Keeping up with climate change: After Paris, how did we get here and where are we headed?

Angela Boag, PhD candidate in Environmental Studies, CU Boulder

Climate change is humanity’s greatest challenge, and addressing it requires unprecedented global diplomacy. But, many feel that international efforts have failed to address the problem in the time needed. Understanding the history of the climate negotiations is a key first step to engaging with this critical issue, whether you’re engaging as a researcher, advocate, or simply a global citizen.

For those wanting to increase their climate literacy here’s a short history of global climate policy summarizing how we got to Paris and what may happen next, with a special focus on the US. Much of it comes from a recent talk at CU’s Sustainability, Energy and Environment Complex (SEEC) by Dr. Andrew Light, a professor at George Mason University and a Senior Advisor to the US Department of State on climate change.

In 1992 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was created at the Rio Earth Summit. Impressively, all of the parties who ratified the UNFCCC (including the US) agreed that it would be a body operated by consensus. Thus, from the very beginning, global climate change frameworks attempted to respect the views of all nations, but as you’ll see shortly this made future negotiations difficult. The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997 in order to implement the UNFCCC’s primary objective to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and stop climate change. Kyoto was based on the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” (CBDR), which holds that developed nations (Annex I), who emitted more historically should shoulder the burden of reducing emissions.

However, the United States disagreed with the principle of CBDR and the US Senate never ratified Kyoto. The Byrd-Hagel resolution, which passed the Senate 95-0 in 1997, argued that if countries like China and India (who were growing emitters but considered non-Annex I “developing” countries in the late 1990s) did not have to reduce their emissions to the same extent, the Protocol would cause major harm to the US economy. Throughout the 2000s each Conference of Parties (COP) on climate change attempted to enhance and extend Kyoto. However, with developing countries not involved, the US not on board and Canada walking away in 2011, ultimately Kyoto accounted for only 25% of total global emissions. China and India’s emissions and economies changed dramatically over the 2000s, so the historic notion of CBDR Annex I and non-Annex I countries gradually became less applicable (or at least more complicated).

Copenhagen Obama
President Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others in Copenhagen, 2009. Photo: Getty Images

This reached a head in Copenhagen in 2009, where the Parties could not reach consensus. Ultimately, the US (represented by President Barack Obama himself), along with Brazil, South Africa, India, and China (a bloc known as “BASIC”) drafted a non-binding agreement in the final hours of the conference without other nations’ input. Developing countries felt excluded (which they were) and Copenhagen was widely considered a failure, both in terms of failing to make progress on climate change and failing to facilitate a just process. However, in the 2010 Cancun Agreement the “Green Climate Fund (GCF)” was established, which proposed that $100 billion a year by 2020 flow from developed countries to poorer countries to assist them in financing emissions reductions and adaptation. This was the beginning of the breakdown of Kyoto’s CBDR principle – now all nations would be expected to make reductions, but the developed world would help developing countries with the transition.

In the following years the division between the Annex I and non-Annex I countries broke down, and coming into Paris the narrative was this: Big polluters need to do the most, whether you’re “developed” or not.

Under the Paris Agreement countries are required to submit Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), which are goals for reducing their national emissions. While the pledges are non-binding and thus this system seems much weaker than the binding language of Kyoto, the process of reporting and revising INDCs is binding. So, all participating countries (thus far 188 countries have submitted pledges, including the US and China) must revise their pledges every 5 years, and transparency in reporting encourages countries to scrutinize, criticize, and challenge one another to do better. In fact, Canada has already said they’re going to revise their initial pledge upward.

Climate temp change
http://climateactiontracker.org/global.html

According to the Climate Action Tracker, the current pledges – if they were played out – put us on track for 2.4 – 2.7˚C of warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100. This is above the 2˚C limit scientists say is necessary to avoid catastrophic impacts. So, clearly more needs to be done, but proponents of the Paris Agreement hope the 5-year revisions will promote “ratcheting up” of emissions reductions so that we can limit warming as much as possible. Notably, many small island states in the Pacific and other coastal communities may be destroyed by sea level rise if temperatures increase even 1.5˚C.

Overall, this short history of global climate policy shows that approaches to dealing with climate change have evolved over the past 20 years. There is a rich discussion over whether the new approach is more or less ethical than the old, how ethical the process itself has been, and whether the Paris Agreement holds more promise than Kyoto for keeping warming under 2˚C. I encourage you to read further on these issues, and keep an eye out for countries pushing each other to commit to their fair share of reductions. Here in the US, Congress doesn’t have to vote on the plans coming out of Paris because the targets aren’t binding.

As a personal aside, I think this is a fascinating aspect of the agreement: because the US congress has obstructed much of global climate policy to date, the negotiators in Paris knew they had to avoid requiring congressional ratification on this go-round, which shaped much of the conference’s outcome. That being said, there will be political battles in the US over legislation critical to reducing emissions, like the Clean Power Plan, whose implementation has just been stayed by the Supreme Court due to a challenge by a coalition of states and fossil fuel companies. Issues like this will determine whether the US contributes its fair share of global emissions reductions. Such issues deserve keen attention and input from academics and the public alike.

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