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Climate Change and the Road to Paris: It's All About that Trust

06/12/2015 01:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

The year of 2015 holds a promise to change the world. The United Nations is orchestrating a politically challenging agenda that counts among its goals the adoption of a framework for disaster risk reduction (achieved in March 2015), the agreement of long-term financing for international development, the creation of a post-2015 development agenda and concomitant sustainable development goals (known as the SDGs), and perhaps most importantly, settling once-and-for-all on how to tackle climate change during the UNFCCC climate negotiations scheduled for Paris in December.

Take the climate negotiations: the Paris conference, known as COP21, is widely viewed as the last chance to agree a robust multilateral climate regime. This do-or-die moment has captured the public's imagination and placed massive expectations on the negotiators. But, given their own strategic concerns, the negotiators involved in this process are being extremely careful, and will hold their cards close to their chests until the very last hours of the summit in December, when--as has happened at past summits--an alarm bell will ring and a weak compromise will be brokered to save face. Many observers have good reasons to doubt that real solutions to climate change will come from diplomats.

The goal during COP21 is to reach an agreement that will give keep global temperatures from climbing more than 2° C, the politically accepted limit beyond which humanity should not pass lest it suffer dire consequences. For that, world emissions would have to fall by between 40 and 70 percent from current levels by 2050 and to "near zero or below in 2100", according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change--a very tall order, indeed.

Thus, from the start, one should know that, regardless of the type of agreement reached in Paris, it most certainly will not be satisfactory from the point of view of science. Science and politics tend to remain lost in translation and it's misleading to think that the availability of the right information ensures the right action. In fact, the scientific community has had consensus on this issue for decades, but negotiators are gridlocked, hardly a sunny outlook.

No, gridlocked multilateral climate politics will not disappear, but they are a reality that can be managed. The question is to imagine what needs to happen for a successful outcome in Paris. At least, four points deserve to be highlighted.

First, Paris will have to present innovative and credible mechanisms of solidarity. The Kyoto Protocol (the first legally-binding climate regime that has now expired) framed the world as a dichotomy between developed and developing countries, and although this is no longer an appropriate concept, negotiators have yet to find a solution. Indeed, this may be the thorniest problem, one that in UN-speak is known as "common but differentiated responsibilities." Whether or not negotiators can find the right balance between options that are scientifically sound, politically acceptable and fair is the foundation upon which any consensus will rest. They will need to tackle this issue head on.

Second, Paris will have to significantly demonstrate that resources required for transition to a low carbon economy are in fact going to be mobilized. To put it in a word, diplomats in Paris will need to put their money where their mouths are. The most effective way to overcome this challenge is to promote private sector buy-in to the climate cause. Thus, relying only on the moral argument is never going to make ends meet. What is still missing is to scale up a business model for climate entrepreneurship. The recently launched Green Climate Fund hopes to mobilize billions of dollars, but of course this depends on whether or not countries come to Paris with their check books open.

Third, Paris will have to be inclusive. Everyone is well aware of the nearsighted vision of diplomats who are often constrained by domestic politics, which has led to a lack creative and effective mechanisms that not only offer solutions, but take into account what multiple stakeholders are doing to independently combat climate change. One attempt to overcome this challenge is the NAZCA platform, which was launched during last year's climate summit, hosted in Lima. The goal of NAZCA is to showcase commitments to action by cities, companies, subnational regions and investors that address climate change. The challenge now is to determine how these commitments could be effectively incorporated into Parties' Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (UN speak for the countries' commitments to reducing emissions).

Fourth and finally, Paris will have to prove that it is outdated to think that adaption to climate change is the "poor cousin" of mitigation, or mainly an intervention to reduce greenhouse gas sources. Today it is simply irresponsible to ignore the fact that humanity must adapt to a changing climate--the science tells us so. However, it is also irresponsible to ignore that we will all adapt differently. What becomes clearer and clearer is that, when it comes to adaptation, there is no "one-size-fit-all" approach and that adaptation is, above all, a matter of governance and effective decision making at the local level. Having a good institutional set-up with cross-sectoral planning, effective communication and social empowerment are essential elements for successful adaptation strategies. During the summit in Paris, again, what will have to be decided is how much money countries are willing to designate for this matter, which is directly connected to issues of environmental justice and, therefore, linked to the difficult debate of historical responsibilities.

When the dust settles in early 2016 and we look back to judge the Paris outcome, it is fundamental that we manage our expectations and take a clear-eyed view of the limits of international agreements. A radical reduction of GHG emissions is the only real solution for the unprecedented problem of climate change but a decarbonized world is a very slow work in progress, indeed, and time is a luxury that we sadly do not have. COP21, in this sense, is as unique as all of the other COPs that have paved the way until the present. The truth is that the scale of the problem of climate change is simply too big to be tackled by heavily negotiated words. Essential in this process is to ensure that transparency will be a cherished principle during the next climate marathon in December 2015. The "closed doors" method is a nonstarter for international cooperation and trust will be the capital ingredient of a successful journey until Paris.