This year is set to be a landmark one in global climate change policy.
Starting in Paris in late November, delegates from nearly 200 countries will meet to hammer out the first worldwide climate change agreement.
The 2015 United Nations summit will be the latest in more than two decades of largely failed international climate pacts. This time around, many observers are more optimistic: talks are bolstered by dropping renewable energy prices and individual early emissions commitments from China and the United States.
“Ultimately, I do think we’re likely to get an agreement, and the reason is that I think international pressure is going to be withering on any country or group of countries who try to stop an agreement,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton climate adviser and current fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
But the road to Paris will be a long one, and 2015 will hold nearly non-stop negotiating for world leaders hoping to sign an agreement before the end of the year.
A foundation formed in Lima
Around 2 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 14, exhausted-looking negotiators struck the closing gavel on the 20th U.N. Conference of the Parties in Lima, Peru, the precursor to the Paris talks.
After more than 36 straight hours of negotiating, delegates there had reached a breakthrough: a blueprint for the first deal committing every country in the world to reduce fossil fuel emissions. Instead of a formal treaty and minimum emission reductions, the Lima Accord requires countries to set their own goals for emissions cuts, and report them to the international community in what’s been called a ‘name and shame’ agreement.
“The Lima Accord was largely about keeping all the countries on the table by creating a very broad and general framework that they could all agree to,” Paul Bledsoe said.
“The amount of work to do ahead of Paris is immense and is going to take really non-stop negotiation over the next year.”
Unlike the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which attempted to extract emission reductions from only the world’s wealthiest countries, the Paris agreement will apply to both developed and developing countries.
The ultimate goal is to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels, which scientists say will prevent the worst impacts of climate change.
The negotiations leading up to Paris are likely to center around a handful of key sticking points:
Monitoring and verifying emissions reductions
One likely point of contention is how the international community will agree to monitor and verify whether countries are actually reducing emissions as much as they promise.
“The Chinese, for example, have indicated deep unwillingness to open up their heavy industry to verification by inspectors, so that’s one issue that’s going to be very difficult,” Bledsoe said.
This debate turns on member nation sovereignty, and how much a government is willing to submit its authority to international oversight when it comes to meeting emission targets.
“Since no one really thinks there’s going to be an international emissions police force, the question is, how aggressive do you have to be in the treaty language to get all of the major emitters to actually demonstrate what they’re doing?” said Joseph Robertson from the Citizens Climate Lobby.
Financing adaptation and green development
A second potential roadblock is who will pick up the tab for climate change adaptation and green development for poorer countries.
“Countries have claimed that they are going to create a $100 billion annual green climate fund to deal with these issues starting in 2020, but right now, there are only about 10 billion dollars in pledges,” Bledsoe said. “So that’s a key issue of contention.”
Financing is a primary negotiating concern for the 48-country bloc called the “Least Developed Countries,” which includes countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean, including Bangladesh, Cambodia and Ethiopia.
These countries historically have done the least to cause climate change but see its effects the most, and the U.N. framework promises funds to help them combat rising seas and warming temperatures.
“Pledges are made, but they aren’t necessarily delivered on time, and that’s basically where the sticking point is,” said Bangladeshi climate expert Saleemul Huq, who serves as an adviser to the Least Developed Countries bloc.
“The rich countries who are making these pledges need to now deliver the money that they have promised.”
The first week of meetings at the Lima conference was dominated by conversations about who should get how much money, paid out by whom. Figuring out how to get governments and the private sector to pitch in could be the defining struggle on the pathway to Paris.
Size of emissions cuts
Also at Lima, leaders decided not to mandate specific emissions cuts, but allow each country to submit its own targets, known as “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.” That decision leads to the third negotiating issue: the size of each nation’s emissions cuts.
Countries are required to submit their reduction targets by the end of March, or if they miss that deadline, by June. In the months that follow, U.N. officials will analyze individual country plans to see how global temperatures would fare if they were enacted. After that, a global back-and-forth will ensue with U.N. officials trying to get countries to up their reduction targets.
The over-arching goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius will guide the whole process. But in a sign of just how much work needs to be done before an agreement is signed in Paris next December, even that fundamental goal, a finish line of sorts, is being debated mid-race.
“The global agreement is 2 degrees, but the Least Developed Countries are asking for 1.5 degrees,” said Saleemul Huq.
“The difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees is essentially, at 2 degrees the rich save themselves, but at 1.5 degrees that would apply to the whole world.”
Huq said his bloc is not getting any traction on this more stringent goal, but with an untold number of lives at stake, they have no plans to give up.