Momentum Is Growing for a Climate Deal in Paris

Obama: No Nation Immune to Effects of Climate Change
  • At least 177 nations have submitted pledges on climate change
  • Disagreement remains on finance, review mechanism, legal form

More than 140 world leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama and Xi Jinping of China are gathering in Paris for France’s biggest diplomatic event since 1948, striving to reach the first truly global deal to curb greenhouse gases.

QuickTake Climate Change

The two weeks of United Nations-sponsored talks have already gathered pledges to reduce emissions from 177 of the 195 countries involved, signaling broader support for a deal than when envoys last attempted to reach one six years ago. Those discussions in Copenhagen ended in disarray with recriminations between industrialized and developing nations.

Now, with the cost of alternatives to fossil fuels coming down and scientific concern about global warming mounting, there’s stronger political will to act than ever. Delegates open their discussions on Sunday, and leaders are scheduled to speak on Monday to lend political momentum to the process.

“The stars are more aligned right now to reach agreement than I have ever seen them,” U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern told reporters last week. “We are riding on the wave of those 170 targets that have been submitted.”

The terrorist attacks that killed 130 people in Paris two weeks ago prompted authorities to cancel marches planned by environmental groups. Defying the order, demonstrators formed a human chain on Sunday in favor of a climate agreement. The gathering degenerated and French authorities detained at least 150 people after masked protesters clashed with riot police. Political resolve for a deal remains.

‘Powerful Rebuke’

“What a powerful rebuke to the terrorists it will be when the world stands as one,” Obamasaid last week in a press conference with French President Francois Hollande.

Disagreements remain on the legal nature of the deal, the mechanism that will prod action in the future and on how much support industrial nations should give poorer countries to cut their emissions and cope with the effects of warming. The leaders depart after their speeches, leaving the thorny issues to envoys drawn mostly from environment and energy ministries.

“Climate finance is a deal-killer in Paris,” said Jairam Ramesh, the former environment minister of India and a veteran of Copenhagen. Industrialized nations must show how they’ll deliver on a promise first made in 2009 to boost annual climate aid to $100 billion by 2020, he said.

Adding urgency is a finding by the World Meteorological Organization that global temperatures probably touched a record in 2015. The pledges -- which aren’t up for negotiation -- leave the world on track for a 2.7 degree Celsius increase since the industrial revolution, according to Climate Action Tracker, a project by four climate research institutions. That’s above the 2-degree target set in previous talks, a shift in the climate that would still be quicker than when the last ice age ended. The most vulnerable nations want a 1.5-degree goal to protect them from rising seas.

“We’re not home and dry in terms of the the 2 degrees, but developing countries are not seeing the money they need in order to cope with the consequences of that shortcoming,” said former UN climate chief Yvo de Boer, who led the Copenhagen talks and now heads the Global Green Growth Institute in Seoul.

Alden Meyer, who has followed the talks for more than two decades at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based advocacy group, said even a “reasonable” deal in Paris “will not give us a guarantee that we can get on track to hold warming below two degrees; it will only give us a fighting chance to keep working over the next several years to get there.”

Another fight on the agenda in Paris will be on how to ensure countries periodically “ratchet” upward their ambition to reduce pollution, said Laurence Tubiana, who as France’s climate change ambassador will help steer the discussions. Envoys must deliver “a broad message on the low-carbon economy being the new normal.”

It’s not just countries that are mobilizing. The UN has gathered pledges to fight climate change from more than 2,000 cities worldwide and more than 2,000 corporations, which will be on display at conferences drawing thousands to venues separate from the heavily-policed UN compound.

“Paris will be a watershed,” said Steve Howard, chief sustainability officer of the Swedish furniture retailer Ikea. “It will be a dividing point in time between the fossil-fuel economy and the renewables era.”

The enthusiasm for a deal is in contrast with the meeting in Copenhagen in 2009, when just 55 nations met a deadline to submit pledges. This time, envoys coordinated their positions and put many of the elements for the deal in place before arriving in Paris.

The U.S. persuaded its allies and China to back a voluntary approach on emissions cuts rather than a deal setting binding targets. That construction would allow the administration to bypass approval from a hostile Senate, though it’s causing friction with island nations and the Europeans, with Hollande saying earlier in the month “we must give any accord a binding character.”

“Our survival is based on coming to a good enough deal,” Maldives Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon said by phone. It must ensure “there are still opportunities for countries to come back with more ambitious targets.”

(A previous version of this story corrected the goal for raising aid.)

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