Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Bumpy, Winding Road to Paris ...

With the Bonn UNFCCC meeting winding down on Friday, and about 150 national INDCs on file, most of the official preliminaries to the Paris climate summit are completed. So how does it stand? Here's a very rough scorecard on some key elements:

  • Greenhouse gas reduction: this is really the crux of the question, and estimates aren't terribly encouraging. Optimists point out that if the INDC pledges are kept, we will see lower emissions going forward from 2020 than if 'business as usual' prevailed--a slender claim. Most analysis suggests that current proposals will lead to a 2.7 degree Celsius mean temperature increase during this century--a figure that many see as catastrophic. Even the 2C official target leaves many climate scientists alarmed, and 2.7 C, with all the possible feedback effects, is deemed unacceptable by most observers. Can this situation be salvaged? The solution would be to consider the Paris agreements a platform for 'ramping up' to more stringent measures, and a mandated 5-year review to that end may become part of the agreement. The tricky part: leaving Paris with an upbeat assessment, not of what has been done but what will be done going forward. Spinmeisters needed. 
  • Green Climate Fund: meeting the promise, made 6 years ago at Copenhagen, to add $100 billion in new climate development funding annually starting in 2020, is widely regarded as essential to any agreement in Paris. The Fund is intended to help poorer countries (who bear much less responsibility for the climate crisis) to mitigate and adapt to the conditions of climate change, and to enhance their own decarbonization efforts. Difficulties abound in formulating a plan for the Fund, and among the unresolved differences in Bonn last week are the following thorny questions: Are the 'rich' contributor-nations just the usual OECD, mostly Western powers, or should newcomers like China, Brazil, other 'southern' success story-nations, and OPEC producers be expected to share the burden? Is indemnity for 'loss and damage'--a potentially large and urgent component--part of the deal, or (as the US strongly insists) should this delicate subject, with its bottomless demands, be taken off the table in Paris? Are existing funds being rebranded to look new, and thus reduce the levels of new funding? How does private sector investment funding factor into the total? While a team of game theorist-observers are betting that that a much larger amount--$350 billion/year--will be pledged for 2030--when all the signatories will be dead or retired--they also are predicting weak language in response to short term demands--an explosive prediction at this point.
  • Governance: the issue of what binding powers, if any will be built into the Paris agreement continues to loiter on the margins of discussions. Those same game theorist scientists predict that general conformity to the UNFCCC process will be held as binding, but specific national goals might not. There is some push to insist that no nation be allowed to 'backslide' from its Paris INDC commitments--but with what sanctions? Meanwhile, as Republican governors take the Obama administration to court in an effort to undo the EPA regulations he has put in place, and Republican senators and presidential candidates promise to reverse the US commitment altogether, the rest of the world is justifiably anxious about the world's largest economy, tethered to a major political party that maintains an insanely anti-scientific posture.
So those are some of the tensions that need to find resolution at Paris, or God willing before the conference opens. Delegates at Bonn last week called for intervention from ministers and heads of state to cut through some of the tangles, and this may happen at a ministerial conference scheduled by France's Laurent Fabius for November 10th.

Meanwhile, I would point to a tangential but promising event: MIT last week, while rejecting disinvestment from fossil fuels, announced a plan to consolidate $300 million in an interdisciplinary 5-year climate research initiative to address many facets of the climate crisis. As research institutes around the world follow suit, a model emerges: technological and scientific solutions are developed--capital investment funds are leveraged from wealthy nations and corporations--and a UN-sponsored governing structure takes responsibility, with broad support from both OECD and G77 nations, to regulate the flow of investment and implement new technologies. Sound plausible? All the tensions leading up to Paris--not to mention the cynical insistence of big oil producers who refuse to moderate their projections for fossil fuel production--say it's naive. But it's the model that needs to be moving forward on the road to Paris.

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