Climate Diplomacy After Paris: Opportunities for U.S. Leadership

By Nigel Purvis and Maria Belenky and Claire Langley
Climate & Energy, Political Strategy

This December’s global summit in Paris will represent a big step forward for climate diplomacy. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said that the expected Paris agreement will provide a compelling vision of a world free of extreme poverty, through the opportunities created by the transformation to a low carbon and climate resilient future.

Paris may be remembered as a turning point – the moment when governments sent a clear signal that this complex global transformation is inevitable, beneficial and already underway.

U.S. policy makers, from President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry on down, have played a critical role in delivering this progress. They have led through unprecedented domestic climate action (which other nations are now matching), as well as through bilateral summits with heads of government from India, China and Brazil. Thanks in part to U.S. leadership, virtually all nations are doing more than ever before to combat climate change, and the institutional architecture underpinning global climate diplomacy is about to receive a major upgrade, with big improvements in transparency and accountability. Paris will be a major foreign policy victory.

Yet, the action expected in Paris will be only the beginning of what is needed. Coming out of Paris, attention should turn from what countries can do to reduce emissions on their own, as it has been this year, to what they can do together. It is unsurprising that the sum of the combined pledges is not sufficient to keep temperature rise below 2° C (3.5° F), as scientists and nations have agreed is essential. At best, the unconditional pledges nations have made in advance of Paris will deliver just over 40 percent of needed climate action now. The Paris agreement will slow the rate of growth in global emissions by about a third—but emissions will continue rising. Without a front-burner diplomatic process coming out of Paris to build on existing pledges in the near term, we could unleash potentially catastrophic and unmanageable climate impacts that our country and the world cannot risk.

Fortunately, many developing nations are keen to do even more to address the climate crisis. They stand ready to end tropical deforestation, dramatically expand renewable energy production, phase-down HFCs and do the other things necessary to narrow the emissions mitigation gap. But these nations need our help. They desire partnerships with the United States and other donor nations that would create meaningful economic incentives for ambitious climate action, while also providing the technical support necessary to help them deliver.

After Paris, the next big foreign policy opportunity and challenge for the United States, therefore, is to figure out how it can forge bold climate partnerships with developing nations and convince other donor nations to do the same. These partnerships are needed to help developing nations deliver on their Paris pledges and also to support them, where possible, in their efforts to do even more for the global good; to deliver more than their fair share of climate action.

To establish these partnerships, the United States has many policy levers from which to choose. The Obama administration and its successor need to use executive branch authorities assertively to promote climate action abroad, just as the President is currently doing at home. This authority is derived from the U.S. Constitution and domestic statutes approved by Congress.

Some actions will require Congress to continue supporting international climate programs. Others may require new Congressional approval down the road, but potentially not for years; and, at that point, they could be presented to Congress as economic initiatives independent of any climate impact, making them more politically viable. Moving ahead now would allow time for a future Congress to become more supportive of climate action, as seems inevitable.

President Obama should use the upcoming Paris climate meeting and his final year in office to launch a new era of high-impact international climate cooperation. This should be centered not just on what nations can do at home (as is the case with the Paris pledges), but on what countries can achieve together through enhanced international trade, investment, research and technical assistance.

  • Outside of the formal Paris agreement, willing world leaders should pledge in December to develop international partnerships in 2016 and beyond to deliver on the Paris pledges and go further – with a view to meeting ambitious, new global goals, such as reducing the carbon intensity of the global economy, or cutting by half the global emissions mitigation gap by 2030.
  • For its part, the United States should pledge to support at least 1 billion tons of emissions mitigation per year in the developing world by 2020, rising to 1.5 billion by 2025.

These political pledges would move climate diplomacy beyond arguments over process and financing, which are the inputs to the system – and instead focus on measuring what matters more: climate outcomes. After Paris we should focus not just on ensuring that nations deliver on what they have promised this year, but also on raising global climate ambition through collaborative actions.

Outlining an ambitious, urgent and achievable post-Paris climate agenda would cement President Obama’s place in history as an unrivaled global climate leader. Already he is the first U.S. president to reduce U.S. climate pollution and convince developing nations to take action too. The President has the opportunity to become the first world leader who has the vision and a concrete plan to move global climate action in line with scientific realities and avert a global climate catastrophe by actually meeting the 2° C goal. His administration has been very good on climate, but he has a chance to be truly great. He should take it.

We invite you to read the full paper below.

Climate Diplomacy After Paris: Opportunities for U.S. Leadership
November 2015
What will climate diplomacy look like after Paris? And what can the United States do in Paris, if anything, to make sure the years that follow trigger as much climate progress as the past few years? This essay explores these questions: first looking at what Paris will achieve and the global emissions gap, then identifying opportunities to spur climate action and potentially narrow the gap through international partnerships between developed and developing nations, and finally exploring opportunities for the United States in December to help define the post-Paris international climate agenda around these partnerships, with specific recommendations for the Obama administration.

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On November 2, 2015

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