• A huge jamboree involving thousands of official delegates, observers, journalists, and demonstrators – including an estimated 138 heads of government – will gather in Paris during the first half of December to address what some consider the most serious threat to mankind and even to existing life on earth, namely changes in climate resulting from human emissions of greenhouse gases, most notably carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil, and natural gas; methane and nitrogen oxides from modern agriculture; and carbon dioxide from global deforestation.

    The aim of the conference – the 21st conference of the parties (COP-21) under the Framework Convention on Climate Change in United Nations parlance – is to reach an inter-governmental agreement to limit (and even eventually reduce) emissions of greenhouses gases and to provide financing to poor countries both to mitigate emissions and to adapt to such climate change as is already as is likely from the atmospheric concentration of past emissions.

    Preparatory to the conference, over 150 countries – including the two largest emitters, China and the United States – made non-binding voluntary pledges to limit their emissions, which it is hoped will facilitate agreement. An earlier COP pledged that an agreement with legal force would be reached in Paris, effective by 2020, although what exacting was to be binding was left vague.

    The pledges take a wide variety of forms: absolute reductions in emissions from some base year (e.g. the USA), reductions in ratio of emissions to GDP (e.g. China, India), reduction relative to a projected baseline (e.g. Indonesia), and others. They are not easy to compare. Nonetheless, it has been calculated that if all the pledges are met, the global average surface temperature of the earth would increase by 2.7 degrees centigrade relative to the pre-industrial average temperature.  That compares with a pledge made by the world’s governments at the COP in Cancun in 2010 not to allow temperature to increase by more than 2 degrees.  In short, the pledges fall far short of the target.

    Two comments can be made about this comparison.  First, to calculate the 2.7 degrees required making a specific assumption about the sensitivity of the climate to greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere, as well as the amount of emissions that will remain in the atmosphere.  Both are scientifically uncertain.  Response to a doubling of greenhouse gas concentration from pre-industrial levels has ranged between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees for over a quarter century, despite billions spent on climate research during that period – an indication of just how complicated is the earth’s climate.  Where the sensitivity actually rests makes a big difference for human well-being.

    Second, the maximum 2 degree pledge is a declaration by many government on behalf of their political leaders – that is, a collective aspiration rather than a hard commitment by anyone.  It is the kind of aspirational commitment that politicians routinely make – and their successors routinely break – in political life.  It does however reflect acceptance that climate change beyond a certain point is dangerous for society as we know it.  It serves as a useful focal point for public discussion and possibly even for action.

    What of the conference? France has an accomplished diplomatic service, and France’s prestige is committed to a conference that is diplomatically successful. Laurent Fabius, French foreign minister and a former prime minister, has been enlisted to run the conference. France will work very hard to avoid the unproductive confusion that plagued the Copenhagen COP in 2009, and will probably succeed in reaching some positive outcome – in particular, in engaging all relevant countries in the mitigation effort, a dramatic and necessary improvement over the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, which ended in 2012.

    But a diplomatic success will be far from solving the problem, or even launching a successful path toward solving the problem.  Indeed, it is unlikely that the UN procedure, with 195 countries operating under a rule of consensus, can ever reach meaningful agreement to limit climate change.  Too many participants in diverse circumstances and with diverse interests.  The prospects are made worse by focusing on national emission targets rather than on actions.  National targets emphasize the distributional aspects of any solution – always present, but to emphasize them is a barrier to effective agreement.

    A major part of the negotiations will be over finances.  Developing countries have adopted the tiresome practice in virtually all their negotiations of demanding money from rich countries, even when the topic under negotiation would benefit them directly.  Rich countries have agreed in principle to provide financial help for both mitigation of emissions and for adaptation to climate change, to the tune of $100 billion annually by 2020, drawing on both public and private funds.  Much negotiation remains over the detailed modalities.  But some developing countries have gone beyond this and demanded payments for damages caused by climate change. That is a complete non-starter with some rich countries (including the United States), not least because of the impossible challenge of attributing any particular damage to changes in the climate.  Typhoons, after all, long preceded the arrival of human beings. If developing countries insist on this liability, even French skill may not assure a diplomatic success.

    Image Credit: Washington Post