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Ensia: A Path Forward for International Climate Talks

Peggy Liu writes for independent magazine Ensia in the lead up to the Paris climate talks on the drastic changes needed for the talks to result in a breakthrough.

“Time and again the scientific urgency for global action on climate change is stifled by chaotic U.N. climate talks as politics and process prevents the world’s policy makers from coming up with a clear plan for 2020 to divide up the global effort of reducing greenhouse emissions.

Looking ahead to the 2015 talks in Paris, can the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and 195 governments do in two years what they have failed to do in 22? Or has the UNFCCC’s usefulness run out of steam?

After the latest talks last November, Samantha Smith, leader of WWF’s Global Climate and Energy Initiative, wrote in a statement, “Negotiators in Warsaw were clearly unprepared or unable to take us towards a better future … The lack of urgency shown by governments in this process has been sickening.” Even European climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard questioned if the world still needs the U.N. talks.

Meanwhile, former U.S. undersecretary of energy David Sandalow — who helped launch the Clean Energy Ministerial in 2009, which has helped 23 participating countries deploy clean energy technologies — contends that “a range of other multilateral, bilateral and public-private institutions are essential. Although the UNFCCC is essential, climate change is much too serious a problem to be left to the UNFCCC.”

Still, the U.N. climate talks are worth saving because they are the only international process for addressing climate change where all countries have a voice. A new worldwide agreement would send a wave of positivity into climate change efforts everywhere.

To have any hope of this, a completely different approach is needed to shake up the UNFCCC. Four key things need to take place in order to achieve a breakthrough at the 2015 negotiations in Paris.

1. Focus on a politically achievable agreement

The climate talks have been stuck in part because they pit governments against each other in a zero sum game. In attempting to set a ceiling on global carbon emissions by a certain date, countries must fight for elbow room in how much their own emissions are allowed to jump. But the artificial divide between developed and developing nations in the current negotiations framework makes no one happy. The largest historical polluters, such as the U.S., Canada and Australia, are worried about short-term adverse economic impacts from shouldering their responsibilities.

Meanwhile large developing nations such as China are quickly catching up in per capita emissions and can’t yet predict how their growth will affect carbon emissions. And smaller, more vulnerable nations feel like they are shouldering the brunt of climate change without adequate compensation.

To break the stalemate and declare a success, the talks need to shift the focus from quotas within a time frame to a more politically achievable agreement that is smaller in scope.

One possible scenario is to set a carbon cap, but allow countries to reach the goal at their own best pace. This is the scenario advocated by Junfeng Li, director general of the National Climate Change Strategy Research and International Cooperation Center under China’s National Development and Reform Commission.

Although China is actively seeking a carbon cap pathway, it’s not likely to set a particular year to reach that cap before the Paris talks in 2015. Li explains that while developed nations can predict their energy consumption patterns, China has huge uncertainties in when it will mature — making it hard to project its carbon emissions peak. Li lists such uncertainties as 1) population projections due to changes in the country’s one-child policy, 2) the shape and pace of China’s unprecedented urbanization, 3) the projected completion of its age of industrialization, 4) the lack of solutions for moving from coal energy to clean energy, and 5) when China’s growth will plateau. Li likens China to a growing teenager whose mature height is hard to guess.

A second scenario advocated by James Cameron, a long-time climate talks participant and the non-executive chairman of Climate Change Capital, is to focus on setting carbon price signals. In this new approach to the model of common but differentiated responsibilities, each country “would provide a clear and effective market incentive to reduce emissions that is acceptable within the political culture and capabilities of each country.”

For example, Finland introduced the world’s first carbon tax in 1990. China is currently piloting carbon emissions trading schemes in seven regions. In the U.S., emissions trading schemes are not politically viable, but the country has had success in setting regulatory limits on emissions from coal plants.

Cameron, who is both a lawyer and financier, says that bridging the climate talks with the interests of private finance is crucial because the current attempts to raise public funds to compensate the most vulnerable nations for the climate risk imposed upon them by the pollution of developed nations can never fully satisfy. The amount proposed to be contributed to vulnerable nations for adaptation — $100 billion a year — is too small to make a meaningful difference but too big for any country to step up to the plate.

