from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Paris is Just One Piece of the Climate Change Puzzle

The Eiffel Tower is seen at sunset in Paris, France, on November 22, 2015.

November 23, 2015

The Eiffel Tower is seen at sunset in Paris, France, on November 22, 2015.
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Coauthored with Naomi Egel, research associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Next week’s Paris meeting on climate change—officially, the twenty-first Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—is shaping up to be a watershed moment in the fight against global warming. Unlike the disappointing 2009 conference in Copenhagen, the Paris summit is expected to produce a strong global agreement that charts the next steps in combatting climate change.

As important as it is, the UNFCCC process is just one part of the global climate change regime. CFR’s recently updated Global Governance Monitor: Climate Change assesses the scope of global warming and its stakes for the planet, summarizes the major multilateral initiatives that have been launched to combat it, summarizes pressing policy debates, and offers concrete recommendations for policymakers on how best to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Combatting climate change is the most complicated collective action challenge humanity has ever faced. But the pace and scale of the global response are both increasing, as the world recognizes that we cannot wait—and that we have tools at our disposal to respond.

Major issues

Curbing emissions

The Kyoto Protocol and subsequent agreements reached at successive UNFCCC meetings have been wholly inadequate at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, the planet is on a course to warm far more than the 2 degrees Celsius that climate scientists consider a safe threshold. Unable or unwilling to negotiate a comprehensive treaty with common, binding emissions reduction targets, governments recently adopted a more flexible “pledge and review” strategy. At the 2014 climate change conference in Lima (COP-20), countries agreed to publish prior to Paris their own Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to combat climate change, including information on emission reductions. The hope is that these voluntarily pledges, tailored to unique national circumstances, will create pressure for countries to live up to their commitments—and to ramp up their ambitions to further reduce emissions going forward.

Financing for mitigation and adaptation

Although financing for climate mitigation and adaptation has come a long way, it lags far behind the scope of the challenge. The Green Climate Fund—intended as a centralized hub for climate financing and a core component of the global climate change regime—became fully operational only on November 6, 2015, when it approved its first eight projects (totaling $168 million). Moreover, the Fund’s resources fall far short of what nations have promised. In 2010, countries committed to raising $100 billion by 2020 for the Fund, but today, it has received only $10.2 billion in pledges—and only $5.9 billion has materialized. Notably, the greatest progress on climate financing has been outside the intergovernmental system: private investment in the low-carbon economy has reached hundreds of billions of dollars. Even so, financing for reducing carbon emissions has been far more robust than financing for adapting to the effects of climate change.

Future climate refugees

As sea levels rise and droughts worsen, the world will see a growing number of refugees fleeing the effects of climate change. Currently, more than 100 million people live less than one meter above sea level, and low-lying and island nations like the Maldives and Kiribati are already pursuing options to relocate their people to higher ground—or abandon their countries entirely. In the Pacific Ocean, rising sea levels are expected to displace between 665,000 and 1.7 million people by 2050. But the concerns of future climate refugees remain an afterthought, for both the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

These enormous challenges cannot, of course, not be tackled and resolved at a single conference. Still, there are many opportunities—in Paris, at future UNFCCC meetings, and through outside venues—to make serious progress.

Recommendations

Create a global mechanism for monitoring emissions reductions

Nongovernmental groups are already tracking how states’ INDCs stack up against the scale of the challenge. But reliable monitoring is also needed to determine whether countries are actually fulfilling their emissions reduction commitments. At present, the UNFCCC relies entirely on self-reporting from countries as to whether they are meeting their INDCs. A neutral, independent monitoring mechanism under the UNFCCC framework would build the institutional credibility needed for countries to commit to more ambitious INDCs in the future. The UNFCCC could draw lessons on the best approaches for monitoring and verification from other international organizations that engage in analogous tasks, such as the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Develop a voluntary system to encourage compliance post-Paris

Left unclear is whether the Paris agreement will include a binding compliance mechanism. One worry is that unaddressed cases of noncompliance could undermine the credibility of the UNFCCC process. Voluntary mechanisms to encourage states to meet their INDC pledges could help fill this gap. Accordingly governments should explore alternative arrangements, outside but supportive of the UNFCCC framework, to further encourage compliance. Such a system could take the form of clubs that confer on their members some additional benefit for their participation. An alternative would be to make country’s progress toward meeting its INDCs a precondition for certain forms of financing.

Make combatting climate change a G20 priority

Although the Group of 20 (G20) has made tentative forays into the climate field, such as pledges to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, the group could do much more to support the UNFCCC process and catalyze more aggressive emissions reductions and climate financing efforts. In this regard, the recent leaders’ communique from its summit in Antalya, Turkey, was disappointing. China should use its chairmanship of the G20, which begins in December, as a leadership platform to encourage the world’s most prosperous economies to make even more ambitious commitments to reducing emissions, as well as funding clean energy investment. The G20 should also implement the recommendations of the G20 Climate Finance Study Group report, and use the G20 as a body to coordinate collaboration among climate funds, as well as stimulate private investment in financing climate strategies.

These are simply a few of the issues we examine in the Global Governance Monitor, which also provides historical context for many of the issues that will dominate the Paris talks. For more information, visit the monitor itself.

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