, with the President putting an end to the pipeline, which had been proposed in 2008, and had been waiting for approval ever since. However, over Obama’s two terms, the US has taken a series of other actions to decrease the American environmental footprint as well as those of trading partners. One of the broadest climate related accomplishments the President has achieved is a pledge to combat climate change, which over 81 companies, including Coca-Cola and General Motors, have signed.  An equally notable effort is the Clean Power Plan, which seeks to reduce the carbon related pollution produced by American power plants. The government has also long sought to encourage alternative, renewable forms of energy, and is likely to continue to do so at the COP. In recent years, the President has long been pushing to decrease constraints on the trade of goods related to renewable energy and pollution control, including wind turbines and carbon dioxide scrubbers. The American commitment at APEC 2014 to reduce tariffs on such goods by the end of 2015 is certain to be discussed at the conference, particularly because the 14 members that are negotiating an Environmental Goods Agreement will all be attending the COP.
One caveat to all of Obama’s planning, however, is that unlike in 1992, when the UNFCCC was drafted, the government will not be pushing for a treaty, but instead working to create as much consensus as possible without a treaty. The rationale for such a strategy is tied to political realities at home. The Constitution requires the support of two thirds of the Senate in order to approve any treaty. With the Republican majority opposed to any legislation which binds the US to climate related goals, any proposed treaty has virtually no chance of receiving US ratification. In light of Republican opposition, President Obama has largely focused efforts that do not require congressional approval. The Clean Power Plan is certainly one example, but the most applicable and significant international example was his 2014 agreement with Xi Jinping, the President of China, where they mutually agreed to work towards a more sustainable future.  In the American INDC, the US built on the Chinese agreement, promising to reduce emissions by 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2025. Despite the ambitious goals set by the Obama Administration, the challenge of navigating the political constraints from Republican opposition are significant and will undoubtedly play a part in the US in the talks.
The People’s Republic of China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. The meteoric economic ascendancy of the PRC has paralleled a commensurate increase in national CO2 emissions, as well as other greenhouse gases such as CH4 (methane).  As the world’s second-largest economy and most populous state, the PRC is poised to be a crucial stakeholder in climate negotiations moving forward. Historically, China’s mounting prosperity engendered laudation and critique as the country’s leadership consistently clashed with OECD governments over curbing carbon emissions. While the international community and climate activists cited the unrestrained growth in Chinese emissions, the PRC Government levied two primary responses: (1) China was industrializing just as the OECD had, and (2) China’s emissions were still quite low in per capita terms. Eventually, the tune in the Zhongnanhai (China’s core seat of government in the Forbidden City), has changed during the course of President Xi Jinping’s administration.
With the nation facing crippling air and water pollution, China’s 12th Five-Year Plan, adopted in 2010, engaged in the first major planning efforts to curtail deleterious emissions. The 12th FYP foresaw reductions in sulfur dioxide (SO2) by eight percent and nitrogen oxides and ammonia nitrogen by ten percent from 2010 levels by 2015.  In the months before the fruitless Copenhagen climate negotiations in 2009, China announced that it would pursue a 40-45 percent reduction in 2005 levels by 2020. While the international community grapples with the classic collective action problem to generate a multilateral commitment to emissions reductions, Xi Jinping and the Standing Committee resolved to push forward unprecedented domestic reforms. Regarding the PRC’s active stance, he remarked, “It is not at others’ demand but our own will.”  It would appear that China is pursuing its environmental objectives in a manner similar to its economic experimentation of the 1980s under then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.
China’s authoritarian Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government has vast powers to enact programmatic change from Beijing down to the provincial and sub-provincial levels. By 2013, the Zhongnanhai had already initiated seven carbon trading exchange pilot programs.  China has shuttered more than one thousand coal power plants, investing in more efficient fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewables.  According to The New York Times, Xi’s “system would cover power, iron and steel, chemicals, building materials, papermaking and nonferrous metals.”  While this certainly excludes certain sectors of the Chinese economy, it will tackle some of the worst offenders. Furthermore, as the PRC’s annualized GDP slows, as is currently projected, the CO2 emissions should rise slower.
Marching towards the 2015 COP, China released its much-anticipated 13th Five-Year Plan. The 13th FYP integrates environmental qualitative analysis into its assessments of government officials. More impressively, the PRC debuted its 2020 plan for the carbon trading system pioneered since 2013. By 2020, the government projects that the exchanges will cover half of the nation’s annual emissions. This plan will be enacted nationwide in 2017.  Beyond its internal development benchmarks and planning, China’s novel, ambitious rhetoric on climate resolution reached its apogee during the release of the U.S.-China Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change, meant to foreshadow the COP. Xi’s government plans to “lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60% to 65% from the 2005 level by 2030” and integrating cutting-edge technology into its infrastructure as well as curbing automotive emissions through the expansion of public transportation networks. [17-18] Some have criticized the ambiguous nature of these remarks and in the past, rhetoric has not led the way towards tangible results. It would seem that the proof is in the pudding, and the physical and financial investment that the CCP is directing towards improving its environmental situation at home speaks louder than press conferences.
