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Dec 30, 2014 | 10:00 GMT

9 mins read

A Binding Global Agreement on Climate Change Will Remain Elusive

Heavy smog darkens the skies over Beijing in November 2014.
(Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Organizing a significant, global legal agreement at the U.N. Climate Summit in Paris in late 2015 will not be easy. Every country has its own priorities; for some, imposing constraints on economic growth by limiting greenhouse gas emissions is a political nonstarter. For others, moving toward renewable energy sources and limiting certain environmental risks — such as smog or rising sea levels — are top priorities. The 2014 U.N. Climate Summit in Lima, Peru, has helped to maintain some momentum for a climate agreement ahead of the Paris meeting, but if any deal is reached, it will be watered down and will lack concrete enforcement measures.

The countries that participated in the 2011 U.N. Climate Summit in Durban, South Africa, signed a pact to work toward a legal agreement that would be signed at the Paris summit in 2015 and come into force in 2020. Broadly speaking, the deal would require developed countries — primarily countries with higher emissions per capita — to bear the brunt of the climate deal's cost while developing countries would enact weaker measures (or no measures at all), in recognition of their inability to afford more expensive alternative energy sources. Under the envisioned deal, developed countries would give financial support to developing countries to help them meet their goals, with special consideration given to the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

On Dec. 14, negotiators from 196 countries concluded the 2014 U.N. Climate Summit in Lima — a sort of dry run for the December 2015 summit in Paris. The Lima meeting produced a loose framework for a deal that organizers hope will be signed in Paris. However, the Lima summit was also a reminder of the difficulties likely to hinder the development of a significant and legally binding climate treaty in Paris.

The summit organizers and others in favor of a deal had hoped the participants would agree on a draft of a treaty, protocol or other document that would include strong directives and specific countermeasures, but this did not happen. The proposed deal formulated in Lima included considerably toned-down language. The lack of a formative agreement means that reaching a comprehensive and robust climate deal will be difficult, if not impossible, when the countries meet again 12 months from now. Many of the grievances and divergent viewpoints that exist will make countries hesitant to agree to deals they perceive to be in conflict with their national interests.

The points under consideration after the Lima summit are similar to the original ideas behind previous iterations. Developed countries will still be called upon to do most of the work to curtail emissions and take other measures to fight climate change, and many developed countries will be called on to provide financial assistance to developing countries. However, two key changes raise questions about the impact of the deal.

First, each country is expected to submit its own plan, goals and targets for countering climate change by March 31, 2015. This means the final deal will reflect national policies and goals instead of the cooperative approach considered before. Allowing each country to set its own goals increases the likelihood of a deal being signed, but it means that the actual emissions targets will vary considerably from country to country, possibly limiting the treaty's effects. Countries with relatively loose environmental policies will likely retain that strategy, and many developing countries, including some of the world's largest polluters such as India, will likely set goals that are easily obtainable and do not threaten their development. As a result, the measures will have little impact on curbing global emissions.

Second — and perhaps more important — the agreement looks like it will not be legally binding, nor will it require a robust auditing or enforcement mechanism. This means countries are likely to abandon their commitments if the measures begin to hurt their economies.

Competing Interests and Climate Change

The impact of climate change has not grown strong enough to make it a core national issue that ranks above economic, military or other key national policies for most countries. Thus, while countries will adopt some measures, they are not likely to put other national interests in jeopardy. As with many multilateral or bilateral deals — whether a climate treaty or amendments to the EU agreement — countries will seek to put their national interests above all else.

Countries are often hesitant to sign legally binding deals  — as made evident by the United States' hesitance to sign the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, a pact already signed by most of the world (which relies on the United States to maintain maritime security). No country knows what challenges its economy or society will face in 2025, so signing a legally binding agreement that limits coal consumption or greenhouse gas emissions while setting firm targets for renewable energy standards for 2025 limits countries' ability to counteract problems they cannot predict with sufficient certainty. This is why setting a target is somewhat tenable but making it strong and binding is problematic.

