November 13, 2014


[But Wednesday’s announcement of a new deal for curbing emissions between China and the US, the world’s two largest polluters, is showing how small-group diplomacy can lead to tangible, even shocking outcomes.]

By David G. Victor

A Beijing trip from US secretary of state John Kerry led to secret talks, a letter and a deal. 
Can India and other superpower emitters learn to talk like this? 
Photograph: Pool/Reuters
This time next year, foreign ministers and secretaries of state and climate advisers from around the world – even scientists like me – will be booking their tickets for France, with the hope of signing what could become known as the Paris Accords. These agreements are meant to replace the Kyoto Protocol before it expires in 2020. This is supposed to be the big one: the global deal on global warming.

For decades, most environmental diplomacy on even close to this scale focused on huge multilateral forums that were prone to gridlock. The room was too big, so the talks tended to fail – and threatened the planet.

But Wednesday’s announcement of a new deal for curbing emissions between China and the US, the world’s two largest polluters, is showing how small-group diplomacy can lead to tangible, even shocking outcomes.

This week’s Beijing agreement may have been concocted in back rooms, in secret, over the course of two years and sealed at the last minute, but “bottom up” initiatives can inspire a cycle of other practical climate-change deals. This moment raises the odds that the Paris accords will reflect real, new initiatives.

But first, the word needs similar deals with other big emitters, notably India. China has now pledged that its emissions will peak by 2030 – and it could only do that because China has been quietly adopting aggressive efficiency measures and doing its best to expand output of its least polluting energy sources such as natural gas, nuclear and renewables. India, though, remains far behind: its power plants are less efficient, and its emissions are poised to rise steeply as the country urgently expands its power output mainly by burning coal.

Historically, India has been particularly wary of getting entangled in international commitments on climate change – a problem it prefers to blame on the west. The blame games, however, haven’t done much to control emissions. Narendera Modi, India’s newly elected leader, is a pragmatist who has pledged to engage more directly with the rest of the world and already signaled at his recent U.S. Summit that climate change will be one area where India becomes more cooperative.

The European Union, too, has a central role in the countdown to Paris: its members just announced a scheme to cut emissions 40% by 2030 – the world’s most ambitious emission-control program by a major economy. Brussels and the member states must now flesh out that commitment into practical policies such as energy efficiency, funding for advanced coal demo projects and a renewable energy policy that won’t break the bank. The EU must also show how costly cuts in emissions can be made compatible with economic competitiveness – border tariffs against countries that fail to make their own cuts would help level the playing field and dampen the incentive for countries to neglect making their own commitments. 

But a new kind of multinational dealmaking doesn’t just involve a series of country-to-country agreements. It can also include environmental negotiations that cut across whole sectors and pollutants. The best deals will begin with topics that already align with what countries want to do. In 2012, six countries and the United Nations Environment Programme created the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to cut emissions of soot, methane and other so-called “short-lived” climate pollutants. Today, it counts 40 countries as members, because even countries that claim not to care much about long-term global warming can sign up for practical efforts to measure and reduce pollutants that harms the climate andthe health of those who breathe. Similarly, Norway has led a group of rich industrialised countries to offer massive cash payments to tropical forest nations,such as Indonesia, that adopt smarter policies that limit deforestation.

These are signs of progress, but there is actually precious little time remaining before the Paris summit next December, and that means expectations must be kept in check. For two decades, climate diplomacy has achieved almost nothing in actual reductions of emissions. And it will take time for governments and R&D firms to regain confidence that, this time, climate diplomacy is delivering real results.

With enough deals in enough back rooms, though, governments will have a lot of practical progress they can call familiar once they get to Paris. But with all this “bottom up” momentum, the style of negotiating big agreements must change. Gone are the days when the purpose of big, Kyoto-like agreements was to dictate to countries what they must implement. A new world of governance is unfolding, one big deal, in one small room, at a time.