Changing the Climate: The Bumpy Road to Paris

Protesters photographed by Bob Simpson.

Protesters photographed by Bob Simpson.

By David Holmquist

The United Nations held its first Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972. The outcome of that conference was an Action Plan consisting of 109 recommendations for financial and institutional capacity building to deal with the challenges of environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change. That’s right—climate change has been on the international environmental agenda for over 40 years. The delegates at Stockholm also adopted a declaration calling for a second Conference on the Human Environment.

It took 20 years to build enough capacity to hold that second conference. The process involved research, planning and prodding by hundreds of thousands of scientists, activists, diplomats, and politicians that led to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June of 1992.

Better known as “The Earth Summit,” the Rio Conference was attended by representatives of 182 countries, including 108 at the level of head of state or government. The Summit’s message—that nothing less than a total transformation of our attitudes and behavior would bring about the changes required to reverse the environmental impacts of rising industrial development, urbanization and consumption—was transmitted by nearly 10,000 on-site journalists and heard by millions of people around the world. In the run-up to the Summit, the world also heard President George H.W. Bush frame the negotiating stance of the United States, as he famously declared: “The American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period.” These dissonant messages have plagued international climate negotiations ever since.

Two treaties emerged from the Earth Summit: the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). With the adoption of the UNFCCC, climate change moved to the forefront of the global agenda for environmentally sustainable development. The objective of the treaty is to "stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Because of its virtually universal membership, it is the only climate policy venue with broad international legitimacy. Each year since 1995, the parties to the Convention have met in an annual Conference of the Parties (COP). The 21st COP will take place in Paris, France, beginning on November 30, 2015.

The Framework Convention on Climate Change itself set no limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries and contains no enforcement mechanisms. It is, therefore, considered legally non-binding. Instead, the treaty provides a framework for negotiating specific international treaties (called "protocols") that may set binding limits on greenhouse gasses. The Kyoto Protocol (adopted at the third COP in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997) is thus far the only attempt at extending the UNFCCC by means of binding national commitments. Only 37 countries have ratified the Kyoto Protocol. The Clinton administration declined to submit the treaty to the Senate for ratification, knowing that it would fail. Canada ratified the Protocol but withdrew in 2011. The European Union member states make up the bulk of the continuing Kyoto signatories and incorporate their treaty targets into national and EU climate policy formulations.

The adoption of a binding treaty has been at the top of the UNFCCC agenda since its inception and was the major issue facing negotiators in Copenhagen (COP 15) in 2009. Expectations ran high in environmental and civil society movement organizations in the run-up to that Conference, and the failure to reach a binding agreement extending the Kyoto Protocol was a bitter disappointment. The United States negotiators were widely blamed for that failure, accused of continuing to operate from the G.H.W. Bush negotiating stance. President Obama’s last-minute appearance and personal brokering of the Copenhagen Accord saved the Conference from impending total collapse in a failure to reach a consensus agreement. The Accord brought the major emitters from the developing world into a new negotiating group, along with the developed countries, aimed at establishing specific emissions reduction pledges from each country.

In subsequent Conferences of the Parties (Cancun, Durban, Doha, Warsaw and Lima), the negotiations have taken place under yet a new framework—the Durban Platform—which plainly calls for a binding agreement based upon emissions pledges that have come to be known as “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs). The negotiations under the Durban Platform are set to be finalized in Paris later this year; thus the oft-repeated claim that Paris represents a “last chance” at a binding agreement.

The prospects for Paris depend upon these two interwoven considerations in the current negotiations: the terms of a binding agreement and the overall efficacy of the intended nationally determined contributions. Opinion varies widely on the first issue. Most environmental activists consider the possibility of a binding agreement to be remote, but the UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica, has been tireless in her efforts to set the stage for a successful conclusion to the talks in Paris. Her strategy for bringing all the stakeholders to the table is described in a detailed and optimistic article by Elizabeth Kolbert published in The New Yorker in August. The negotiators’ draft agreement note posted in early October still reflects a fairly substantial range of positions, as reflected in the alternative language still being considered in this basic premise:

Parties aim to reach by [X date] [a peaking of global greenhouse gas emissions][zero net greenhouse gas emissions][a[n] X per cent reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions][global low-carbon transformation][global low-emission transformation][carbon neutrality][climate neutrality].

and in this alternative phrasing of each country’s level of obligation under its INDC:

Each Party [shall][should][other] regularly communicate a nationally determined mitigation [contribution][commitment][other] that it [shall][should][other] implement.

The second issue is whether the aggregate INDCs will be ambitious enough to avoid a 2o C increase in average global temperatures or, more conservatively, 1.5o C. As of October 8, INDCs had been submitted by 119 countries plus the European Union, representing 86 percent of global emissions. Analysis by Climate Action Tracker on the adequacy of the aggregate INDCs shows a substantial “emissions gap.”

They rank as “inadequate” the INDCs of major emitters: Canada, Russia, Japan, Australia and South Korea. The United States, European Union and China are all rated “medium,” with widely varying levels of emissions reduction reflected in their pledges. All of this sets up the final negotiations for plenty of finger-pointing and continued frustration on the part of less developed countries over the lack of action from the major emitters.

Climate activists are preparing to pressure the negotiators and heads of state for decisive action at the United Nations Conference of the Parties in Paris, beginning with worldwide rallies and protests on October 14. In the Chicago area, the main event that day will be a rally and march beginning at Old St Pat’s Church in the West Loop.

But the real action will start the day before the opening of the Paris COP. A demonstration on the order of last year’s People’s Climate March—where 400,000 people took to the streets of New York City—is planned for Paris on November 29. Companion events across the globe are in the planning stages. Information on these developments is available on the website of the People’s Climate Movement.

At a “wonkier” level, one can also get involved in Citizens’ Climate Engagement Network, a project of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which is organizing global grassroots participation in the development and negotiation of international climate policy. The Framework Convention on Climate Change requires that the participating governments take measures to involve their citizens—not just the diplomats—in the negotiating process, a requirement that very few countries have observed.

To change everything, we need everyone, everywhere.