Implications of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference

Implications of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference

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Michael A. Levi, CFR’s David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment and director of the Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies, discusses the domestic and international ramifications of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, as part of CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy and State and Local Officials Conference Call series.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative and State and Local Officials Initiative.


Michael Levi

David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment, and Director, Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies, Council on Foreign Relations


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program & Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations conference call. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.

We are happy to have participants in both our Religion and Foreign Policy as well as our State and Local Officials initiatives on the call today. As a reminder, this discussion is on the record, and the audio will be available on our website, as well as the transcript, at

We’re delighted to have Michael Levi with us to talk about the historic climate agreement that was reached this weekend in Paris. Michael Levi is CFR’s David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment and the director of CFR’s Maurice Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies. Before joining CFR, Dr. Levi was a nonresident science fellow and a science and technology fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of “The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future,” and co-author with Elizabeth Economy of “By All Means Necessary: How China’s Resource Quest is Changing the World.” He contributes regularly to the CFR blog Energy, Security, and Climate, and you can also follow him on Twitter @levi_m.

Michael, thank you very much for being with us today. I thought we could begin with you talking a little bit first about the basic elements of the deal.

LEVI: Absolutely. And thank you, everyone, for taking time to be on this call.

There are a lot of pieces of this deal, but I think three in particular are worth focusing on. The first mostly came together before anyone arrived in Paris, and that’s national goals and in some cases national plans for curbing the rise of emissions or for reducing emissions. So over the last year, the United States, China, India, Europe and others came forward with their own plans for reducing emissions.

The United States said that it would reduce emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. China said that it would peak its emissions by 2030, if not earlier, and would boost the role of non-fossil fuel energy in its economy. India said that it would cut the amount of emissions per unit GDP and would boost its use of renewable energy, in particular solar energy, by a large amount.

So while these weren’t the subject of negotiations in Paris, they’re actually the most important part of what’s been happening, and countries produced those so that they could show up in Paris with something to offer, put something on the table. So that’s piece number one, these national efforts.

Piece number two is a set of measures that I would generally put together in the category of transparency. There are elements of the agreement that require countries to be more transparent about what they’re doing at home and about where they’re heading in order to increase international confidence in their activities, and there are elements that aim to scrutinize not only what countries are doing now and what their emissions are now, but whether their policies are consistent with the promises they’ve made for the future, so whether they’re actually heading where they say they’re heading. And so that’s in this broad category of review. And that was a big focus at the negotiations, often a sticking point in the negotiations, but this whole set of measures around transparency and review I think is a critical part of what came out.

The last thing in the agreement that I think is essential is that the agreement contain a way of updating its content. When we came to the Copenhagen Accord in 2009 or the Cancun Agreements in 2010—those were the agreements made at the summits there—they were essentially one-offs. So countries agreed to take a series of steps. But then they had to renegotiate the entire structure of the Global Climate Regime in order to follow on.

What we have in the Paris Agreement is an arrangement that says every five years we’re not going to go back and rewrite this whole thing; each country will come back and update its national emissions-cutting plan. It will extend it further into the future and ideally make it more ambitious.

And the hope is that by shining a spotlight on countries’ plans every five years, there will be more political pressure to update and to execute more effective plans, sort of like there was over the past year for countries to show up in Paris with plans for the next 10 or 15 years.

So the national plans that already exist, transparency and review mechanisms to increase confidence, and a process for updating countries’ efforts over time without having to renegotiate the entire agreement from scratch, I think those are the three central elements that you ought to look at when assessing this deal.

FASKIANOS: So Michael, would you say that this deal is a winner?

LEVI: I wrote an analysis of the deal over the weekend that I titled “Two Cheers for the Paris Climate Agreement.” And I think that, measured against what’s realistic for foreign policy to accomplish, I think it is a win. We talk about climate change as a big foreign policy problem because so many countries are involved and there are so many incentives to want others to do the work for you, but the reality is that the big barriers to action on climate are mostly domestic; they’re domestic policy, they’re domestic implementation. And so taking an international agreement and saying we’re not going to negotiate what each country does, we are going to let each one come with whatever efforts it thinks it can make and then negotiate transparency rules, updating rules, fits better with the structure of the problem and with the limits to action on climate change.

