Maintaining the Momentum of Paris

The creation of the Paris climate deal was a significant accomplishment, but far more important than signing the deal is following through on its commitments, and developing even more ambitious goals to mitigate the threat of climate change. The United States and the rest of the world should build on the momentum of Paris by providing developing countries with significant climate financing.

On December 12, 2015, negotiators in Paris representing almost every country in the world came to an unprecedented agreement to confront climate change at the twenty-first Conference of the Parties (COP21). The Conference of the Parties is an annual meeting that brings together the members of the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change which, prior to December 12, had made little headway toward global action on climate change.

The deal that came out of COP21, while far from perfect, has been lauded as a tremendous step forward and potentially the beginning of a new era of climate diplomacy. Realizing this potential will require strong leadership by the United States and other industrialized nations to build on the agreement’s momentum by strengthening their commitments to climate financing available for developing countries.

Maintaining momentum is essential because of how the Paris Agreement is structured. Historically, the chief challenge of climate diplomacy was finding a set of commitments that would meaningfully reduce emissions, be acceptable to all countries, and remain relevant in changing circumstances.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 1997 Kyoto Protocol attempted to address this challenge. The protocol segmented the world by income to create binding commitments for industrialized countries with nonbinding goals for developing countries. This approach failed as developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil became major emitters with nonbinding goals. Industrialized countries in turn largely rejected the deal by the time of the 2012 Doha Amendment that meant to renew the Kyoto Protocol through 2020.

The Paris Agreement addresses this challenge first by being more granular. All the signatories developed their own Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), emissions reduction plans tailor made for their own circumstances. While countries were required to submit INDCs, they are not legally binding. The only enforcement mechanism is the threat to the nation’s reputation globally for failing to follow through. This threat is reinforced through their agreement to the INDCs in an open and transparent forum.

The Paris Agreement is also designed to evolve over time. This year’s COP in Morocco will focus on a “ratchet” mechanism to increase commitments as technology improves and circumstances change. Looking further out, signatories agreed to submit new, even more ambitious, INDCs every five years.

Due to the voluntary commitments of each country to its plan and the intention for those goals to grow over time, the agreement depends on maintaining momentum in order to succeed in the long-run. As climate change is an evolving challenge, maintaining the status quo would be seen as failure, eroding confidence in the agreement, and making it more likely that countries would shirk their commitments. For the agreement to be successful, countries will need to make greater commitments and actions.

For example, recent U.S. policies show the significance of climate negotiation momentum. in the run-up to Paris, the United States came to bilateral agreements with China and India, showing that three of the biggest emitters are prepared to make large commitments. This increased the pressure on other countries to make similar strong commitments.

Such positive pressure is difficult to create, but easy to undermine. If the United States, China, and other major emitters are seen as reneging on their commitments, the pressure on other countries to keep their commitments will collapse.

The first step for industrialized countries to maintain momentum is to meet their internal emission reduction commitments made under the current agreement. Strengthening the long-term impact of the agreement, however, will require bolder action. In order to encourage other signatories, industrialized countries should follow through on, and even expand, their commitment to assist developing countries through climate financing.

In the Paris Agreement, industrialized countries agreed to provide $100 billion annually in public and private climate financing to less developed countries by 2020. However, this financing commitment is nonbinding and is similar to other financing commitments that failed in the past, such as the Green Climate Fund. Now is the time to take climate financing seriously by fulfilling this pledge with new aid specifically for climate neutral development, rather than relabeling existing aid and market-rate loans as “climate aid.”

Countries such as India have expressed a willingness to make even deeper cuts to their own emissions in exchange for climate financing. The rationale is simple. In purely economic terms, coal is still a much cheaper fuel source, but if industrialized countries subsidized cleaner options, such as wind and solar power, the environmental and health benefits of the cleaner options would be preferable to coal.

Helping rapidly developing countries to make sustainable choices now is crucial to the long-term success of the deal. China, India, and other countries are building power plants by the hundreds, and assistance in building renewable options to replace coal plants will help establish sustainable development.

Another important area of financial support is insurance against loss and damage. Loss and damage refers to the real tangible impact of climate change and the extreme weather it spurs. It includes the loss of ecosystems, low-lying land loss, and damage to infrastructure, such as ports and electrical grids damage.

Loss and damage has been a sticking point between industrialized and developing countries in the past. Developing countries insist that they deserve compensation for the consequences of climate change that they did little to create, while industrialized countries fear becoming liable for the consequences of natural disasters and bad weather if a strong compensation mechanism was implemented.

The compromise reached in the Paris Agreement, at the insistence of the United States, is that industrialized countries cannot be held liable for loss and damage. In exchange, industrialized countries will subsidize insurance premiums that would otherwise be too expensive for developing countries to help manage their risk.

Because of how important climate financing, particularly the compromise on loss and damage was to the Paris Agreement as a whole, it is crucial that the US and other wealthy countries be generous in these subsidies. Many developing countries, due to their limited capital, dependence on agriculture, and significant low-lying and marginal land, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

The economic and humanitarian benefits of climate financing and subsidies for loss and damage insurance are clear. The assistance would help the world to grow in a sustainable manner and to be resilient in the face of disasters. Just as important, such aid would help build confidence between the between countries in the next round of negotiations in 2020.

The need for climate financing exemplifies the fact that climate change is not a challenge that can be managed by each country alone, even if they make the right decisions. The world must work together and support each other in confronting this threat if it is to be managed.


Benjamin Dills is a Staff Writer for Charged Affairs. He is a program assistant with the Wilson Center’s Global Women’s Leadership Initiative (GWLI) and holds an MA in Security Policy Studies from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

Image:”Paris 2015 – COP21″ (credit: Le Centre d’Information sur l’Eau/Flickr)

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