PARIS - As the "high level" final negotiations escalate this week at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris, pledges by Individual Nationally-Determined Commitments (INDCs) are coming up short. Climate Interactive, the NGO tallying commitments and translating them into estimates of global warming, said Monday that national pledges in the run-up to Paris have diminished the global warming trajectory by the end of the century from about 4.5 °C (8.1 °F) to about 3.5°C (6.3°F) above pre-industrial levels. However, scientists and diplomats in 2009 seemed to agree that the target had to be 2 °C (3.6 °F) to avert lifestyle-altering species extinctions and weather swings.
But the voluntary approach, which contrasts markedly with the Kyoto Protocol, a deeply flawed but legally binding agreement approved by scores of national governments - but which nevertheless did not bind the US, China, India, or other major greenhouse gas polluters - seems to have an increasing number of detractors, even though the entire international community wants desperately to see the Paris talks succeed. Regardless of the Paris outcome being negotiated among some 200 nations of the UN, some actors in the private and public sectors believe that other political actors are playing an increasingly critical role.
Christine Lins, executive director of REN21, an NGO which has inventoried the growth of renewable energy sources worldwide for a decade, argues that new market competitiveness has meant that "The energy transition [from fossil fuels to renewables] is happening and cannot be stopped, regardless of any Paris agreement." Optimistic that an agreement will emerge this week, Lins nonetheless argued that the price drop and efficiency gains in solar energy photovoltaic technology and the increased use of wind energy have spurred an increase in the use of renewables, which accounted for 18 percent of the world's energy needs in 2010, but which the UN seeks to double by 2030.
In the public sector too, subnational actors are sharing the stage in Paris. "This has to be a bottom up effort around the world to solve climate change," argued Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie, part of a worldwide Compact of Mayors, composed of 608 reporting entities covering eight percent of the world's population, which seeks to measure and manage greenhouse gas emissions at the local level. Cownie shared a side event stage with mayors from six continents who all reported that while the world still expected a diplomatic solution, the issue was too important to leave solely to national representatives.
Additional blogs this week will consider several central issues in the climate change debate before a wrap-up next week sums up the achievements and shortcomings of the Paris UN agreement.: the scope of fossil fuel subsidies and how these nullify climate change gains, efforts to marketize the issue by pricing carbon emissions, and the social issues faced by the world's most vulnerable nations. None of these issues are the exclusive purview of the United Nations, but the meeting which wraps up this week will condition the world's expectations about whether human society is ready to make needed sacrifices for the quality of life of our children, and, in some cases, ourselves.
As each nation's INDCs fall short, it becomes even clearer that a greater commitment is needed than one obtainable via the UN approach, where every single nation (regardless of population, GDP, or emissions) gets an equal vote. Parting from the premise of the US-China bilateral agreement, pledging somewhat reduced emissions - albeit insufficiently - over the decades ahead.
Along these lines, if just four countries - China (27 percent of emissions), the US (17 percent of emissions), India (5 percent of emissions) and Russia (5 percent of emissions) were able to join together in pledging stronger individual nation commitments, these could govern over half of the world's emissions without requiring the unanimous approval of 200 nations. While Russia's policies are unpredictable, if China, India, and the European Union (over 8 percent of emissions) joined the effort, this end could still be achieved.
The deal to be achieved in Paris will no doubt fall short of environmentalist expectations. But even so, if negotiators move even a small step in the direction of a shared and real sacrifice, of the kind made by the "greatest generation" in wartime, this demonstration of sacrifice for the common good will ripple through the sector, boosting economies, good will, and esprit de corps. Let us covey this to our politicians and diplomats, and hold them bottom up accountable.