While future economic challenges are unpredictable, so are the effects of climate change. The scientific community largely agrees that the world's climate is changing and that human activity is a factor, but significant uncertainties remain about the exact degree of humans' effects on climate change and the overall severity of the phenomenon, especially at the regional level. This makes it difficult for individual countries to enact environmental standards meant to combat or limit the effects of climate change 20 or 30 years in the future. The risk versus reward in making decisions on climate policy is difficult under these circumstances, and it is safer to make decisions based on the known economic constraints of new climate policy than on the vague future effects of the changing climate.

Furthermore, damage caused by climate change will initially occur in specific areas. For example, rising sea levels are currently affecting Kiribati and other island nations. Elsewhere in the world, some countries have seen benefits from climate change. More land is becoming available for farming in Canada, Russia and other colder climates, and Arctic shipping routes are opening up. The consequences of climate change will materialize slowly over time.

Because the future impacts are divergent, getting nearly 200 countries to agree to a landmark climate deal is difficult; such agreements have been problematic even on a small scale. For example, when the European Union came up with its 2020 and 2030 climate initiatives, getting member states to agree to a common policy proved difficult and led to a weakening of the initiatives' stated goals. Though the Europeans did sign a climate deal in October, several holdouts, such as Poland, were able to ensure that the final deal was a compromise. Even Europe — the only area in the world with a strong enough social movement to limit global greenhouse gas emissions — has struggled to balance each nation's interests with climate concerns, resulting in weaker targets than some countries had hoped for.  

Although the United States provided specific targets for its 2030 emissions levels when it signed a deal with China in November, Beijing was obviously reluctant to agree to a deal that specifically outlined targets for emissions reductions and instead opted for vaguer commitments. This shows that even though China, the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter, has made environmental standards a high priority, it does not want to put its economic health in jeopardy. China is only willing to go far enough to limit the social effects of climate change in the country. (Beijing's ban of coal-fired power plants to clean up air in the city is an example of this.) India's strategy is very similar.

The Potential Effects of a Deal

For developing countries, the impact of the climate deal will be fairly limited. While most countries will likely submit targets that are fairly easy to hit, the truth is that most developing countries — particularly those in Africa — will still be developing a decade from now. Unless they are experiencing some of the strongest effects of climate change, their governments will prioritize economic development over environmental protections. They will say that because the developed world was built on rampant fossil fuel usage, they should be allowed to do the same. This does not mean developing countries' energy sources will not burn cleaner, however. Coal is likely to remain a priority because it is widely available at cheap prices (although this could change), but new technology and aid from developed countries will make developing countries' power plants significantly more efficient, with lower emissions than historical averages.

In any sort of climate deal, whether weak or strong, developed economies will have to shoulder most of the cuts to emissions.

This largely means voluntarily placing restrictions on fossil fuel usage — or slowly moving away from coal and toward cleaner fossil fuels and renewables — and financing projects for developing countries. However, in the 2020s — when the climate change treaty is set to take effect — much of the developed world, including Japan and Europe, will be coping with demographic decline. The economic consequences that come with such a decline will cause countries to rethink their strategies, especially if they have begun moving toward more expensive energy options — although by then, alternative energy sources such as renewables could become more cost competitive with fossil fuels.

As the Kyoto Protocol — the first binding international agreement on emissions — has shown, significant compromises must be made to reach a deal that everyone can agree to. Although the Kyoto Protocol can be viewed as successful in the sense that several countries hit their targets, it did not result in the slowing of global emissions and lacked real enforcement for its mandates. Ultimately, climate change policy can be viewed as a spin on the classic prisoner's dilemma. No single country can single-handedly impact global emissions levels, so unilaterally reducing emissions does not make sense unless the rest of the world does so as well. However, developing countries — including seven of the eight most populous countries in the world — could massively increase their per-capita energy consumption as they develop. While the goals of the 2015 Paris climate summit may be well intentioned, the results will be largely ineffective.

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