One thing President Obama and French President François Hollande want to avoid at the climate summit that begins later this month in Paris is the messy, last-minute wrangling that marred the 2009 summit in Copenhagen.
Some frustrated leaders left Copenhagen early. Obama barged in on a private meeting of the developing countries to insist that they sign an agreement. And the final accord did not set a global target for greenhouse gas reductions.
For the past year, Obama has appealed to the leaders of the biggest developing countries — China, India and Brazil — to map out aggressive steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions or dramatically slow their growth. The president is passionate about the Paris summit, which could become a landmark part of his legacy and a key diplomatic achievement.
Hollande is optimistic enough to have invited Obama and other world leaders to gather Nov. 30, at the beginning of the two-week conference known as COP21.
“No single action, no single government, and no single summit will decisively address one of the greatest threats of our time. But an ambitious agreement in Paris would be a turning point,” Paul Bodnar, senior director for energy and climate change on the National Security Council, wrote in a recent blog post. “It would show countries that if they act, their partners and competitors will do so as well.”
But stumbling blocks remain.
The emissions cuts proposed by nations so far would slow global warming so that temperatures would rise 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2050, according to one estimate. But that would fall short of the international target of limiting warming to 2 degrees. Hitting that target would still spell disaster for much of Africa, the Middle East and island nations, which could disappear beneath rising seas.
On Friday, the United Nations issued a report saying that country plans so far would not prevent a substantial increase in emissions by 2030.
In addition, developed nations have not met their earlier pledge to “mobilize” $100 billion a year from public and private sources to spur climate action in developing countries by 2020. The U.N. report said a quarter of the proposed emissions reductions are conditional, meaning that some developing nations might not act fully unless they get financing and technology from wealthier countries.
In Bonn, Germany, last month, climate negotiators labored to iron out the text of an agreement. The Obama administration hoped to erase language, adopted at the Kyoto, Japan, summit a quarter-century ago, dividing the world into rich and poor countries — and placing little responsibility for climate action on developing nations.
“We couldn’t have an agreement that had a sort of backward-looking firewall between developing countries in one bucket and developed countries in another bucket,” a senior administration official said, noting that the largest emitters are now developing countries.
Not everyone is on the same page, however.
India has pushed back, insisting that wealthy countries cough up more financial aid and cutting-edge technology for renewable energy. In Bonn, India introduced language asking that renewable energy be “free of cost, in order to enhance . . . actions to address the adverse effect of climate change.”
Gwynne Taraska, senior climate policy adviser at the Center for American Progress, said that many negotiators arrived in a “mutinous” mood but that a compromise might allow India and others to apply to the Green Climate Fund, part of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, to cover a portion of intellectual-property costs.
Obama administration officials have hailed India’s ambitious goals for building renewable-power plants, but they are frustrated with India’s position on aid and intellectual property, especially given Obama’s efforts to woo Prime Minister Narendra Modi, first by hosting him in Washington and later by traveling to New Delhi.
But some of Obama’s overtures have borne fruit. Chinese President Xi Jinping has vowed that emissions will peak by 2030 or earlier and that China will establish a nationwide cap-and-trade system.
And Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has promised to boost renewable energy and to protect and enlarge rain forests, which absorb carbon dioxide. Brazil has pledged to restore 46,332 square miles of forest — about the size of England — by 2030 while pursuing “policies aimed at eliminating illegal deforestation.” Brazil became the first major developing country to pledge an absolute reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from a base year.
“The way we see it, developed countries, which have more capacity and responsibility, should come first and stronger,” said Carlos Klink, national secretary for climate change at Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment.
One key difference between the summits in Paris and Copenhagen has been the upcoming meeting’s early deadline for countries to submit their emissions-reduction proposals, known in climate negotiation jargon as “intended nationally determined contributions.”
Before the Copenhagen summit, many countries delayed, hoping for more-lenient terms. This year, nations were supposed to submit plans by Oct. 1. As of Monday, 128 proposals had been submitted, covering 155 countries and accounting for about 87 percent of global emissions.
Among those missing: Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter. The kingdom’s greenhouse gas emissions have more than tripled since 1990 and are expected to jump 60 percent more by 2030, according to Climate Action Tracker, a Web site that uses independent scientific analysis from four research organizations.
India, where nearly 400 million people lack electricity, filed its climate plan Oct. 1. But its proposed reductions in emissions fell short of what some negotiators had hoped for. Analysts note that if India’s economy grows at roughly the same pace for the next 15 years, its greenhouse gas emissions will jump by more than 77 percent and account for about 11 percent of global emissions by 2030.
South Africa’s plan asserts that climate-related expenditures detract from other investments and cost jobs. The proposal says that “any policy-driven transition to a low carbon and climate resilient society must take into account and emphasize its overriding priority to address poverty and inequality.”
Within South Africa, some climate policy experts say the government is on the wrong track. Mark Swilling, a professor at Stellenbosch University and director of the Sustainability Institute, testified to a parliamentary committee that refusing to invest in renewable energy today is like refusing to invest in the auto industry at the end of the horse-and-buggy era.
“It’s obviously correct to go up there and bargain for as much funding as possible, but we shouldn’t depend on that funding in order to do what needs to be done to transform our economy to create jobs for our people,” Swilling said.
The funding dispute centers on the commitment made by wealthy countries in 2009 to provide $100 billion a year to developing nations for mitigation of climate effects or for renewable-energy plants. Brazil’s Klink estimated that so far, countries have pledged $60 billion to $70 billion. The United States has promised $3 billion for the Green Climate Fund over four years.
With the Republican Congress opposed to far-reaching climate action, the Obama administration has been drumming up private sources of investment. In June, the White House held a meeting of major corporations to discuss clean energy, and last month it convened a follow-up meeting, saying that 81 companies signed the “American Business Act on Climate Pledge” to slash emissions, water use and landfill waste beyond the Paris commitment.
At the global level, language under negotiation would call for new talks in five years, in the hope that technological advances will bring down the cost of renewable energy and make countries more willing cut emissions.
The World Resources Institute, a research organization focused on natural resources, said on its Web site that “the world must come back to the table in five years, not 10, to increase ambition and seize the benefits from taking timely action.”