A guide to the Paris Climate Summit

A guide to the Paris Climate Summit

From November 30th to December 11th, Paris will celebrate what may be the last opportunity for a global agreement to reduce global warming.

A guide to the Paris Climate Summit GettyImages-496004528.jpg

By Clemente Álvarez: @clementealvarez

“The major international climate conference event will not only still go ahead, but it will also be a moment of hope and solidarity.” With these words, President François Hollande reaffirmed the continuity of the Paris World Climate Conference, following the terrorist massacre of November 13 th in that city. It remains to be seen how it will affect the crucial UN conference (major street marches have been cancelled for the time being, but  public demonstrations and ceremonies have been authorized on the summit premises, at Le Bourget). But for now it's done nothing more than heighten concerns for a meeting that is difficult in and of itself, given the bad experience of the previous 20 climate summits.


From November 30 th to December 11 th, Paris will celebrate what may be the last opportunity for all countries to reach a global agreement aimed at reducing global warming. This pact should become enforceable in 2020. These are five keys for understanding such a transcendental conference, the COP21, marked beforehand by fear and sadness.

1. The US represents a labyrinth that stands in the way of adopting a binding agreement.

The Paris Climate Summit will begin with  a chaotic draft consisting of more than 50 pages, with some interesting advancements. But there's one point of contention that has made these negotiations stall for 20 years: How will the agreement force countries to comply with their commitments? Most of the states are in agreement with respect to a pact that will be binding (even the G20 has been in support of an agreement that has “legal power” and is “applicable to all”), but this faces an immense obstacle: the United States. 

Although President Obama has taken up the banner to fight against climate change, it's certain that he's not in a strong enough position to bring Congress an international treaty with mandatory commitments.

A little bit of history here: The only accomplishment during the past 20 years of negotiations has been the Kyoto Protocol (which compels only wealthy countries to reduce emissions). This international treaty did not amount to much because it did not include commitments for China and was not ratified by the US (together, these two countries generate almost 41% of the world´s green house effect gases). The US Constitution says that international treaties must be approved by two thirds of the Senate. In the case of Kyoto, by a vote of 95 to 0, this body passed the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, which rejected having the US join any kind of climate treaty that did not also apply to developing countries, or one that might harm the economy. Lest we forget, on November 17, 2015,  the Senate again passed a resolution that went against Obama’s plans to reduce emissions from the nation’s electric power plants.

Would any legal options allow Obama to steer the US into a binding climate agreement? A May 2015 report from Arizona State University explained that, depending on the kind of agreement reached in Paris, three possibilities may emerge: it could need more than two thirds of the votes in the Senate; it could just need a vote in Congress; or it may simply need the president’s support (by way of an executive action). For Obama, the best bet is the third one, but he'd only be able to accomplish this if the agreement does not include concrete obligations for reductions or funding. Such an international pact would only compel the US to comply with national laws or commitments.

2. An important step toward reducing emissions, albeit insufficient.

There has been progress in defining how much each country would curtail its climate-changing gases. Prior to the upcoming Paris Summit, almost all countries had already told the United Nations what their national contributions would be to reducing emissions. The global target is to have the Earth’s average temperature rise no more than 2°C, considered to be the safety limit.  The US has agreed to reduce its gases by 26-28% by the year 2025 (with respect to 2005), China to reach its peak emissions by 2030 at the latest, and curtail them that year by 60-65% per GDP unit (with respect to 2005), and the European Union to reduce them by 40% by 2030 (with respect to 1990)… Thus it is for more than 160 countries in the world ( here are all of them). However, according to what the International Energy Agency has calculated, this is insufficient. Even if there is compliance with these countries’ contributions, by the end of the century the planet’s surface will have warmed up by 2.7°C.


Then how are we to succeed in having these countries increase their commitments? An option that seems to have wide support is the revision of these contributions every five years. Now then, the agreement that may emerge from Paris would be applicable starting in 2020, thus the reductions would not be revised until 2025. “We cannot wait 10 more years and do nothing,” states Lou Leonard, vice president of the climate change program at the WWF in the United States.  He believes there are other ways to increase the states’ expectations: Explore ways of achieving more curtailments prior to 2020, involve other actors (such as corporations or cities), and lend support to those countries willing to commit to more (many countries, such as Mexico or Colombia, have demonstrated their willingness to accept more ambitious reductions, if they are given assistance).

3. 100% Long-term carbon reduction. 

Another point being debated is the inclusion of an agreement on longer-term commitments, which would establish dates for concepts such as ‘total carbon reduction in the economies’ or ‘zero emission economies’. The battle against climate change means nothing more than to disengage the economies from fossil fuels. According to a study published in Nature in 2015, in order for the planet’s temperature not to rise more than 2°C, it is necessary to leave underground, and untouched, one third of the petroleum reserves, one half of the gas and more than 80% of the coal.

As could be expected, there are still great differences of opinion on this subject. “It generates many susceptibilities, mainly in developing countries that are petroleum producers, such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Saudi Arabia, or South Africa,” explains Teresa Ribera, director of the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) in Paris. “It is a very delicate issue; if there is any reference to this it is probably very prudent.”


All things considered, what is most troublesome is not sealing agreements for 2050 or 2080 now, but rather to jumpstart, once and for all, the plan for reducing emissions on a global scale. As for the United Nations, if the Paris Summit goes well, everything will pick up speed. “This has nothing to do with perfect accounting, but rather with assuring that governments oversee the transition, accept the fact that there is no turning back and that they do so on a foundation of collective solidarity,” Ribera says.

4. Solidarity among countries: $100 billion per year in order to adapt.

This is one of the crucial points in the negotiations. Climate change has a very unfair part: the people who have been least guilty of generating the problem are the ones who are going to suffer the most from the consequences (droughts, melting ice, floods, storms, rise in sea levels…). Though the reduction of emissions has advanced, many issues remain on how to help developing countries adapt to a warmer planet and a more extreme climate. The main question is, starting in 2020, who will pay for an annual $100 billion commitment made since the Copenhagen Summit? There are many other issues that leave in question how this international solidarity will translate.

5. A single country can block the agreement.

If the very challenge of convincing countries to break with the economic development model based on fossil fuels were not already complicated enough, this kind of summit has a peculiarity that makes it even more complicated: its voting system. In the jargon of negotiations, in Paris, there is a meeting of the Conference of the Parties, which is the supreme body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (CMNUCC). In the first one of these summits in 1995 (in Berlin), a body of regulations was voted on requiring the majorities for voting, but there was no agreement. The usual practice at the United Nations is to have the states decide background issues by consensus, and that they resort to a vote as a last resort. Given that, in this case, there are no norms for the voting process, important matters can only be approved if there is a consensus among the 195 countries (or parties). All it takes is for one country to oppose a measure for it not to be adopted as a binding decision. This is much more democratic, but it has also generated some distorted situations at previous summits.


The complications are many, and yet, according to Leonard, “we’ve never had a moment like this before.”

[Latest update to this text: November 20]

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