Let’s make a deal: World leaders in Paris to limit global warming

After months of negotiations and analysis, world leaders are in Paris to strike a deal that would slow climate change. At least that is the plan. U.N. climate change conference attendees will hash out a deal over the next two weeks with the hope that it would have global support, unlike its predecessor the Kyoto protocol.

Much of the focus is on striking a balance that will please the major global economies – which happen to emit the most carbon gas – as well as the developing countries that are still looking to carbon-heavy industrialization as a road out of widespread poverty. The goal is to limit global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, and to do that, we must cut emissions.

The event started off well rhetorically, with the U.S. admitting its major contribution to the global problem.

“I’ve come here personally, as the leader of the world’s largest economy and the second-largest emitter, to say that the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it,” President Obama said at the conference today. “We know the truth that many nations have contributed little to climate change but will be the first to feel its most destructive effects.”

Pledges made in advance of the conference are predicted to limit global warming to 2.7 degrees, beyond the 2-degrees target. One hope is that the final agreement would require updated emission targets every few years so that major emitters like the United States, China and European Union could make changes that would limit global warming even further than their current commitments.

greenhouse predictionsPrivate sector leaders made a foray into the effort through the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Meg Whitman and Jack Ma are just a few of the people behind the initiative. The basic idea would be to expand access to non-carbon emitting energy around the world – including places that do not have access to energy right now. The group says it will put money behind finding such solutions via research and innovation.

“The existing system of basic research, clean energy investment, regulatory frameworks and subsidies fails to sufficiently mobilize investment in truly transformative energy solutions for the future. We can’t wait for the system to change through normal cycles,” according to the coalition website.

Getting a final deal requires clearing a few significant hurdles. India is leading the charge among developing countries to say that economic growth and development should not come at the cost of cutting emissions. The countries argue that the burden for cuts lies with the wealthiest nations. A meeting between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping today in Paris shows that the two leading emitters are continuing work to build on the joint climate change commitment unveiled earlier this year.

[I]t’s very important for China and the United States to be firmly committed to the right direction of building a new model of major country relations … and partnering with each other to help the climate conference deliver its expected targets,” Xi said in a statement following the meeting.

The other issue focuses on ensuring that the agreement is put into action. A deal made 20 years ago in Kyoto, and more recently in Copenhagen, was high on ideas and low on commitment. Some countries want a legally binding framework included in the Paris agreement as a mechanism to prevent countries from backing out, or allowing opposition legislatures, like in the U.S. from torpedoing the agreement. It is that very reason why the U.S. does not want something overly binding. Republicans are, by and large, already opposed to a global climate change deal. Making it internationally binding would make matters worse.

Finally, there is the small matter of $100 billion. Wealthy countries committed that amount annually to finance and support climate-change-related efforts in developing countries. It is one of the few successes from the Copenhagen talks, but is also in need of more commitments to achieve the financing goal. The new agreement may not formally involve a financing mechanism, but getting countries to pony up will be a point of discussion.

For environmental activists, this meeting is a big deal. Protests were banned in Paris following the terror attacks earlier in November, but the message is clear – global warming must be slowed down.

“The world is looking to you,” said Christiana Figueres, the head of the U.N.’s climate change negotiations, to the conference delegates and world leaders. “The world is counting on you.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.