Undaunted by terrorism, 40,000 diplomats, experts and advocates, including more than 135 world leaders, are set to meet in Paris beginning Nov. 30 for a major U.N. Climate Summit.
The goal is a new global climate treaty, involving all nations, that would enter force in the year 2020 and help the world avoid the worst consequences of manmade global warming.
During previous U.N. climate negotiations, world leaders agreed to limit global warming to at or below 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels by the year 2100, determining that any warming beyond that would set in motion dangerous and potentially unstoppable climate impacts, from melting ice sheets to extreme and deadly heat waves.
We are already halfway to that target and closing in fast.
The meeting is widely viewed as the last chance for the world to limit global warming to the temperature target.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Since that goal was set, studies have shown that dangerous climate impacts may already be occurring. This is despite the fact that global average temperatures have only warmed by about 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
For some countries, this temperature target is more than an abstract number. Small island nations like the Marshall Islands and Kiribati view the summit, and the goals that will be adopted there, as the best way to ensure their survival from rising sea levels.
In more than two decades of climate diplomacy — there’s a reason this meeting is called “COP21,” there have already been 20 climate negotiations since 1992 — there has never been as much optimism going into a crucial round of talks as there is now.
This is due to several factors: increased manifestations of global warming in extreme weather events around the world, which has led to greater public awareness; explosive growth and plunging costs of producing renewable energy, particularly solar power; and an increasingly effective social movement that is pressuring governments to act.
Disappearing Island The people of Kiribati are under pressure to relocate due to rising sea levels, which increase by about half an inch every year. JONAS GRATZER/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES
One reason for optimism is that the North/South schism that has derailed many similar gatherings, including a deflating summit in Copenhagen in 2009, has faded after two major agreements were struck between the U.S. and China to address emissions of global warming pollutants and expand renewable energy usage. These countries are the top two emitters in the world.
There’s also the recognition that we’re running out of time to contain global warming. The climate is racing past thresholds that scientists thought would take far longer to cross. This year will be the planet’s hottest on record, and the first to eclipse 1 degree Celsius, or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial temperatures.
In addition, we have crossed into an era with the highest amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere for all of human history, and likely long before that, with the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air slipping inexorably past the 400 parts per million threshold.
It is unlikely to dip below this during our lifetimes.
The last time carbon dioxide levels were this high, more than 800,000 years ago, there was very little ice on Earth and sea levels were about 100 feet higher than they are today.
But this time around may be different. This summit just might work when so many others failed. This is our guide to why.
We have crossed into an era with the highest amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere for all of human history.
THE GOAL: A GLOBAL AGREEMENT
World leaders hope to emerge from the Paris Climate Summit with a new climate agreement in hand that would spell out each country’s commitments for reducing global warming pollutants, starting in the year 2020.
Unlike the unsuccessful Kyoto Protocol, the new agreement will take a bottom-up approach to climate policy-making. Instead of having the U.N. prescribe cuts for particular nations, the new treaty design allows countries to decide for themselves what they are willing and capable of doing, and adding their contribution to the agreement.
Call it the potluck approach to climate change policymaking, since every country is bringing its own dish to the table, in the form of a national pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions and expand renewable energy investments, among other policies.
Like at any potluck, there will be some attendees who bring a more ambitious dish to the party compared to others.
Scorecard: Where top countries stand
The U.S. and China, for example, are two countries that will strut into Paris having already made game-changing climate pledges. Whereas others, like Russia, are viewed as having proposed little departure from business as usual.
The key question, though, is whether at the end of the day each country’s commitments will add up to the emissions reductions scientists say are needed to avoid dangerous climate change impacts.
“I think it is highly likely that this COP will produce more progress than the previous 20 combined,” said Carl Pope, former Sierra Club president and current adviser to Michael Bloomberg, the U.N. special envoy for cities and climate change. “The bottom-up approach is working much better than the top down approach,” Pope told Mashable.
WHAT 161 COUNTRIES HAVE ALREADY PLEDGED
To-date, 161 countries have submitted their climate pledges, which are technically known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs.
A number of studies have shown that, when added together, the INDCs would not limit global warming to the 2-degree target.
A U.N. report analyzing 119 separate emissions reduction pledges from 146 countries showed that, if implemented to their fullest extent, the emissions cuts would limit the forecast temperature rise to between 2.7 to 3.7 degrees Celsius, or about 4.8 degrees to 6.6 degrees Fahrenheit, by 2100.