So set up against that, against the fact that international negotiators can’t actually solve this for you, I think the summit and the agreement are a success. But this is climate change, so we shouldn’t only measure the outcome against what foreign policy makes possible; we should measure it against the sort of targets that are science-informed but ultimately based on value judgments that the world has generally adopted as goals in trying to avoid dangerous climate change.

But typically we talk about trying to avoid a 2-degree Centigrade rise, which is a 3.6-degree Fahrenheit rise in temperatures over pre-industrial levels. If you total up the various national plans that countries have put forward, they don’t get us to that. They still result in considerably larger risks than we ought to be running. So that’s why I only give it two cheers rather than three. It’s a reminder that this is not the solution to the problem. This is a platform that, if we take advantage of it, can help us do better at dealing with the problem, but most of the tough work remains to be done and most of the tough work will be beyond the framework of the international negotiations.

FASKIANOS: But what they came to, the deal that they came to, did they go further than you had expected them to?

LEVI: I think they went about as far as I think one reasonably could have expected them to, looking at this whether it’s a few weeks ago or a few months ago or even a few years ago. What we saw in 2009, in the last big summit, Copenhagen, is negotiators shot for the moon. They tried to do everything and they came up with close to nothing, at least as far as most of the participants were concerned. There was a lot of acrimony, a lot of disappointment. Here they set more realistic goals and generally accomplished them.

I mean, they focused on the things that the international process can actually contribute. They focused on transparency, they focused on shining a global spotlight on what countries are doing, rather than trying to accomplish things like policy transformation within an international process that’s really not suited, not suited to that.

FASKIANOS: So we’ve now come away from this deal. What is next?

LEVI: So almost everything is next. You’ve seen a lot of headlines saying this is the beginning. I don’t think that’s quite right. Countries have been trying to curb emissions for quite some time. But now all the follow-through begins. And I think there are two basic avenues that follow-through will proceed along.

The first is at the national level, so countries have put forward plans or goals, but now they have to flesh those out. So the United States has put forward a goal of cutting emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, but under existing policy and technology and markets, it’s not going to hit that. So the United States either needs new regulations under existing law, or new laws, in order to hit that target. And that’s tough. And every other country involved faces a similar predicament.

So the first big thing that we’re going to have to watch—and this will unfold over several years—is the fleshing out of national policies that actually accomplish the goals that have been set out. So that’s the first big area for next steps.

The other is on the international front and on the U.N. front. A lot of what’s in this deal sets up the basic parameters of what needs to be done but doesn’t have all the details. So, for example, the transparency mechanism says that all countries will be involved and they’ll all have to be reviewed and scrutinized, and it has elements like that but it doesn’t say what the process will be for reviewing and scrutinizing. It doesn’t say exactly what they’ll have to submit in order to qualify as being transparent. And so steps like that will need to be fleshed out, and that will be the subject of a mix of technical and political negotiations over the next year or so.

So there’s that international part that still needs to be fleshed out, and that could be tricky. I think it was difficult to agree on even the elements of the deal that came out on transparency. A lot of countries were worried about agreeing to open up their books too much. And so as they negotiate over what look like technical details over the coming year, they’ll actually be revisiting some of the bigger battles that they said they only partly resolved at the end of the Paris talks.

FASKIANOS: Great. Why don’t we open up to questions and comments, and then I have others that I can ask. So let’s go to the floor.

OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am. At this time we’ll open the floor for questions.

(Gives queueing instructions.)

Our first question comes from Egon Cholakian from Harvard.

CHOLAKIAN: Michael, good afternoon. I read your blogs. Thank you very much. Thanks for the update on the blog.

You mentioned in your introduction that the laws and regulations, with respect to the U.S., for instance, and the industrialized nations in general, would have to be adjusted or changed dramatically, and that would ensue over a period of quite a few years, or a number of years, at the very least. Into that equation you then would have to implement the various alternative energy means that would supplement or replace the current regime of energy systems.

