How to Sound like an Expert on the Paris Climate Agreement

December 16, 2015 | 3:49 pm
Jason Funk
Former contributor

The historic climate agreement adopted in Paris ushered in a new chapter in the way we address climate change. The agreement is multifaceted and written in dense legal language, so it’s difficult to get a sense of what it—and the negotiations—are all about. Many people are probably wondering how to answer the question “what does it mean?” when asked by their family/friend/co-worker. Here are some answers to a few basic questions that will satisfy your curiosity and help you to sound like an expert.

What makes this agreement a “new era”—haven’t we had climate agreements before?

Yes, we have. Under the United Nations, the two most important previous agreements were the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 (the “Convention”), and the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 (the “KP”). The Convention set out some fundamental goals, principles, and a structure for addressing climate change. It called for developed countries to take the lead, and under the KP they pledged a set of commitments, which took effect in 2005. Many of the countries re-upped for a second round of commitments that extend through 2020.

The Paris Agreement will pick up where the KP leaves off: it creates a looser structure for registering the “contributions” that countries make toward reducing heat-trapping emissions, as well as a “global stocktake” to see whether we’re collectively on track to avoiding dangerous climate change. These features and others opened the door for developing countries to participate. That’s the primary reason why this is a “new era” – because virtually all countries are on board.

Why did we need a new agreement?

The KP was an important step, but over time it became obvious that it wasn’t sufficient to solve the global problem of climate change. It was partly effective, in that heat-trapping emissions began to fall in the countries that had made commitments, but in the meantime global emissions continued to rise, driven by a surge from developing countries. As Secretary of State John Kerry pointed out in Paris, about 60% of emissions now come from the developing world, so even if all developed countries stopped emitting tomorrow, the world would still have a climate change problem. We needed a new policy to confront this undeniable scientific reality.

Besides having more countries on board, what else is different about the Paris Agreement?

The Paris Agreement needed some new elements to help cope with the burdens that climate impacts were creating for developing countries. Many countries were prepared to invest in adaptation efforts, and they wanted those to be counted as “contributions” to the climate effort—and also to describe their needs so they could seek support from other countries. Some countries also wanted a way to have the “loss and damage” attributable to climate change to be recognized and, potentially, compensated. These issues are now addressed in the Paris Agreement.

Furthermore, the agreement sharpens the climate goal originally established under the Convention, recognizing updated science that says the world may need to stay below a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius in order to prevent dangerous impacts. We’ve already seen about one degree of warming, so there’s no time to waste.

Does a global agreement undermine our U.S. sovereignty?

The Paris Agreement allows flexibility to each country to enact its own policies or approaches, in a way that is “nationally determined,” not imposed from somewhere else. Every country will be able to develop its own policies, and at least 185 countries have already submitted a description of their intended contributions. The agreement provides a way to communicate those efforts to the rest of the world in a somewhat standardized way that helps to deliver transparency to every other country.

Everyone—including large emitters and petro-states—recognizes that avoiding dangerous climate change is in their national interest. Under the agreement, they can track who is contributing the most effort, and who might be lagging behind. That information will be assessed periodically and publicly, so that everyone can see who’s doing their part, who’s not doing enough, and who needs help. But there are no penalties levied through the agreement.

COP entrance

The U.S. pillar outside the entrance of the COP venue.

If there are no penalties, no price on carbon, and no global “cap” on emissions, how will this help to solve climate change?

Probably the most significant effect will be the signal this sends to key players, particularly governments and the private sector. The agreement makes the future direction clear, and it is obvious that fossil fuels will play a diminishing role in the future global economy.

Also, even though there isn’t a centralized cap on emissions, the nationally determined contributions (or “NDCs”) collectively make up a de facto cap on global emissions, due to the near-universal participation of countries. Some countries have different kinds of caps, and not all emissions are covered everywhere, but we can now say that emissions will be limited globally. The commitments will be backed up by a process of evaluation, and they will be supported by the mutual interest of other nations. Together, these elements will spur innovation, and those racing to the top will find themselves in an advantageous position down the road. Laggards will find themselves increasingly isolated and left behind in the global economy.

What are all these different pieces aiming to achieve? How will we know if it’s succeeding?

