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David Sandalow: Is the Paris Climate Conference Already a Success?

David Sandalow Columbia Center On Global Energy Policy
August 07, 2015

From President Obama to the Pope, there are growing signs of consensus for tackling climate change at a global scale.


This has been a big summer for climate diplomacy. So big, the 21st annual Conference of Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which will open with enormous media attention in Paris in late November, is already in part a success. Key developments include:

  • the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter — China — released a climate action plan, building on its climate agreement with the U.S. last fall,

  • Brazil and the U.S. announced a climate agreement,

  • South Korea — the world’s seventh-largest greenhouse gas emitter — released a climate action plan,

  • the Pope released a historic statement on climate change, which received enormous attention around the world, and

  • earlier this week, the Obama administration released a Clean Power Plan — the single most important action ever taken in the U.S. to combat climate change.

Would some of these have happened without the Paris climate conference on the horizon? Perhaps.

But consider the US-China climate agreement. When the leaders of the world’s two largest economies meet, the agenda includes an enormous range of issues including cyber security, North Korea, Iran, the South China Sea, dollar-RMB exchange rates, trade disputes, a bilateral investment treaty and much more. Certainly climate change is important, but many issues compete for attention at a summit. Major international meetings such as the Paris conference help put climate change high on the agenda for heads of state.

The Paris conference was an important factor behind the U.S.-China climate agreement. Both countries had agreed to announce their post-2020 emissions goals in the run-up to the conference and likely saw advantages in making an early announcement. Indeed President Xi Jinping mentioned the Paris climate conference in announcing China’s goals. It’s no coincidence that Premier Li Keqiang released China’s climate action plan, elaborating on China’s emissions goals, on the day he arrived in Paris for a summit.

The same is true of the U.S.-Brazil accord. When leaders from the two largest economies in the hemisphere meet, the agenda includes trade, investment, agriculture, Cuba, Venezuela, the U.N. Security Council and much more. Would climate change have emerged as a headline announcement without the Paris climate conference fast approaching? Perhaps, but the Paris conference helped make sure that climate change received attention.

The climate plan South Korea released in June is another example. South Korea (like other parties to the Framework Convention) agreed to submit a climate plan ahead of the Paris conference. That led the government to release options for emissions reduction goals, which led to public commentary as well as diplomatic engagement at the head of state level, resulting in a stronger reduction goal than any of the original options.

(History suggests such national climate goals make a difference. The Obama administration, for example, has worked hard to achieve the climate goal it announced in 2009 ahead of the Copenhagen climate conference — a 17 percent reduction from 2005 emissions levels by 2020 — as have many other governments around the world. The Clean Power Plan released earlier this week was the result of many factors, including the administration’s determination to achieve our national climate goals.)

Even the Pope’s encyclical appears to be in part due to the Paris conference. True, Pope Francis appears to care deeply about climate change, independent of any one meeting. But he mentions international climate negotiations several times in his encyclical, making clear that he’s watching them with interest. It does not appear to be a coincidence that, after more than two years as the Holy Father, Pope Francis chose to release his encyclical five months before the Paris conference.

So is the Paris climate conference already a success? Yes in part.

The purpose of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change — convener of the Paris conference — is to prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system. The Paris conference has already contributed to that objective in important ways, as developments during June demonstrate. If a conference of parties to the Framework Convention helps put climate change on the agenda of world leaders, motivates major global powers to reach bilateral climate agreements, spurs countries around the world to develop national climate action plans and plays a role in causing spiritual leaders to speak out on climate change, then that conference is having an impact.

Needless to say, the conference itself will address important issues. Those include procedures for reviewing and strengthening national climate action plans, how best to mobilize financing for developing countries and long-terms goals for fighting climate change. These matter.

But it would be a mistake to think about the Paris conference too narrowly, with a focus solely on the paper negotiated by national governments during the meeting. Of course, that paper matters. A strong agreement in Paris could make a big difference. But the broader impact of the meeting on national governments, businesses and public opinion is also of central importance.

In the decades ahead, change will not come solely, or even mainly, from the top down. Change will not come solely, or even mainly, from national governments acting together. A top-down institution such as the Framework Convention will never “solve” climate change at one of its annual conferences, but those conferences can make a difference. Indeed the next one already has.

In the decades ahead, transformational change will often come from the bottom up — from individuals, companies, universities, religious groups, cities and states, among many other actors. If the Paris conference can help inspire responses to climate change around the globe, then it is having an impact and, at least in part, succeeding.

This piece was excerpted from a report for Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

(Top image: Courtesy of Thinkstock)


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<em>David Sandalow, Inaugural Fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, has served in senior positions at the White House, State Department and US Department of Energy.</em><br />
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