Preparing for the climate conference: saving the world, but without coercion

The climate summit in Paris will be about a soft treaty based on voluntary action. Only a small core is to become legally binding.

A reservoir in Alcora, Spain. Picture: ap

The crucial paper has eleven pages and a modest title: "US proposals for elements of the 2015 agreement." The letter is the blueprint for a global climate agreement in 2015, and it signifies a change of course in climate policy: away from an agreement that commits all states to climate protection, and toward a treaty that brings together the voluntary offers of the 195 states of the UN Climate Convention. The U.S. plan, which has been followed by about two dozen similar variants from many countries and groups, is therefore what one European negotiator calls "the mother of all proposals."

The climate diplomats are now wrestling over this mother and her children. The first of these was the biannual UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, which ends this Sunday. It is primarily about preparing for the climate summit in Paris in December 2015, where the new global climate treaty is to be concluded that includes all countries. This "Paris Protocol," as it is known internally, is supposed to accomplish many things – but one thing it doesn’t, which is still what many environmentalists are hoping for: a final settlement on how to keep climate change below 2 degrees and which countries have to do what to achieve it.

It is clear to everyone in the global climate community that there will be no precise roadmap to effective climate protection below 2 degrees Celsius in Paris. The conference would already be a success for the diplomats if the train to the 2-degree target could get underway and everyone was on board – even if they would still have to step on the gas to avoid arriving very late.

The end of the redemption fantasies

This makes the "Paris Protocol" a completely different agreement than the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 or the failed attempt at the Copenhagen climate agreement in 2009. At that time, climate activists were planning an international treaty that would prescribe mandatory climate protection measures for all countries and enforce them with sanctions. But this is precisely what the negotiations failed to achieve. The U.S., China and many emerging economies were unwilling to submit to this idea of a treaty.

"At the time, we associated Copenhagen with many fantasies of redemption," says a high-ranking EU negotiator self-critically today. Realism is now the order of the day ahead of Paris. Instead of a hard agreement, which the important players would not sign, as they did in Kyoto, a soft treaty is now the order of the day, but one that everyone will sign. The decisive proposals, which are to result in a draft text by the next climate conference in Lima in December 2014, provide for only one legally binding core: The 2-degree target, standards for calculating emissions, a pledge of aid to poor countries and a commitment to transparency.

The hottest issue, which countries reduce emissions and by how much, is to be spun off into an "Annex A." In it, all countries write down what reductions they can imagine. Under no circumstances, however, do the USA or China want to be legally bound by these targets.

Details to come later

Other parts of the agreement are to include financial aid, the development of renewable energies, and technology and research support. The emerging countries would like to see it stipulated that the industrialized countries are to blame for climate change, while the EU wants to ensure that no country lowers its ambitions. All the details will be negotiated over the next few months.

The new concept "is the answer to a changed world," says Christoph Bals, a climate expert from the development organization Germanwatch. "In Kyoto, the G7 could still resolve these issues among themselves. That’s over." The weak point of this system of "declare and verify," however, is: the goal is not being achieved so far. The declarations that the states made in Copenhagen in 2009 lead to a world that will not be 2 degrees warmer by 2100, but on average 3.5 degrees warmer.

What to do if future Paris declarations are no better? To clarify this, the countries are to present their ideas by March 2015 in such a way that they are comparable, the conference in Bonn decided. Almost certainly, the result will be a shortfall of billion tons of CO2 reductions to limit global warming to 2 degrees, as determined by the U.N. Environment Program (Unep). To close this gap, there would be no coercive means in the Paris Protocol, only public pressure. The hope of climate activists is that if an independent body from academia or civil society regularly clarifies how much or little individual countries are doing, no country will want to lose face – "at most, Russia won’t care what the world thinks of it," says one expert. They also point to the triumph of wind and solar power, which are becoming so cheap that they could displace coal.

Eco-associations condemned to realism

That’s why many negotiators in Bonn also called for stronger pressure from the environmental movement on politicians. "Nothing is decided at the conferences that has not been decided beforehand in the capitals," said Karsten Sach, the most experienced German negotiator. In Bonn, the NGOs therefore also presented their ideas for a public debate on "climate protection and justice." With the "Climate Justice Calculator," it is possible to track on the Internet which country contributes how much to climate change and which obligation it should have in climate protection.

"We are still calling for a legally binding agreement in Paris," said Alden Meyer of the climate network CAN. But eco-associations are also realists: five years ago, they were still presenting a "climate treaty version 1.0" in Bonn that had been worked out down to the last detail, and which only needed to be signed in Copenhagen. Before Paris, there is no longer any talk of such action.