In just a few weeks, negotiators from nearly every country in the world will gather at a sprawling airfield outside Paris to secure a new international agreement on climate change.
The goal of the Paris gathering – known as the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP21 – is a verifiable accord that allows countries to make and meet commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The Paris agreement can also establish the rules of the road for how countries monitor and report their emissions and reductions – so that the rest of the world knows that they are following through, and can hold accountable those who do not.
Of course, we already know that COP21 won’t solve everything.
For one, the targets that countries take on will not be binding under international law – something that would likely require approval by the U.S. Senate. In the current political climate, that appears unattainable for any treaty that needs implementing legislation, let alone one on climate change.
The silver lining here is that non-binding commitments can actually encourage greater ambition and participation, both of which are essential to an effective international response to climate change.
But we also know that the Paris talks alone won’t deliver emission reductions needed to meet the long-term goal of keeping global temperatures from rising beyond 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit – a widely agreed-upon objective, and a level that scientists believe would avert the most severe impacts of climate change.
Meeting that goal will require sustained ambition over time, well beyond the 2025 or 2030 horizon of the Paris commitments.
What Paris can do is to set the stage for the world to turn the corner on global emissions. That turning point comes when global emissions finally stop rising after climbing for centuries, level off and begin to fall.
This is why the commitments countries make in Paris are just the first step. Equally important is the framework the new climate agreement establishes for countries to report on their progress and ratchet up their ambitions over time.
Here are four wins we need to make COP21 a success in the short term:
- Robust commitments to reduce emissions, especially from top emitters such as the United States, the European Union, China, Brazil and India. So far, more than 150 countries, accounting for more than 90 percent of global emissions, have made pledges, known as “intended nationally determined contributions,” or INDCs.
- An agreement on measuring and reporting emissions. As my colleague Alex Hanafi, an attorney with Environmental Defense Fund’s delegation to Paris, recently noted: “When countries see that other countries are keeping their commitments, it will build confidence and trust.”
- An agreement to periodically strengthen pledges to reduce emissions. As technology advances, EDF and others are urging that emissions reduction plans be kept as stringent as possible. This, in turn, signals to the private sector that low-carbon development is a national priority.
- Commitments to the U.N. Green Climate Fund and other channels of assistance that help vulnerable nations make the transition to a low-carbon economy and manage the impacts of climate change. Wealthy countries pledged in 2009 to mobilize $100 billion a year from public and private sources by 2020 and Paris can help show that goal is within reach.
Will countries continue to push for more funding, deeper cuts in emissions, and innovative policies that set us on the right course?
We see a number of signs pointing in the right direction. The challenge for the climate negotiators who will gather in Paris this month is to capitalize on that momentum – and start to make the turn toward climate safety.