A stage and a spotlight for action: Why the Paris climate talks are different

Nat Keohane

We’ve come a long way since nations failed to reach an international climate agreement in Copenhagen six years ago.

No, we haven’t been able to halt the rise in greenhouse gas emissions or stabilize global temperatures. 2015 will likely be the hottest year on record.

What’s changed – even just in the past year  –  is the global resolve to address climate change in a meaningful way. Also new are the actors and, importantly, how these nations interact with one another.

This has changed expectations and clarified what the United Nations climate talks that kick off Nov. 30 can and must deliver.

A new approach for global climate action

The aim of the Paris conference, known as COP21, is to finalize a new agreement that will take effect in 2020 and provide a framework for climate action for the decades to come.

Gone are the days, however, when negotiators assigned obligations from the “top down” – and in the process left some countries out of the picture entirely. Paris embodies a new approach: Countries are now taking the lead, determining their own levels of commitments.

The goal is to get the broadest possible participation, and it’s working. More than 170 countries, accounting for well over 90 percent of global emissions, have submitted official pledges outlining what they will do to cut carbon pollution.

In effect, the U.N. process provides a “stage” for countries to make commitments – and to step up their efforts.

The flip side of this approach is that the Paris agreement must also establish a high bar for rigor and transparency in how countries report, verify and account for their emissions over time.

This spotlight fosters credibility and trust among countries, and helps build on the momentum that’s been growing worldwide.

Decentralization: The new paradigm

The Paris conference also heralds a new era of decentralized climate action – one that is driven by action in countries and states and provinces and cities around the world, rather than by the U.N. alone. 

This may be the single most significant shift since Copenhagen.

Two months ago, China announced it will roll out a national emissions trading program in 2017 – set to be the largest in the world, surpassing the European Union’s.

Earlier in the year, the Canadian province of Ontario announced it will develop its own cap-and-trade program and link up with the existing California-Quebec carbon market. Such market-based policies give industry a powerful incentive to reduce emissions.

In this new context, cooperation takes the form not only of a U.N. agreement but of a multitude of bilateral agreements, new coalitions, and public-private partnerships with business and civil society – reflecting the increasingly transnational nature of the world economy.

To its great credit, the U.N. has embraced this new reality, even creating a platform to showcase efforts outside the negotiations themselves.

No longer just a rich-country problem

Coming into Paris, there is a collective recognition that climate change is everybody’s problem – and that all countries, not just wealthy ones, need to do their fair share.

China has committed to peak its emissions by 2030. Brazil, which has reduced deforestation emissions by more than 75 percent in the last decade, took on an absolute cap on economy-wide emissions below historical levels. Even India has gotten into the mix, pledging a rapid build-up of solar power, among other measures.

Of course, the United States and the E.U., where emissions are already trending down, must do more. They also have a responsibility to help developing countries transition to robust low-carbon growth and adapt to climate change – as well as a strong self-interest in doing so.

The key test for success is whether the framework and the commitments made in Paris set the world on the right path to finally halt and reverse the centuries-long rise in emissions – and eventually put us on a downward trajectory toward climate safety.

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