Scaled-Back Paris Talks May Boost Climate Deal's Prospects

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By Dean Scott

Nov. 25 — World leaders from 147 countries will arrive in Paris for two weeks of talks to open Nov. 30, which are widely viewed as the last best hope of getting a global climate change deal after 20 years of only incremental progress toward an agreement.


The Paris summit of 200 nations comes in the wake of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in the city, which have triggered far more heightened security—including what French officials described as “exceptional measures” such as road closings—in advance of world leaders arriving Nov. 29-30 ( See related story)..


Demonstrations and other climate events originally to be held on the sidelines of the Paris talks have either been canceled or scaled back. But leaders, including President Barack Obama, are still heading to the talks to deliver speeches to open the summit Nov. 30 and press negotiators to seal a climate deal.


French President Francois Hollande said the country was moving forward with what he said will be an historic summit—France in its history has never hosted so many leaders, he said—as a symbol of international cooperation in the face of the terrorist attacks. “I think there cannot be any better symbol or response but to hold the conference in Paris where the attacks took place,” he said.


Barring unforeseen events, there is increasing optimism the international climate negotiations—which have made progress only in fits and starts in more than 20 years of talks—will produce a global climate accord at the end of the Nov. 30-Dec. 11 summit. The goal has eluded negotiators since the signing of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the parent treaty to whatever deal is reached in Paris, which called for stabilizing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”


Honing in on a Deal

Six years after the last attempt at a global deal led to a near-collapse of the 2009 talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, negotiators appear to many longtime observers of the talks to be honing in on a deal that would include an overarching commitment from developed and developing nations to curb greenhouse gas emissions. It also may include a pledge to move the world toward a low-carbon or even no-carbon economy sometime later this century, and include specifics on the $100 billion a year in climate aid developed nations pledged beginning in 2020 to help developing nations vulnerable to climate impacts.


One possibility is that scaling back the summit with fewer public events may mean fewer distractions for negotiators who can focus on the task at hand when they converge on the UN talks at La Bourget airfield north of the city center.


But countries of the world face a daunting task of hammering out a host of issues before they can declare victory. Those include the legal nature of the deal; a way to strengthen the nation-by-nation emissions pledges over time without reopening the Paris agreement; and whether to include a global goal to keep temperatures from rising beyond 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) this century compared to pre-industrial times.


Prospects for sealing a deal in Paris got a boost in November 2014 from a joint U.S.-China announcement in which China pledged to peak its emissions by 2030, and perhaps sooner, after which emissions would presumably decline. The U.S. vowed to cut its emissions 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025, using 2005 emissions levels as a baseline.


A Shift Away From Kyoto

Because the U.S. opposes a legally binding treaty that would be dead-on-arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate, the pledges that nations put on the table in advance of the Paris talks would anchor the international agreement but are not expected to be legally binding. However, there are plenty of voices still calling for a binding deal, including negotiators from the European Union and France but also many developing nations hardest hit by climate impacts.

That is likely to mean a deal akin to the U.S.-backed New Zealand proposal, which would shift the global deal away from the binding nature of the Kyoto Protocol, which was signed during the Clinton administration but abandoned under President George W. Bush.


Other elements of the Paris deal, however, are more likely to be binding, such as transparency and measuring requirements to verify that nations make good on their emissions pledges.


“The system that we've advocated for, where some provisions are legally binding but targets themselves are not, is the one that we believe is designed to maximize ambitious action from the broadest range of countries,” Paul Bodnar, the National Security Council's senior director for energy and climate change, told reporters Nov. 24.

“That, in fact, is the lesson from Kyoto and other previous approaches,” Bodnar said.


Do More Than Declare Victory?

The NSC official echoed other U.S. officials, including top climate negotiator Todd Stern, who warn negotiators need to do more than simply declare victory by reaching an overly vague deal that puts off tougher decisions to future negotiations (See previous story, 11/25/15).


The Paris deal, Bodnar said, must “be a long-term solution, not a stopgap,” and include “mechanics for regular updating” of the emissions pledges every few years or so.


If the deal includes such a mechanism to ensure it can be strengthened, the Paris summit is far more likely to be viewed a success, Stern, who serves as Special Envoy for Climate Change, told reporters Nov. 24.


But a deal without that mechanism to ratchet up the emissions pledges or other key elements such as transparency, measurement and verification requirements would likely be judged a failure, he said.


To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at

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