U.S. House of Representatives Already Sabotaging Paris Climate Talks?

This article was first posted on LinkedIn here

I have been working on climate change since when people thought it meant that I was the person to call if the office got too warm or cold. So as the United Nations' 21st climate conference (COP21) begins en Paris, I cannot help get a little nostalgic and take a trip down memory lane …. In 1992, when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was opened for signature at the Rio “Earth Summit” in 1992, Steffi Graf won Wimbledon. I wonder how many of the delegates attending COP21 in Paris know who she is. There have been Conferences of the Parties (which sounds considerably more entertaining that the long hours spent poring over minuscule differences in texts actually are) since 1995, when a youthful 41-year-old German environment minister named Angela Merkel presided over the first one. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted. It required modest emissions targets (5 to 8% lower than 1990 level by 2008 to 2012) to the “Kyoto basket” of Greenhouse Gases (GHGs). These cuts applied essentially to the OECD countries which mirrors countries with highest historical emissions since the Industrial Revolution. In 2005, a sufficient number of countries representing the needed threshold of total emissions ratified the Kyoto Protocol and it entered into force. The U.S. significantly did not ratify it. President Clinton knowing it would never pass did not submit it to Congress. Canada withdrew in 2011, but the recent political change there should make for a strong Canadian position on climate.

Since 2005, various mechanisms were adopted to try and make emissions cuts easier. The pioneering instruments were the Clean Development Mechanism (allowed countries with emissions targets to take credit for investments in emissions reductions in developing countries) and Joint Implementation (taking credit for emissions reductions in other countries with targets). Others include REDD, then REDD+ (from COP11 to COP19), which refers to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation plus conservation, and NAMAs or Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (COP 18, Doha). NAMAs allow countries to propose national or sub-national GHG mitigation projects and gain access to funding for them. Along the years, several special funds were set up under the aegis of the UNFCCC such as the Adaptation Fund (COP9), Green Climate Fund (COP16), and the Special Climate Change Fund (2001). In 2009, with a recently elected President Obama in the White House, worldwide hopes were high for a binding international agreement, but it did not happen. Instead, a last minute closed door meeting between the U.S., China, India, South Africa, and Brazil produced what is called the “Copenhagen Accord.” This called for, among other things, a limitation of global average temperature rise to below 2C, REDD+, NAMAS, and the Green Climate Fund.

Leading up to COP21, countries submitted INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) to the UNFCCC spelling out what they (regardless of wealth or level of development) intend to do. The idea is that these will mesh together into some form of an international agreement. The U.S. and China made a historic declaration of cooperation on climate change in late 2014, which I wrote about on LinkedIn here http://bit.ly/1xYf6F4. Leaders of every religion around the world, including an especially activist Pope and Vatican that issued an encyclical on climate change, have strongly supported action on climate change. The French in the form of President Hollande and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius are very clear that COP21 is meant to produce a “ legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that there definitely would not be any legally binding emissions targets such as in the Kyoto Protocol. This may be Kerry trying to toe a fine legal line between a commitment and a treaty, knowing that a hostile Congress back home will not pass the latter. There are some signs of hope as well as signs of potential discord. The backdrop for civil society is a ban against large gatherings, understandable due to the recent attacks in Paris. Already news reports have emerged of a minority of anarchists and anti-capitalists hijacking a climate march and engaging in violent confrontations with the police. Leaders must understandably be tense with recent attention more focused on violent extremism. Will we at the end of COP21 have another instrument, fund, flexible mechanism, guiding framework, or “voluntary commitment,” or a just agreement to take meaningful action and validate the last 20 years of meetings?