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Can Today’s Paris Climate Change Summit Succeed? China’s Leaders, Under Duress, Are Key

“Kyoto” failed on climate change. So did “Copenhagen”. What, in Paris, is different now?

The biggest difference, The New York Times suggests, is “the breakthrough agreement between the United States and China … Last year the world’s two largest carbon polluters and historically the biggest obstacles to a deal announced plans to jointly enact emission reduction policies … Since then, more than 170 countries representing more than 90 percent of global carbon emissions, have put forth proposals to reduce emissions.”

Significantly, Kyoto did not assign requirements for developing economies such as China and India, two of the largest greenhouse polluters. China now appears to “have gotten the climate change message”. India is re-considering.

Chinese leaders at the summit are experiencing significant climate-change stimulants. Today, Beijing  suffered its worst air pollution of the year, with many photos of Beijing masked citizens battling “extremely hazardous levels of air pollutants” appearing in media round the world.

Moreover, a new landmark Chinese government scientific assessment of global warming laid out somber scenarios. The 900-page study, “The Third National Climate Change Assessment Report,” cites environmental, economic and national security risks for China. It asserted that, “There is an unavoidable trend for all countries to participate in emissions cuts … China must fully prepare for this.”

The Paris Summit has been designed with sensitivity to the inability to reach comprehensive agreements at the earlier climate change negotiations. For example, the Paris deal would not be a formal, legal treaty. And there is acknowledgement that there is much work to come, including periodic “ratchet meetings” in various countries to implement  commitments made in Paris.

Of course, there are still monumental obstacles to achieving the Summit’s overarching goal, curbing greenhouse emissions enough to avoid a devastating global average temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. They range from the highly likely political debate in the U.S. Congress to the United Nations policy of unanimous member consent needed for such international agreements.

If a Paris deal wouldn’t save the planet it could be a strong first step.