The push to limit fossil-fuel pollution inched forward in July as envoys from more than 190 countries began considering a new draft agreement that they aim to seal at a UN meeting in Paris in December. The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, governs just 15 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions because the U.S. never ratified the deal and it didn’t include China and India, now the biggest and third-biggest polluters. While new targets probably won’t be legally binding in the same way as Kyoto, countries are coming forward with commitments to be enshrined in the pact and implemented starting in 2020. The U.S. submitted its pledge in March and China followed in June. The European Union, Mexico and Canada also have made formal submissions, while Brazil and India have yet to do so. Companies and homeowners, meanwhile, are installing solar panels, using more energy-efficient lighting and measuring and reducing their emissions. These proactive investments — plus rising consumer awareness and political pressure — provide momentum for a global deal. The U.S. decision to regulate power plant emissions demonstrates its intent, and activists are watching whether the U.S. will approve the Keystone XL pipeline. China’s expansion of coal-fired power stations and progress toward ambitious renewable energy goals will show how it aims to balance economic growth and the environment.
The UN talks have been fractious over the years, with walkouts, behind-closed-doors meetings with a favored few and all-night sessions culminating in bad-tempered plenary meetings. The last such push for a global deal in Copenhagen in 2009 ended without legally binding targets. Even without them, many governments are imposing costs on polluters that reflect the broader harm to society, either by levying taxes or by adopting various cap-and-trade systems for carbon permits such as those in the EU, California and China. Those efforts were set back by the global recession that crimped industrial output and the boom in shale gas that drove energy prices lower. Research from the UN and business groups predict that global warming will take a growing toll on the economy, food production, fresh water supplies and human health.
The arguments that crippled the Kyoto Protocol have hardly changed. There’s a vociferous army of global-warming skeptics who lobby politicians and blog on the topic. UN scientists in November published their biggest climate change assessment to date, warning of irreversible damage if the globe doesn’t stem emissions from burning fossil fuels. Even the pope has weighed in on the subject, endorsing the UN’s science. Developing countries insist that their priority is to take people out of poverty as quickly as possible, and tapping fossil energy is often the cheapest way to do so. They say it’s up to the developed world to act first and help fund efforts in poorer nations. Industrialized countries are wary of losing jobs to lower-cost markets. Policy makers must decide how quickly to scale back fossil fuels and push into intermittent renewable technologies such as wind and solar. Those are often more expensive, though prices are falling. There’s also plenty of ambiguity over the form and enforceability of any new global pact, setting the stage for more disagreements as the deadline approaches.
The Reference Shelf
- Graphics and data on climate change from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
- The pope’s encyclical on climate change.
- The International Energy Agency’s June 2015 report on climate change.
- Website of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UN body facilitating the treaty talks.
- United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports.
- