By Beverly Barrett, Manager, UH Energy Advisory Board
Regardless of your views on climate change, it is unprecedented that nearly 200 nations came together in early December for the Conference of Parties and the 21st United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change (UNFCCC), known as “COP21.” This meeting also served as the conference of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol.
It was just the latest in a string of efforts to reach international consensus on climate policy. Twenty-one years ago, in March 1994, an earlier UNFCCC international environmental treaty was forged after negotiations at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. This established the forum for future negotiations.
The most recent conference focused on ambitious goals: to limit the rise in global average temperature to less than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to achieve net zero annual emissions of greenhouse gases by the second half of this century.
Looking to 2050, it is clear that the victory is mostly symbolic. The agreement is not binding, and given political conflicts about these hotly debated topics, the commitments will not beratified by national legislatures. Domestic political support in many countries is not strong enough to ratify the negotiated measures.
Still, they are important, boosting efforts underway across the globe to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including work here in the United States. The U.S. Congress continues to wrangle over Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations that would limit emissions on coal-fired power plants. Natural gas or renewable energy technologies are suggested as alternatives but business planning and regulatory policy remain contentious. Renewable energy – including wind and solar – will require additional technological innovation to become more widely used, including improvements to energy storage and transmission.
Historically, one of the most significant international environment pacts ratified by the U.S. legislature in recent decades was the Montreal Protocol. This international treaty to limit chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), blamed for eroding ozone, was adopted by 46 countries, including the United States, and went into effect in 1987. A decade later, the Kyoto Protocol had nearly twice the national signatories. While the United States and China were noticeably absent from this agreement in Japan – the United States formally rejected the protocol in 2001 – the presence of both countries in Paris offered important evidence of a turning point and their renewed interest in leading the international dialogue on climate change policy.
The COP21 conference, which ran from November 30 to December 12, 2015, has been significant for three reasons:
- The spirit of cooperation, showing international solidarity after the tragic attacks in Paris on Nov. 13.
- The participation of China and the U.S. As the world’s two largest economies and the countries with the most carbon emissions, other nations have looked to these international giants for leadership on international environmental policy.
- Showing the way forward on international environmental policy in a new era of broad global participation.
Despite the prevailing optimism, there was not universal agreement at COP21, as world leaders split on a variety of issues. Nur Masripatin, lead negotiator for Indonesia, told the Financial Times that the deal was too weak. “The deal is not fair… but we don’t have more time, we have to agree on what we have now,” she said.
Supporters such as Prakash Javadekar, Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change in India, told the newspaper the action marked “a historic day. It is not only an agreement, but we have written a new chapter of hope in the lives of seven billion people on the planet.”
The U.S. lead negotiator, Secretary of State John Kerry, has praised the outcome as “a tremendous victory for all of our citizens. . . . It is a victory for all of the planet and for future generations. . . . I know that all of us will be better off for the agreement we have finalized here today.”
In addition to its promises to reduce carbon emissions, the agreement pledged foreign aid to developing countries to support their move to more advanced electric generation sources including natural gas, wind and solar.
And the work continues. Morocco will host COP 22 next November in Marrakech. This meeting in North Africa will provide another opportunity for further commitments. In addition to providing progress reports on the goals presented in Paris, advocates will continue to press for the parties to adopt a binding treaty.
COP 21 has shown the way forward with nearly all of the globe’s nations embracing democratic principles to present their views on environmental policy. As the world becomes smaller, with enhanced communications and technologies, the commitment to cooperate on environmental policy becomes even more attractive. The Paris conference built a framework for our intentions to steward the environment while supporting energy sustainably that can show the way forward for climate change activists and skeptics alike. This is a unique opportunity for solidarity in international environmental policy.
Beverly Barrett is manager of the University of Houston’s Energy Advisory Board. She is a lecturer at the UH Hobby Center for Public Policy and the C.T. Bauer College of Business.