What we can expect from COP21

What we can expect from COP21

Following the Paris attacks, the UN’s upcoming Climate Change Conference has been maintained. Commonly described as critical for climate efforts on political agendas, it might be more efficient in raising public awareness and encouraging business support rather than in proper international negotiations.

Expectations are high. However, it is only following a tumultuous path punctuated by a series of international conferences that have been inconclusive so far to make significant impact on GHG emissions.

Where do we stand?

Paris will be the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP). An international process that has started twenty years ago at the first COP in Berlin, following the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) established in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit.

So far, only one binding agreement has emerged from these years of negotiations to tackle climate change mitigation: the Kyoto Protocol signed in 1997. It was a success in the sense that it contained legally binding mitigation targets.

However, its impact on actual GHG emissions was limited as major polluting countries did not have any target to meet; the U.S. did not sign the Protocol and developing countries such as China and India were voluntarily exempted from binding targets.

Progress was made from year to year, from COP to COP, but main obstacles to a global strategy on climate change remain such as the North-South divide. In 2009, all these years of laborious negotiations crumbled. The “Copenhagen Accord” compromise was indeed an unexpected failure: legally unbinding and without specific targets, it reduced the efforts of political leaders to nothing. 

After twenty years of international negotiations, the major powers still tend to focus narrowly on securing their own national interests and avoiding costly commitments to emission reductions or long-term funding for adaption. Hence, levels of commitment remain vague and GHG emissions continue to rise. In other words, global cooperation proves itself difficult on a political stand.

According to a survey reported by the Guardian, even though the international community believes a worldwide agreement will be reached, a large number of experts remain sceptical regarding its “binding power to cause real change”. Their fear is indeed illustrated by the example of the Kyoto Protocol.

Factors of potential success

A good way to resolve a collective action problem is leadership. Regarding the environment, the European Union has positioned itself as a leader.

The expectation is that leaders enable and contribute to successful cooperation in international climate change mitigation policy (ICCMP). Some empirical studies have found leadership indeed promotes cooperation in climate change: the more the EU engaged as a leader, the more cooperation was achieved.

The two COP with the highest levels of cooperation are among those at which the EU showed strong leadership (1997 and 2005); and three out of four COP at which the EU showed little leadership are among those at which cooperation failed (2000, 2002 and 2003).

How can the EU provide leadership? Unilateral leadership consists of (1) formulating specific targets to reduce GHG (2) actually achieving the self-imposed targets (3) proposing additional instruments if target achievement is difficult (for instance White Papers of the European Commission). Thus, implementation efforts domestically in the EU provide an important example for lawmakers and businesses abroad of the feasibility of real action.

However, leaders need followers and major powers such as the U.S. do not spontaneously tend to follow the EU, which is problematic in international cooperation regarding public goods.

Internal affairs create deadlock on the international level

Would an agreement without the U.S. be efficient and legitimate?

Despite Barack Obama’s optimism about reaching an agreement of which everyone could be proud, this is likely that once again, the U.S. will not contribute to global action on environmental issues. Indeed, the U.S. has only signed and ratified one UN conference on environmental issues (the Montreal Protocol on depletion layer, which has been a complete success).

U.S. national politics seem to constrain negotiators on the international level. Ultimately, any Paris agreement signed in December would hardly receive support for ratification from the U.S. Congress. According to FTI Consulting, “Congressional Republicans are hoping to defeat any of Obama’s international political commitments during COP21”.

Corporate leadership

While there is a lack of confidence in governments’ abilities to devise effective solutions to complex problems, it might be time to turn to the business community. Business power is indeed important for policy-makers to implement climate-friendly policies.

Recent findings demonstrate a trend toward increasingly ambitious climate action on the part of “non-state” actors, including multinational corporations. As observed by the Climate Group, which encourages businesses to become 100% powered by renewables, “the smartest companies are making the boldest commitments of all: to be 100% renewable as an integral part of their business strategies”.

With more than 400 different brands around the world and €48.4 billion turnover in 2014, Unilever is one of the most influential companies in the world. Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, shared in an interview last week, “We need a clear target to have a faster transition. Business is incurring the costs of climate change, 3 to 10 trillion of extra costs. It is an enormous opportunity to move to a greener economy”. Not only is climate change believed to have economic consequences, but it would also create a new market and positively impact innovation and technology sectors, especially for companies that position themselves as first movers and leaders within the business community.

In broader terms, multinational companies might help to overcome political deadlocks and reshape regulatory environments, which would boost international negotiations. Importantly, this support from the business community would encourage the U.S. to play a bigger in climate change mitigation policy.

Hope for a new generation of negotiations on climate change

The international process has failed so far to create an integrated climate regime that would result in positive impact regarding GHG emissions. Governments display their support for climate change issues through international negotiations but find themselves caught in their national political divergences.

Ultimately, those who really get the power to build a new path to a greener world are those who have investment capacity and the power to shape markets: the business community. While politics impede international agreements on climate change, economics are surely a major part of the solution. 

Tags: China, COP21, GHG, Paris, UN

About Author

Julie Sima

Julie is a political risks analyst with a regional expertise on Europe, and focus on regulatory environments. She holds an MSc in International Political Economy from the London School of Economics (LSE) along with a BSc in International Studies from the University of Montreal.