Since it’s unlikely that countries will decide in Paris that they will go further than their INDCs have stated, it will be up to the negotiators to design a climate agreement that provides for regular review periods and specific timeframes for when to enact more strict emissions limits.
We’re running out of time to contain global warming. The climate is racing past thresholds that scientists thought would take longer to cross.
This year will be the planet’s hottest on record.
WHO TO WATCH
CHAIR OF THE UNFCCC
No one has more riding on this summit than Christiana Figueres, who chairs the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, under whose auspices these negotiations are taking place. She has spent the past several years crisscrossing the globe to lay the groundwork for this deal, and is determined to break through any logjams that may arise. She understands as well as anybody that the time to contain global warming to anything other than potentially catastrophic levels is rapidly running out.
FOREIGN MINISTER OF FRANCE
Along with Figueres, Fabius has been working to ensure that the summit goes smoothly. As the representative of the host country, he will have a high-pressure, formal role in these talks, at a time of great stress for the French government and people. In the wake of the Paris attacks, Fabius has expressed even greater determination to craft an effective agreement.
U.S. SPECIAL ENVOY FOR CLIMATE CHANGE
Stern will arrive in Paris with perhaps the greatest credibility of any U.S. climate negotiator ever, since the Obama administration is pursuing deep cuts in the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and working to scale up renewable energy deployment. A lawyer, Stern saw the Copenhagen talks dissolved into acrimony, and has repeatedly been more optimistic about the prospects for the Paris Summit.
Wei Su and Xie Zhenhua
CLIMATE NEGOTIATORS FOR CHINA
Xie Zhenhua and Wei Su have helped broker two climate agreements between China and the U.S. Xie had retired earlier this year, but was called back into service for the Paris Summit. It is unclear whether Wei will be in the driver’s seat for these talks, but both are veterans of the climate negotiations process.
LEAD CLIMATE NEGOTIATOR FOR SOUTH AFRICA
Nozipho is a forceful voice on behalf of the Group of 77 countries plus China, which is the biggest bloc of countries involved in the climate talks. South Africa is also part of the BASIC group of nations, which includes Brazil, India and China. Nozipho has in the past argued for developing countries to have less stringent emissions cut requirements compared to industrialized nations. A key question will be how closely China sticks to the G77 negotiating positions, or if it splits off as its own actor.
Climate Vulnerable Forum
REPRESENTING 43 COUNTRIES
The group of 43 countries that are particularly susceptible to climate change impacts are going to push for the most ambitious climate treaty possible. These countries, including Bangladesh, the Philippines and Tuvalu, have signed up 106 countries that support a temperature target of 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, rather than 2 degrees.
“Many countries are emphasizing that a 2 degrees goal is a more feasible target,” said Saleemul Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development. “But 1.5 degrees Celsius is also the right moral decision. The vulnerable nations are insisting that the Paris Climate Summit takes that right moral decision for humanity.”
CHIEF CLIMATE NEGOTIATOR FOR SAUDI ARABIA
Abuleif, sustainability and climate policy adviser to the Saudi Minister of Petroleum and Minerals, has participated in these climate talks since their inception. In the runup to Paris, Saudi Arabia submitted a climate pledge to diversify its economy and begin to move away from a reliance on oil exports for revenue. However, the document was vague about specific targets and timetables. On Nov. 23, Saudi Arabia reiterated its claim that it should be treated as a developing country for the purpose of these negotiations.
“An agreement that caters only to the context of countries that are more advanced will not enable Developing Countries to do what they need to do,” Abuleif said.
THE 5 OBSTACLES
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER PARIS
The past several years have seen a huge ramp up in climate activities and ambitions among businesses, states, regions and cities. Dozens of mayors as well as CEOs from around the world will be present to make their voices heard during the summit.
These actions raise the stakes for Paris, and result in even more momentum and support for national leaders to take action.
“You know, in climate change, we talk a lot about tipping points,” said Andrew Steer, the CEO of the World Resources Institute. “We tend to think about bad tipping points. But, of course, this conference is about potentially good tipping points.”
For Steer, a successful outcome in Paris could create ripple effects that reverberate throughout global markets, all the way down to the local level.
“Done right, this will set in train a set of policies and actions that would take us across a number of these positive tipping points in a way we design our cities, in the way we consume, in the way we deliver electricity, in the way we work and how we go to work.”
“And all the evidence is that that economy will be better and the quality of life will be better,” Steer said. “And so the stakes are exceedingly high for this.”