The agreement establishes a process that will help to harmonize the efforts of all the different countries. Every five years, they will come together to assess their collective contributions and measure progress towards a single long-term goal. That goal says that they will work to balance the emissions from sources and the removals by sinks in the latter half of the century. “Removals by sinks” is a clear reference to the vital role that farms and forests play in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Unfortunately, these “sinks” are now far outweighed by all “sources,” by a factor of nearly 10:1. So we will need to make steep reductions in emissions from sources, while protecting and enhancing the crucial ability of sinks to continue to take up carbon.

Now that the U.S. has signed up, is this going to hamstring the growth in our economy?

Far from it. The entire Paris process, including the agreement, has really changed the way we think about addressing climate change. One delegate captured it succinctly when she said that we have transformed the climate change issue from an existential threat to the world’s biggest opportunity. What she meant is that we’ve largely closed the door on the threat that countries will use high-emissions approaches to gain economic advantages.

This means that the only way forward is to exploit low-carbon approaches, and this is an area where the U.S. is a global leader. Building out these approaches and marketing them to other countries will be a huge opportunity for economic growth, if we can capitalize on it effectively.

Once this is in effect, how might the U.S. deliver its contributions after 2020?

The U.S. has a number of ways it can deliver its contributions. Four big ones come to mind. First, we can continue to innovate in low-carbon technologies and renewable energy. Second, we can eliminate waste from our economy and reduce emissions through higher levels of efficiency. Third, we can take advantage of different opportunities within and across states, through emissions trading, as California and others are now doing. Fourth, we can enhance our stewardship of our natural resources, especially forests, in order to boost their ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

Are other countries ahead of us? Are we in danger of being laggards?

Every country has different opportunities and strengths. One important component of the Paris Agreement is that it sets the stage for countries to learn lessons from each other—through both successes and failures.

The U.S. has made headway in a number of respects, but some other parts of the world are ahead of us in terms of experience. The European Union has been operating an emissions trading system across all of its member states for several years, and it has helped them reduce emissions overall. They have also learned some lessons about the flaws they built into the early design, and many of these have now been corrected. New Zealand, South Korea, China, and other countries are also at various stages of implementing emissions trading systems.

Some other countries are also ahead of us in building out their low-carbon energy systems, and they have encountered a few challenges along the way. Germany, for instance, now receives so much of its energy from wind and solar sources that it is rethinking the way it manages its electricity grid. The U.S. is rapidly accelerating its use of clean energy, but many of these challenges still lie ahead of us. We will need to make deliberate, accelerated progress to avoid falling behind.

Some people are saying that this agreement will help stop deforestation – is that right?

Yes, the Paris Agreement operationalized a framework in its Article 5 for countries to receive support for reducing their emissions from deforestation. After ten years of work within the UN, many environmentalists believe that this will be a critical turning point for global deforestation. All of the countries with tropical forests endorsed the framework, and many countries that have been supporting them, such as Norway, pledged to continue their support. The hope that deforestation will be virtually eliminated by 2030 now seems within reach.

Are these climate negotiations just a big boondoggle for the participants?

My personal experience is just the opposite. Most of us work incredibly long hours and almost completely set aside our personal lives for two weeks. The work itself requires intense focus, since a sentence, phrase, or even a single word can mean the difference between an agreement that’s accepted or rejected at home. The Paris process—and indeed, the whole UN climate enterprise—has been aimed at finding a positive “landing zone” that can accommodate all countries.

In terms of coordination and compromise, this is perhaps the most difficult challenge that the world has ever undertaken. As a result, progress can seem tentative and slow from the outside. But in this case, the Paris Agreement accomplished a major breakthrough and has the potential to be an unprecedented success, because of the delicate balance of its structure. It has enough flexibility to allow each country to determine its own contribution to the climate effort, but enough accountability to keep everyone on track, through a process that regularly evaluates the sufficiency of the global effort.

This breakthrough was only possible because of the high-level signals and momentum that heads of state delivered at the start of the negotiations. All of them acknowledged the threat of climate change and the fact that a solution was in their national interest. All of them accepted the science of climate change, as documented by the IPCC. These statements provided the necessary fuel for the negotiations, while sketching out the rough boundaries of the “landing zones.” Then the negotiators got to work, filling in the rough outlines and piecing together the intricate structure of the agreement.

