How to measure success at the Paris Climate Conference

This article originally appeared on the Australian Institute of International Affairs website.

Will the Paris Climate Change Conference measure up?

The answer to that question, of course, depends on what you are measuring success against. And it is very important that we have a clear idea of not only the short-term objectives, but where the Paris COP (Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) meeting sits in the longer term effort to control climate change. Failure to understand these goals can present a misguided picture of outcomes.

Take the 2009 Copenhagen COP meeting, for example. Expectations for that meeting were extraordinarily high. Many expected the Copenhagen meeting to resolve the issue, with legally binding targets that would get emissions under control and pave the way to stabilising the climate system. When those goals were not met, the meeting was uniformly reported as a failure by the media and by environmental groups.

In retrospect, the Copenhagen COP meeting was a considerable success. First, despite unprecedented attempts to undermine the scientific understanding of human-caused climate change, the assembled politicians at the Copenhagen COP accepted the scientific evidence assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that humans are causing climate change.

Second, the meeting agreed to limit human-caused climate change to a maximum rise of 2oC in global average temperature, compared with the pre-industrial baseline. This has now been reaffirmed and is well established as the global climate policy target.

The Copenhagen COP was also important for another reason – state leaders, prime ministers and presidents participated. This clearly elevated climate change from being “just” an environmental problem to being a complex social, economic and environmental challenge that threatens the well-being of all humans on Earth.

Therefore, the Copenhagen COP was a landmark meeting that achieved several important milestones in meeting the climate change challenge.

Why is Paris different?

In contrast, the Paris COP meeting is already a success – even before it is held. The preparatory work has been outstanding and the results impressive.

For the first time, countries are coming into a COP meeting with their emission reduction targets on the table. This will avoid the sort of wrangling we saw in Copenhagen over precise details of targets and timetables. More importantly, we now have a clear picture of where the world stands in relation to meeting the 2oC policy target.

Perhaps just as important as preparations for the meeting itself, expectations of the outcome have been managed much better this time. There is no expectation that the Paris meeting is the “be-all and end-all” of climate negotiations, nor do we expect a legally-binding agreement. In fact, it would be perhaps counterproductive if a legally-binding agreement emerged.

Rather, the Paris COP meeting is a critically important waypoint on the long journey to stabilising the climate system. For the first time, all countries are publicly putting forward their commitments to tackle climate change, and so we can piece together an overall judgment of where we stand as a global community.

The result of this synthesis is interesting. If all countries meet their Paris commitments, the world is headed for something around a 3oC temperature rise by 2100 compared with the pre-industrial baseline, or perhaps something a bit lower. This is still not enough, but the critical point is that the ambitions of countries, especially the big emitters like the United States and China, have been increasing with time.

This is why a legally-binding agreement is not so important. The climate policy landscape is fluid and dynamic, generally moving in a positive direction as countries understand that rapid technological developments, such as renewable energy systems, are making solutions more feasible than they appeared just five years ago. This is why we don’t want to lock in interim targets in a legal framework.

So, already a success, how should we measure further progress in Paris?

The conference could achieve a framework for accommodating the fluid nature of climate pledges. For example, this could take the form of a formal review and re-commit process at five-year intervals. This will allow countries to increase their ambitions as low-carbon technology advances further, along with other solutions, and as the risks of climate change become better known.

Second, the Paris conference needs to make progress on the funding and operation of the so-called “Green Climate Fund”. This instrument aims to provide financial support to the poorer countries of the world to help them adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change, which preferentially hit the world’s least developed countries. It also provides the means for poorer countries to develop along low-carbon pathways rather than follow the historical, fossil fuel-driven pathway of the industrialised world.

Implementing the Green Climate Fund is complex. Much work needs to be done before it will become operational. The Paris COP meeting will not solve all of the contentious issues around the Fund, nor should it be expected to. However, substantial progress towards resolving the thorny issues as well as a clear pathway for further progress on the Fund would be an outstanding outcome at Paris.

Significant challenges will remain after Paris. Moving from the current targets-and-timetables approach for measuring ambition to the more scientifically sound carbon budget approach is one of them. Developing detailed pathways for achieving the promised emission reductions is another.

However, the careful preparation for the Paris COP has already made it a success. Further progress in Paris will cement its legacy as a key milestone along the long and winding road to stabilising the climate system.

Originally published November 20, 2015, CC BY AIIA.
Images CC BY 2.0 UNFCC