Climate Summit: Can Obama Convince 130 Countries to Reduce Carbon Emissions?
Policy + Politics

Climate Summit: Can Obama Convince 130 Countries to Reduce Carbon Emissions?

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

President Obama will arrive on Sunday night in Paris – a city still reeling from the recent deadly terrorist attacks – for the start of an historic 11-day conference in which more than 130 world leaders will formally pledge support for an ambitious climate change agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and try to slow the earth’s rising temperature.

White House officials said this week that Obama would take a leading role in addressing a phenomenon that poses a “clear and present threat” to U.S. national security and that can wreak havoc on developing countries that frequently suffer the worst from hurricanes, drought, flooding and other extreme weather events.

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Obama has made climate change a signature policy, and has aggressively pressed for major Environmental Protection Agency rules changes aimed at slashing U.S. industrial carbon emissions, over the strong objections and opposition of congressional Republicans, the oil and coal industries and climate change skeptics.  He has also aggressively lobbied other foreign leaders, including Chinese president Xi Jinping and India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, to follow suit. Obama is scheduled to have one-on-one meetings with Xi and Modi on Monday.

Moreover, administration officials have high hopes that the Paris gathering of global powers will prove far more productive than a previous conference in Copenhagen in 2009 that ended in discord and considerable confusion.

“The stars are more aligned to reach agreement than I have ever seen before,” said Todd Stern, the US chief negotiator, according to The Guardian. “There is no comparison between Paris and Copenhagen in 2009. We have this opportunity, this moment. Countries are going to have to be willing to depart from some of their fixed positions to seek common good. We can get this done. We will get his done.”

This will be the 11th gathering of parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change since the adoption of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an international blue print for combatting global warming that failed to meet many of its goals after the administration of President George W. Bush refused to get behind it.

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The major goal of this year’s meeting is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit the global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. By the October deadline, about 150 countries responsible for 88 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions had gone on record with commitments for reducing those emissions. Despite an international outpouring of support, many experts acknowledge that the 2-degree target is already out of reach given the pace of global warming.

“We are still headed to 3.5 degrees Celsius, 3.1 C, or 2.7 C of warming above pre-industrial levels, depending upon the assumptions one uses in projections,” wrote Timmons Roberts, a non-resident senior fellow on Global Economy and Development at the Brookings Institution.  “But the [international pledges] do represent big reductions in likely warming. One estimate set puts the reduction with [pledges] from 3.9 degrees to 3.1 degrees. To remove nearly 1 degree of likely warming in one year is remarkable progress.”

In an effort to spur further enthusiasm for the Paris talks, the Obama administration announced earlier this week that federal agencies would be instructed to slash even further their own greenhouse gas emissions, according to The Guardian. The United States – the second largest emitter behind China – now has pledged to reach an emissions reduction goal of 41.8 percent from 2008 levels by 2025.

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Here are four key points about the upcoming conference, as seen by Roberts of the Brookings Institution:

  • The four “somewhat unexpected tailwinds” have enhanced the prospects for a major global agreement this year. They include increased physical evidence, such as melting ice caps, that climate change is real; Pope Francis’s campaign to raise the issue; the plunge in the cost of renewable sources of energy, and the collaboration between China and the United States.
  • This year, nations will bring emission “pledges” based on their individual circumstances. “The world will review those pledges for fairness and ambition, and see if they are adequate to the task,” Roberts wrote.

The downside, of course, is there will no legally binding agreements or treaties that must be ratified. The pledges are called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), a term meant to emphasize that countries are protecting their sovereignty against binding commitments.

  • Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, only wealthy, industrialized countries were responsible for emissions reductions, while so called emerging or Third World countries got a pass. Now all countries are expected to act, and the “firewall” between richer and poorer countries is being taken down.
  • The Obama administration made great strides in coordinating with other major emitters to create meaningful action this year. “The U.S.-China announcements come from the countries responsible for nearly half of global emissions, and apparently the two nations understand that they can have more impact together,” Roberts wrote.

What’s more, the U.S.-Mexico joint announcement showed the U.S. was willing to work with other nations also, and administration officials reached out to numerous countries to encourage more ambition. “While its own pledge is far weaker than needed, for once in the climate talks the U.S. was a leader and a cheerleader,” according to Roberts.