Although the outcome of the COP is unclear, China’s behavior, domestically and internationally, indicates that it is internal decision-making that has dictated its sudden sea-change towards proactive measures to curtail pollution. The growing threat to the health and welfare of the Chinese populace from rampant industrial atmospheric effluent has garnered the attention of the central government in Beijing. While China attempts to make the critical jump to a low-high-income economy, the environment is becoming an increasing part of its formal administrative agenda. In this era of deteriorating multilateral cooperation—one need only look to the failures of the WTO—domestic political forces and bilateral agreements carry significant sway.
India is set to be one of the countries most dramatically affected by global warming. Shifts in rain patterns could throw off monsoon cycles and endanger the productivity of Indian agriculture.  In fact, this past year, India resorted to importing agricultural products after experiencing the “driest monsoon” in six years, and the World Bank estimates that, at the 2 degree Celsius scenario, India will have to increase food imports by twofold.  More immediately, India experienced a heat wave this summer that led to 2,300 deaths. 
However, the Indian government is operating under massive pressure to develop. 400 million Indians currently live without access to electricity, and much of the existing electricity supply is generated through coal-fired power plants—which are more Carbon intensive than natural gas plants or renewable alternatives. These development needs add an undertone of indignation to discussions about global warming, propagating the idea that those developed countries that caused global warming are imposing its costs on the developing world. In defense of this position, India’s Environment Minister, Prakash Javadekar, noted that India’s “historical cumulative emission as of today is below 3%.” Similarly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed dismay “that the world is scolding us even though our per capita gas emission is the lowest.”
The tension between these two competing interests—one in environmental stability, the other in economic development—is visible in India’s approach to the COP. India has refused to name when it expects to hit peak carbon emissions.  However, India provided the United Nations with an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) framework in the lead up to COP.  The INDC stresses the importance of renewable energy sources and reforestation.  However, the Institute for Energy Research points out that the plan does not aim “to reduce its [India’s] carbon dioxide emissions, but instead to reduce the intensity of its carbon dioxide emissions.” The Institute for Energy Resources bases its critique on the INDC’s goal of achieving a 33%-35% reduction in emission “intensity…from 2005 levels by 2030,” which will be made possible by an envisioned electricity generation system that is 40% “non-fossil-fuel” powered.  Accounting for the predicted expansion of electricity demand during that time, the 60% of electricity demand still met through fossil fuels could produce a threefold increase in India’s carbon dioxide emissions. 
While it has proven difficult over the past two decades to rally the US and developing nations for a comprehensive climate change agreement, the European Union has acknowledged the importance of such a deal and has taken significant action. As early as 1991, the EU had established a community strategy for reducing emissions through increased renewable sources, greater fuel efficiency, and carbon tax approaches.  The Kyoto Protocol, drafted six years later, set a target of an 8% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for the European Union from 1990 levels. The European Union signed the protocol, and today has far exceeded the demands set by the Protocol. In 2012, the EU reported emissions levels 18% below 1990 levels. 
Across the EU, there have been successful policy measures taken to address greenhouse gas emissions. Many EU member states have made substantial commitments to renewable energy. In Germany, the Energiewende (or “Energy Transfer”) has seen the emergence of wind and solar to replace coal and nuclear.  Much of the policy change seen across the EU has been heterogenous, with countries varying in the tools and measures that that they have implemented. However, the European Union also has a Climate Change Programme that oversees emissions reductions across the group. 
In its INDC, the EU indicated plans to reduce emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.  The INDC touts EU success in reducing emissions by 19% since 1990 as an indicator of the EU commitment, and it further spells out that the 2030 commitment is in line with the longer term goal of reducing emissions by 85-90% of 1990 levels by 2050. Beyond the INDC, the EU has been pushing for a legally binding agreement. When Secretary of State John Kerry stated earlier this month that the Paris talks would not lead to a “binding agreement,” EU countries voiced discontent.  Clearly, the US faces a different burden in getting approval for a treaty at home, but the EU is determined to see the outcome of any agreement have greater impacts than the Kyoto Protocol.
Studying the perspectives of just four countries participating in the Paris talks reveals the substantial differences, which continue to exist in weighing environmental interventions to address climate change. While there is room for optimism amidst the large cohort of countries submitting INDCs and the sense that momentum has been building towards this summit, there is also cause for wariness. The next few weeks will tell, and the world will be watching.
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37. Arthur Neslen and Damian Carrington, “Paris climate deal must be legally binding, EU tells John Kerry,” The Guardian, November 12, 2015. The Guardian.
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