What is a typical day like at these negotiations?

My routine in Paris was to leave my hotel before 8:00am, pick up a pastry and coffee on the way to the train, and then switch to a shuttle bus that took me to the COP venue. Once inside, I went through a security checkpoint—just like at an airport—before I could enter the area where the negotiations took place. Most of the activity occurred in five main buildings (or “halls”) on the COP campus, some of which were temporary and some of which were repurposed hangars from the defunct Le Bourget airport. Each building, in turn, had meeting rooms, cafes, computer work areas, and other facilities to meet the needs of over 40,000 participants.

Le Seine plenary

The plenary hall where all nations adopted the Paris Agreement.

The UNFCCC schedule set the agenda of official meetings for the day, and in between I had impromptu meetings and hallway conversations. With luck, I would have time to grab a quick lunch at one of the onsite cafes, usually late in the afternoon. In a break with the past, the Presidency of this COP established a rule that no official meetings would be scheduled to start after 9pm. In practice, that’s when the real work begins, in informal drafting groups who meet to try to hammer out legal language about specific issues. These groups often meet late into the night, aiming to produce text that they can present for official consideration the next day. Fortunately, my issues tended to finish by midnight on most nights, and then we would all return to our hotels. (I’m grateful for the kebab shop near my train station, which provided me with a few late-night dinners.) The next day, the whole cycle repeated, building up to the final day.

Successful negotiators have to work incredibly hard to meet the competing demands on them. They must frequently share up-to-the-minute status reports with their delegations and allies, so that each tiny tectonic movement can be analyzed in order to gain a sense of the overall seismic shifts that are occurring.

The most difficult part is that negotiators must be watchful and prepared to make a compelling case for each and every aspect of their positions, at any moment, knowing that they are likely to face a strong, equally compelling case on the other side. This might sound like a mashup of courtroom drama and a high-stakes game of Risk, with a bunch of technocrats determining our global fate, but that’s not the case. Negotiators are responsible for signaling to others the boundaries of their own country’s “landing zone,” and they need to find ways to do this clearly and efficiently. Everyone knew the overall priorities, as set out by the heads of state: their job was to work out the devilish details to meet these priorities.

What role do non-governmental groups like UCS have at the negotiations?

Environmental groups have a profound impact, in a variety of different ways. Some, like me, are requested to join country delegations as technical advisors, giving us direct access to the negotiations. Others work tirelessly outside, to coordinate and target their messages as the issues unfold. We work through various forms of media to amplify and empower the voices defending environmental integrity and vulnerable peoples.

The COP is also a venue to share new findings, highlight innovative projects, and raise new concerns over emerging challenges. So, even though we are not always inside the negotiations, everyone acknowledges that we play a crucial role in shaping and influencing their outcome.

Any interesting anecdotes from the negotiations? What was the dynamic like there?

Despite the intensity and seriousness of the Paris negotiations, there were moments of levity and humor. Many of us began referring to this as the “butter COP,” partly as a tribute to the unprecedented smoothness with which it was conducted, but also in reference to the ubiquity of butter in the French cuisine. Somehow, in spite of the busy pace, many of us were feeling a little plumper when we returned home.

Minister Laurent Fabius, who presided over the negotiations as COP President, also brought a few moments of amusement along the way. During one late-night session, he forgot how to formally address his own home bloc. “Now I call on Europe … er, I mean … the Unified Europe … em, the European Union,” he stammered, then grinned. During the closing session, he got so excited with the growing momentum that he carried on his speech in English, breaking with diplomatic convention. “I seem to have forgotten my French!” he exclaimed, at which the entire hall broke out in laughter.

Throughout the two-week meeting, Fabius was universally praised for his hands-on approach, his level-headedness, and his skill in moving the negotiations forward. At one point, a delegate praised him by saying “I think, sir, that your efforts may succeed in getting us to reach an agreement, and if so, you should be awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.” On Saturday, Fabius delivered that agreement, and the world moved one important step closer toward peacefully resolving climate change. Now the baton passes to Morocco, the host of next year’s COP, where we will all take the next steps toward making the Paris Agreement operational by 2020.