Chimneys: one emiting smoke

+ December’s COP21 in Paris may not produce a global agreement, but INDCs could form the basis of a successful treaty in the near future.

All eyes will soon be on the approaching COP21 (Conference of Parties) climate negotiations in Paris this December. The failure of world leaders to reach an international agreement on how to tackle climate change at previous talks means the rest of us are wondering whether this time could be different. Expectations are high, but what would constitute success? 

I don’t believe there will be a legally binding international agreement in Paris. But this doesn’t necessarily signal failure. An alternative approach is emerging in the form of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). This bottom-up mechanism allows nations to outline their own targets, based on individual circumstances and priorities, adjusting and broadening their scope over time to increase ambitions. As a result, the commitments will be more transparent and governments more accountable to them, ultimately raising the likelihood of pledges being delivered. 

Despite repeated negotiations and several achievements – including the Kyoto Protocol (1992) and creation of the Green Climate Fund (2010) – the international community has so far failed to reach a legally binding agreement that will keep global warming below 2°C. The climate talks in Paris this year represent what many believe is the last chance to secure the all-important settlement. So how will this year’s talks be different? 

The ‘top-down’ international approach attempted previously felt like an imposition and a threat to growth for both developing and developed countries. And I think the political wrangling about responsibility, equity and scale of action that followed obscures the reason we’re pursuing climate action in the first place.   

In response to this, INDCs are designed to form a flexible political framework that can be modified and ratcheted up over time, eventually feeding into a global legal treaty. INDCs also send a much-needed market signal to investors, helping to drive the shift away from fossil fuel investment towards increased renewable energy and low carbon technology development. 

So far 156 countries have submitted INDCs addressing almost 90% of the world’s current greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), with many nations making climate commitments for the first time. But though these promises might not yet be enough to avoid exceeding a 2°C temperature rise (projections suggest they currently account for over half of the total required to reach the global emission level of 42 GtCO2e in 2030), INDCs provide an important foundation that can be strengthened and enhanced over time to put us on a long-term path to a lower carbon future.  

There is clearly still much to be done on the international as well as the national scale, regional and city scales. At these levels, efforts by networks like C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, and the Compact of Mayors are also helping to illustrate the power of collaboration, knowledge sharing and peer-to-peer learning in the struggle against climate change. Taken in combination with INDCs, I think these kinds of practical actions stand a better chance of being integrated alongside other national priorities and policies, making them more meaningful and likely to succeed in the long run. 

The COP21 talks may not result in a straightforward global agreement but the outcome could be more realistic and achievable than anything we’ve seen before.