Can the Paris climate talks prevent a planetary strike-out?

Can the Paris climate talks prevent a planetary strike-out?

By Henrik Selin

In baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out. In global climate change politics, the world’s leaders risk a third strike in December in Paris.

After Kyoto in 1997 and Copenhagen in 2009, negotiators are facing a two-strike count. And the closer we get to Paris without substantial progress, the more likely we will experience a planetary strike-out with devastating consequences.

Here’s how we got to this point and why the heat is on.

Strike one

The Kyoto Protocol should have been an easy single on a simple fastball across the middle of the plate.

The negotiations built on the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the world’s countries rushed to ratify, leading it to enter into force in 1994. The framework convention outlined several principles to guide the design of commitments under subsequent protocols. They included the precautionary principle, the polluter pays principle and the principle of common but differentiated responsibility – the notion that the most economically and technologically advanced countries that have contributed most to the problem have an obligation to act first.

Yet the Kyoto Protocol was fouled off. As a first attempt to move forward after the framework convention, it was a decent treaty given the way the world looked in the mid-1990s and what we knew about climate change through the first two sets of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The initial Kyoto targets were not nearly enough to solve the climate problem, but that was not reasonable to expect at the time.

But the Kyoto Protocol’s potential to move the process forward was largely squandered in subsequent years.

The main problem post-Kyoto was a growing lack of political will to step up. The United States Senate and the George W Bush administration categorically rejected the Kyoto Protocol, and Canada withdrew its earlier ratification in 2011. Also, countries like Australia and Japan started to question the Kyoto approach, with industrialized countries taking the lead to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

If all industrialized countries had remained faithful to the guiding principles embedded in the framework convention and fulfilled their national obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, the mood going into Copenhagen would have been very different. It would have shown that the historically largest polluters accepted responsibility for their significant emissions and contributions to the problem.

Strike two

In Bali in 2007, countries launched a process to negotiate a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, with the goal of adopting it in Copenhagen in 2009.

In Copenhagen, negotiators did not even take an honest swing, as if flummoxed by a crafty curveball. Instead of a forceful political response as the scientific case for urgent actions grew stronger, the voluntary Copenhagen Accord, signed amid escalating political tensions, was even weaker than the Kyoto Protocol.

Let’s make a deal: negotiators in Bonn preparing for Paris. unfccc/flickr, CC BY

Given the mounting rejection of collectively negotiated commitments, and with more industrialized countries refusing to lead, it was impossible to adopt a meaningful treaty. Negotiations were also deeply affected by the inability to agree on a constructive approach for dealing with the fact that China had become the world’s largest emitter of GHGs.

At the same time, many smaller and vulnerable developing countries were growing increasingly desperate due to a lack of responsibility and action by the major economies and polluters.

The plethora of highly different national commitments for 2020 that were submitted in the wake of the very weak Copenhagen Accord was, again, nowhere near what is needed to avoid exceeding the two degrees Celsius target for global average temperature increases – a threshold scientists say is necessary to prevent dangerous consequences from climate change.

Strike three?


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