While a price on carbon is not the entire answer to reducing emissions, it’s the most essential incentive to drive corporate and individual behavior change. Such a market lever can pry open not just the pockets of public finance but the much larger pockets of private finance, because a price on carbon affects the rates of return for a vast range of actors in the international financial system.

If this new focus on price signals is adopted, the UNFCCC must transform from host and jury into a collaborative services center that enables governments to share experiences, solutions and technologies for creating carbon price signals.

2. Make China’s position strong and clear

Because many nations are waiting to see what China is willing to do before they shape their own climate agreement, a clear China plan on emissions reductions could be pivotal to a 2015 international agreement.

This international stance, however, puts China in a tricky position. The likelihood of a multilateral agreement succeeding in 2015 is currently low. Focusing mainly on China positions the country to be blamed if an agreement isn’t reached. From the point of view of many in China, climate change needs to be tackled earnestly by all governments together.

The good news is that although China is not yet ready to declare a carbon cap, it is already actively investing more in low carbon pathways than any other country. Therefore, there is an opportunity for China to better communicate to the outside world how strongly motivated the country is to go green and its strong stance on climate change. At the same time, other countries need to stop using China’s supposed reluctance as an excuse not to step up to the plate.

“China needs help to build more cultural bridges from those who understand China’s context and mind-set and who can play an active role in communicating its position,” says Mina Guli of Peony Capital, an Australian carbon markets expert living in Beijing. Toward that end, Ai Xing Han, a deputy director-general of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Rural Development, has invited negotiators to come to China and learn the language and culture to better understand Chinese decision-making processes.

While a China commitment is key, human survival on a finite planet depends on all countries pulling their weight. Beyond working to reach its own climate goals, China could also cajole other nations into action by announcing it would prefer trading partners that have committed to set a carbon price signal.

3. Redesign the negotiating process

One common criticism of the process is the “noise” associated with large open-ended forums. New forms of well-facilitated and conclusive working meetings are needed to help move toward draft statements in advance of Paris 2015.

If China’s role is key to a successful climate agreement, the negotiating process might be tweaked to engage China in a way that is more familiar to Chinese.

A potential game-changer would be to have the talks set in China. As a host country, China would feel obligated to put forward a positive commitment. Hosting the international community in a Chinese setting would also make it more comfortable for China to communicate — a factor that shouldn’t be underestimated when considering the success of negotiations.

4. Humanize the storytelling

James Chau, an anchor at China’s leading media organization, CCTV, who has reported at several UNFCC talks, says, “I have seen how quickly climate change talks have dropped off the global news agenda. The peak in terms of coverage and urgency was Copenhagen, but by Durban and certainly Qatar there has been little public appetite for this story.”

To engage citizens around the world to support their governments to get on board with a climate change agreement, the UNFCCC must take a different tack in its positioning. It needs to retell the story of climate change in a way that speaks to people personally, and hits them at their homes and in their hearts. The UNFCCC must become a skilled storyteller. For example, initiatives such as “Dream in a Box” from my organization JUCCCE reframes climate jargon into a conversation on reimagining prosperity. Overall, the talks need to broaden their emphasis from climate change to creating livable communities for the next generation. To make this happen, the UNFCCC should explicitly incorporate communications services into its responsibilities.

According to Chau, the UNFCCC needs to nurture more global personalities who can tell engaging personal stories to reignite the public imagination and connect climate change to overlapping issues such as poverty alleviation and health, so that citizens don’t only associate climate change with lost opportunities. A strategic set of journalists should be engaged in closed-door briefings to help shape their news content. Activists can learn from and work hand in hand with media to tell a better, more informed and accurate story.

Last Stand?

Right now, the talks are on the wrong track. Governments are spending a lot of time and carbon-heavy travel on a wrong approach, with perhaps the wrong mix of people in the wrong locations. Government leaders negotiating the agreement are disconnected from market makers who hold the reins in reducing emissions and the citizens who are affected by climate change.

What people are calling the “last stand for climate action at UNFCCC” in 2015 is just around the corner. The UNFCCC needs to reposition the agreement, redesign its negotiations process and reinvent itself quickly in order to stay relevant.

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