The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is rapidly approaching. Compared with the last major attempt to set the planet on a more desirable greenhouse gas emissions trajectory, which occurred at COP15 in 2009 in Copenhagen, COP21 in Paris will take place on a landscape transformed in at least three crucial ways.
Change 1: From top down to bottom up – countries will now propose their own targets
At COP15, the negotiations adopted a ‘top down’ approach wherein, essentially, a global emissions trajectory was determined and negotiators sought to parse country-level responsibilities for achieving this trajectory. In contrast, COP21 employs a ‘bottom up’ offer system, wherein individual countries propose what they perceive to be achievable and fair emissions trajectories for their particular circumstances. These offers are formally called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). In this new negotiating framework, the resulting projected global emissions trajectory is the sum of individual country INDCs.
Change 2: Clean energy technology has improved rapidly since COP15
The rapid pace of technological advance in renewable energy technologies and systems is in the process of influencing the political economy of clean energy. The very high levels of greenhouse gas emissions observed historically and currently represent a colossal market failure. Correction of this failure requires action on the part of governments. However, achieving this required action has suffered from a sort of chicken-and-egg problem. Specifically, development of low-carbon emissions technologies requires government support. When these technologies are small-scale and relatively high-cost, the politics of supporting low-emissions technologies are difficult. In sum, a circle exists wherein politics drives policy; policy drives technology; and the state of technology circles back to influence politics.
In 2014, the newly installed capacity of renewable energy systems surpassed that of fossil fuel-based systems on a global basis for the first time ever.
Since 2008, the year before COP15 failed to produce a move towards effective global mitigation, the global solar module price index has fallen by a factor of nearly four, a rate of technical advance vastly more rapid than nearly all predictions. Declines in the cost of wind power have not been as dramatic, but have been rapid by any standard. Investments in energy production have reflected these shifts. In 2014, the newly installed capacity of renewable energy systems surpassed that of fossil fuel-based systems on a global basis for the first time ever.
Backsliding in policies to achieve a clean energy transition is a clear possibility in numerous countries (not least the United States). However, rapid technical advance in clean energy technologies will improve the politics of supporting an energy transition and have positive implications for policies and the future rate of technical advance in clean energy technologies.
Change 3: Developing countries more engaged and better informed
The developing world confronts climate change issues with a far deeper and more sophisticated knowledge base than in 2009. At the Copenhagen COP, the critical role that developing countries had to play in any effective global mitigation regime had become clear simply as a matter of arithmetic. Yet, the complex implications of climate change impacts, adaptation policies, and mitigation policies had really only begun to penetrate the major decision-making apparatuses of developing countries. For instance, the World Bank’s Economics of Adaptation to Climate Change study, which was meant to serve as a critical input to developing countries for COP15, was only published in 2010, after the Copenhagen conference had ended.
In my experience at the time around COP15, work on climate change issues, particularly when one spoke to personnel from the critical central finance and planning units in developing countries, frequently amounted to delivering primers on climate change and energy transition policy basics. The process of internalizing the information and assessing appropriate policy responses had only just begun.
Today, it would be an overstatement to say that climate change information has been fully internalized and appropriate policies assessed in developing countries. Nevertheless, the process of doing so is much more advanced than it was in 2009. In country after country, the central decision-making units have become engaged. This is critical as the profound economic transformations inherent in a clean energy transition are highly unlikely to be achieved under the direction of the Ministry of Environment.
Central decision-making units have become engaged, which is critical for the profound economic transformations inherent in a clean energy transition.
The 128 INDCs on the UNFCCC website are perhaps the most salient evidence of this improved knowledge base in developing countries. India and China are cases in point. In 2009, it is fair to say that India viewed climate change mitigation as a developed country problem. Today, India’s INDC pledges serious attempts to reduce the carbon intensity of GDP. For its part, China has offered to peak emissions by 2030 with declines thereafter. These two offers, along with many others, stem fundamentally from long and often difficult processes of internalization and policy option assessment that has taken place within these societies in general and their governments in particular.
Country policies will be centre stage
A major upshot of these three shifts to the climate change mitigation landscape is to place country decision-making and country policies at centre stage. Like it or not, there is no current prospect for a global policy framework to which all nations agree to adhere. Rather, countries and regions will set about to achieve their nationally-determined contributions in their own ways. And, the means for achieving these ends will vary enormously. For example, the United States, a leading cheerleader in international fora for reliance on markets, looks set to pursue a domestic policy of regulatory edict (if it avoids backsliding). China, the paragon of the developmental state, announced intention for a nationwide cap and trade system in September 2015.
Overall, under moderately optimistic assumptions concerning COP21 outcomes and the subsequent vigour with which countries pursue their agreed contributions, the world stands at the cusp of an unprecedented era of policy experimentation in driving a clean energy transition.
This is very good news. If implemented, the global emissions trajectory that emerges from COP21 trajectory would represent a watershed break from the past. At the same time, the global emissions trajectory that emerges from COP21 will, by itself (almost certainly), not be sufficient to hold global temperature rise to within the target of two degrees Centigrade.
Nevertheless, a promising path to a stabilized global climate lies ahead. This path goes through successful negotiation and implementation of COP21, broad-scale learning and knowledge-sharing from the era of mitigation policy experimentation that seems likely to ensue, and further rounds of negotiation in order to bend global emissions downwards onto a trajectory consistent with a stable global climate.