Let’s take, for instance, nuclear, let’s take, for instance, wind, solar, wind, fusion energy. You get all the exotics that follow, none of which would take less than, I don’t know, eight, nine, 10, 20 years to implement by themselves individually. That would be after the laws and regulations have been amended. That’s a long process. And that counters virtually everything you mentioned with this every five-year period. Can you kind of mix that in and say where that falls into a five-year standing and what impact that has, since we have to go that route?

LEVI: Absolutely. So it’s a great question. You actually already see a lot of deployment of lower-carbon technology. So we’re seeing greater deployment of energy efficiency. We’re seeing extraordinary deployment, from a low base, of solar. You see wind deployed so much that in Texas it drives power prices below zero at night. You don’t see nuclear rolling out in this country in a big way, but in China you have considerable nuclear construction under way. And in this country you also see enormous replacement of coal with natural gas.

So these aren’t things that are starting from a cold start; these are things that are actually moving forward, and policy will be to accelerate those transformations.

Now, how does that fit into the time scales we’re talking about for reviewing and updating? Let’s take the U.S. one as an example. United States has this 2025 goal. It already has some of the pieces in place to try and meet it, and have the Clean Power Plan that is rolling out. These are restrictions on existing power plants. It has fuel economy standards for cars and trucks that are supposed to transform the fleet between now and 2025. That gets us part of the way there.

So then you’ll have to see other policies that push beyond that, both on carbon dioxide and probably on other greenhouse gases. So it’s not like you’re going from nothing to everything there.

When we come up in five years to review and extend our efforts, it won’t be about getting things done in the few years after then; it will be about extending our plans from 2025 out to 2030. And again, there will have been policy developments in the intervening years that will already start to bend the curve over that period, and then you’ll be looking at how to add to that.

So I actually think that it’s pretty—that the time scales work pretty well, particularly given the rapid pace of technological innovation. Had we said in 2010 we’re going to set a bunch of plans and revisit every 10 years because technology moves so slowly, we would have then had, in the next couple years, the shale gas explosion take off, would have waited till 2020 to take advantage of that and use it to replace coal with natural gas and reduce emissions.

So, better that we have a more frequent cycle. Worst case, we don’t have anything more we can do, but best case, new opportunities have arisen because of new markets and new technologies and we can take advantage of that. I think the five-year scale is about right.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question comes from Spencer Ross with the National Institute for World Trade.

ROSS: Since much of the pollution is caused by the industrial world, will there be some access to how the industrial world is performing under the goals which have been established, or will it be left entirely to governments to measure the progress?

LEVI: So the rules for transparency haven’t been fully fleshed out, but I expect something along the following lines. I expect countries to have to put forward fairly detailed presentations of what they are doing at home, but then that those presentations will be scrutinized by international teams and, if there are issues with them, for there to be a back-and-forth until those issues can be resolved.

So it’s a bit of a hybrid between countries being responsible for this themselves and international scrutiny. It’s a bit like the trade policy review mechanism that exists under the World Trade Organization, where countries contribute their own self-analysis but that’s then scrutinized. It requires a little bit less bureaucratic heft than some of the other review mechanisms that have been used in other regimes, but attempts to balance the different parts.

But we’re going to see how this negotiation proceeds. The one thing you’ll find is that U.S. negotiators will not accept any scheme where the scrutiny placed on developed countries is different from the scrutiny placed on developing countries. And that means that that hesitance on the part of India and on the part of China will probably be the limiting factor in how intrusive these transparency regimes are. I have a difficult time imagining that there is a transparency scheme that India would be comfortable with but the United States would say, no, that’s too intrusive.

Then one other piece. A part of the deal to get this transparency regime in place for emissions cuts was that there also be scrutiny of the efforts that each wealthier country is doing to help poorer companies deal with climate change, adapt to climate change and reduce their emissions. And so there’s also going to have to be an effort to flesh that out.

