Henrik Selin
Henrik Selin points to ‘a Herculean task.’ 

Asked in early November if his pessimism from two months ago persists in the wake of the Pope’s visit to the U.S., newly announced U.S./China agreements, and other recent developments, Boston University Professor Henrik Selin answered Yale Climate Connections about his current views of prospects at the upcoming December climate summit in Paris. Read his original September post in The Conversation, posted concurrently with this Q&A, to get the full picture as he sees it.

WARD: You noted in early September a need for “substantial progress” and “detailed progress” in pre-Paris negotiations leading up to the actual meeting: Has that progress occurred?

SELIN: If anything, I am more pessimistic now than I was in early September. We are more or less in the same spot as we were two months ago, as blocs of countries hold very different and conflicting positions on a range of critical issues. These include the basic format of the agreement; the mechanism for reviewing progress towards meeting countries’ pledges; the process for strengthening pledges over time; the system for providing financial and technological assistance to developing countries; and the means for supporting much-needed adaptation measures in the most vulnerable societies.

The meeting in Bonn in late October was really the last chance for countries to make real progress on all of these critical issues and develop a workable draft agreement to bring to Paris. That progress did not happen as countries at the Bonn meeting mainly stuck to their earlier positions. There are now very few opportunities to engage in any further multilateral negotiations before the start of the Paris talks. The scene for the Paris conference is largely set at this point.

”Boston Click To Tweet

Basically, delegates in Paris are asked to do in two weeks something that we have not been able to accomplish over the past two decades – write and conclude a universal climate change agreement with broad participation. It is a Herculean task.

WARD: You referred in your September post to “a growing lack of political will to step-up” as a major obstacle to achieving the potential of the Kyoto Protocol. What is your assessment of the “political will” now? Are we at the point that top-level negotiators in Paris can move on to the “small set of key issues” you said they should be focusing on?

SELIN: Countries so far have demonstrated an extraordinary unwillingness to start compromising, even as the Paris conference is less than a month away. This shows that there is still a critical lack of political will to make the tough decisions and do what is necessary.

”Boston Click To Tweet

The negotiations playbook for a process such as the one leading into Paris is quite simple. First, countries state their interests and start to explore any obvious common ground. To then move forward, mid-level national negotiators search for acceptable compromises and useful trade-offs. Then towards the very end, national political leaders conclude an agreement by finding the necessary solutions to those few high-profile issues that previous negotiators were unable to address due to their importance and sensitivity.

Paris graphic

The Paris conference is not designed to be a comprehensive negotiating meeting; it is intended to be the place where an almost-ready agreement is finalized to much fanfare. But because countries on too many issues have refused to move beyond their initial positions, despite years of preparatory meetings, there is no useful draft to bring to Paris. Consequently, delegates in Paris, similar to Copenhagen in 2009, will have to engage in substantial negotiations on a wide range of issues under extreme time constraints.

This inability to come to town with a workable draft agreement is one important parallel with what happened in Copenhagen six years earlier that does not bode well for the outcome of the Paris conference.

WARD: You noted in September  that “the mood going into Copenhagen” could have been a lot more supportive of making progress in Copenhagen, but, alas, it wasn’t to be: What is your sense of “the mood” internationally among major players and also domestically going into the Paris talks?

SELIN: More and more political leaders are openly expressing frustration with the lack of progress in drafting an agreement. They recognize that the Paris conference is not just another meeting, but one that has been billed as the conference that will launch a new era of climate change cooperation. Many environmental advocacy groups are also very vocal in their sharp criticism of the process so far, how little has been agreed upon, and the modesty of many commitments.

There is a legitimate reason for both national delegates and the French hosts to get increasingly nervous. The Danish government received its fair share of criticism for the failure of the Copenhagen conference to produce a broad and meaningful agreement. Another high-profile fiasco in Paris would reflect badly on all major countries as well as on the French government all the way up to President Francois Hollande. It is a good idea to volunteer to host these kinds of events only if they turn out to produce significant and lasting results.

WARD: You pointed out that an inability to affix a “constructive approach” for China as the world’s newly largest emitter of GHGs in effect made a meaningful treaty unreachable: How do the 2014 and 2015 commitments by China on its GHG emissions factor-in going into Paris?

SELIN: One of the few pieces of good news over the past few years is the genuine and important shift in China’s position, both domestically and internationally. It is clear that China is serious in taking measures to limit national greenhouse gas emissions, expanding carbon-free energy generation, and playing a more constructive role in international cooperation, including providing financial assistance to developing countries. All of this helps the Paris negotiations, but it is not enough to overcome all the major differences.

China – just like the United States, the European Union, and other major emitters – must also already now start laying the groundwork for much more aggressive action for beyond 2030. We still do not know if that political willingness and ability is there among all the large economies. The Paris conference could help by setting up a mandatory and rigorous process for recurrently reviewing and strengthening pledges, but it seems unlikely that such a collective system will actually be put in place.

WARD: How do you feel we should evaluate whether the December climate negotiations in the end can be considered a “success”? What is the definition of “success” in Paris?

SELIN: Even as success can be defined in many different ways, the real impact of the Paris conference cannot really be meaningfully assessed until after several years. As the conference concludes, many negotiators and political leaders most certainly will do their very best to put a positive spin on whatever is the outcome. However, even if Paris somehow produces a consequential agreement, that is still only a small step forward. It is much more important what countries do afterwards.

If countries go back home from Paris and feel like they have now done their bit and do not continue to accelerate the transition towards a carbon-neutral future, then much of the work preparing for and organizing the Paris conference will have been in vain. If so, there is a clear risk that Paris will be remembered largely as another Copenhagen kind of conference where countries once more demonstrated that they are not capable of a collective, long-term responsible response to the climate change threat.

In contrast, if the Paris conference turns out to be the first time that the world’s industrialized and developing countries come together and launch a process where all major greenhouse gas emitters work towards carbon neutrality by mid-century, then Paris may be seen as a critical turning point in global climate change cooperation. We are almost certain to exceed the 2 degrees Celsius target based on current commitments, but how far the Paris pledges take us in limiting temperature increases is another way in which the success of the conference might be subsequently measured.

It will be at least a few years before we can make the call on how much the Paris conference will help set the stage for intensified global action on climate change mitigation and adaptation over the next couple of decades, but the overall comprehensiveness and stringency of the Paris agreement will be an important indicator.

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...