When the United States says we’re providing $3 billion a year to help poorer countries adjust to climate change, there’s going to be an assessment of whether that’s actually true, whether the United States is assessing that number by the same measures that others want it to be assessing that number. So there’s going to be transparency applied not only to emissions cuts but also to the help that’s provided for others with emissions cuts. And that could become controversial as well.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Michelle Bentsman from Harvard Divinity School.

BENTSMAN: Hi. You’ve addressed this question a little bit with speaking about transparency, but I’m wondering, in the analysis of the agreement, you mentioned the distinction between developed and developing countries is a vestige of an old way of thinking that could presage intense battles to come. And I’m wondering how we might reformulate these distinctions between countries and whether we should create new categories, and what sort of intense battles we should anticipate as a result of that.

MR. LEVI: We’ve tried to create new categories before and it’s never quite worked, because everyone wants to be in the category where they have to do less. What has generally been done is, while we have these categories in the formal side of these agreements, we’ve actually blurred them in the places that really murder. So every country has to bring an emissions-cutting plan to this process to be part of the agreement, whether you’re China or the United States or India or Japan. And so they’ve all done that, and that’s essentially created a spectrum of different kinds of efforts. And so it’s essentially sidestepped the developed/developing distinction.

I don’t think we’re going to ever get rid of it entirely, but again, we can in some ways work around it where that’s practical.

When I talk about potential of intense battles to come, I’m thinking in particular about debates over transparency. So I think there will be big fights over exactly what transparency means; who can be scrutinized; whether those doing the examining can say not only your numbers are right or wrong, but your policies are right or wrong. That’s going to be tough. That’s one big place.

The other will occur partly within the U.N. process and partly out of it, is yes, each country will independently come up with its emissions-cutting plans, but if over time there are countries using that flexibility to essentially free ride, to not do much, to not make the contribution they need to, I think there will be a lot of pressure, a lot of scrutiny on them, whether that’s in the formal U.N. process or not, and there will be a big push to get them to do more.

I mean, this year that was a secondary issue; the goal was to get everyone to make some contribution. Often in the jargon in the environmental world it’s called start and strengthen. So we’ve done the start part. I imagine that if some countries don’t really step up over the next five years, we will try to move on to the strengthen part.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Again, if you—

FASKIANOS: Go ahead.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

We’re now holding for questions.

FASKIANOS: Michael, we are obviously in the middle of—on the march to the presidential election. Do you expect climate change to play a significant role in the debate?

LEVI: I’m not sure what role climate change will play, if any significant one, in the general. It’s not playing a significant role in the Republican primary. It has played a real role in the Democratic primary. I think everyone is fighting to show that they are serious about climate change. But it’s tough to anticipate exactly what happens in the general election campaigns. And it will be interesting to see whether this Paris Agreement gets invoked. One of the debates that’s often had is over whether the United States should be asking if we’re insufficiently confident that others, particularly China, are up to the task. And you could see this agreement being invoked as part of an argument that the Chinese are acting, or you could see the agreement essentially attacked by those who want to say that we shouldn’t be using it to conclude that others are taking big steps on climate change.

FASKIANOS: Pope Francis came out with the encyclical in which there was a component on the environment and the morality of it. Do you think that this has influenced the public debate on climate change?

LEVI: I think it has. You know, each piece affects a different constituency, and the encyclical clearly—you know, it affected Catholics, but it certainly got attention well beyond. It, I think, again put the concern about climate change more into the mainstream. It allowed people to have a frank dialogue with the ethics of dealing with or not dealing with climate change. I think that was a significant part of what happened this year, that drew attention to the Paris conference and that helped put pressure on policymakers to really act.

We will—one thing that will be interesting to see in the coming years is whether there is sustained pressure on policymakers to act, because you did have this enormous confluence of events this year that pushed policymakers. There was the focus on Paris, there was the pope’s encyclical. These are things that made it tough for policymakers to ignore what was happening. But will this be recreated in 2016 and 2017 and 2018 and so on? And that’s a big question that remains.

FASKIANOS: And given that we have so many congregational and civic leaders on the call, can you talk a little bit more about what local leaders can do to address the threat of climate change, reduce current emissions in their communities, and continue to press countries to be more concerned about what they’re doing?

LEVI: Well, look. I think the Paris Agreement creates an opportunity. Reducing emissions is—people on this call know this—is not just something that happens at the national level; it’s something that happens through state and local governments, it affects everything from power plant and utility regulation to building codes that determine how well we—or influence how well we do on building efficiency and energy consumption. So there’s a host of ways that everyone contributes to either raising or reducing our emissions.

And then the general public attitude toward climate change matters. It influences the environment in which policymakers operate and that everyone has a role in shaping.

I’ll also emphasize that while it’s important to be increasing ambition on climate change, not every piece of increased ambition is always good. There are trade-offs here. There are things that one might do to reduce emissions that aren’t worth doing because they are too economically damaging or because they hurt the poor too much. And being frank about those ethical trade-offs and helping people navigate those is extraordinarily important.

FASKIANOS: Next question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question comes from Majed Ashy from Merrimack College.

ASHY: Yes, hello. Thank you very much. I have a question regarding the connection between the efforts now to reduce emissions and the need to have stable governments around the world and to reduce wars. For example, like in the Middle East we have all these governments that seem to be dysfunctional. How are they going to participate? And also the wars and the weapons, like, used in these regions. So are these things discussed, like the need to reduce wars and stabilize governments, to improve the climate situation? Thank you.

LEVI: So the Middle East has a lot of problems. And, you know, what we do about climate change can affect that in a variety of ways. First, most of the emissions in the world come from countries outside the Middle East. About 80 percent of the world’s emissions come from the top 20 emitters, and only one or two, depending on how you count, of those countries are in the Middle East, and they’re in the second 10 rather than the first 10. So those countries can focus on other things, primarily, for right now. That’s number one.

Number two, to the extent that the world reduces emissions substantially, it will probably do that in part by cutting the use of oil, which will reduce the price of oil, and so that will pose challenges to oil exporting countries in the Middle East.

They are already facing those challenges because oil prices are down for a host of other reasons—partly weak demand, partly strong supply. So the prospect of climate policy reducing oil demand only adds to impetus for those countries to get a handle on their economies, on their societies, and start to transform them to be more resilient to lower oil prices.

But the other—the final piece, and this is much more speculative and tentative, is about connections between the prospect of climate change and conflict around the world. And there’s a general view that climate change has the potential to exacerbate conflict, not to cause it by itself, but to make it more difficult. There are people who have claimed that climate change-driven drought in Syria was part of what drove conflict in that country. I think this is very early speculative work and it’s difficult to draw those connections with any confidence. And if you were to deal with climate change and reduce it over the following decades, that wouldn’t do anything for the situation in the Middle East now.

So I guess in order to sum up, I would say, look, the Middle East has very big problems; it shouldn’t be trying to solve those by dealing with climate change, at least not for the next couple decades. It should be trying to solve those in their own right.

ASHY: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Are there any other questions?

OPERATOR: At this time I am showing no questions in the queue.

FASKIANOS: Well, Michael, I guess you covered it all, so that there are no questions. I don’t know if you wanted to make a few concluding remarks before we wrap up.

LEVI: No. I think we’ve covered the landscape pretty well. If I want to leave you all with one thing, it’s that dealing with climate change is 90 percent about domestic policy. What was agreed in Paris provides an international foundation and some international help in moving that domestic policy along. But without follow-through and action from policymakers within each country that matters, and without the right political environment and the right ethical/moral environment created by people who are communicating about climate change, you’re not going to realize the potential of that agreement. And so now that Paris is done, we ought to be focusing on those pieces that really do matter and that really do bend the curve on emissions.

FASKIANOS: Well, Michael Levi, thank you very much for today’s conversation and to all of you for joining us. Again, I hope that you will follow Michael’s blog, Energy, Security, and Climate, and there are other contributors on that blog, as well as following him on Twitter @levi_m. And we also hope that you will join us again for our next call. We will be sending announcements for that.

So thank you all again, and we look forward to your continued participation.


This is an uncorrected transcript.

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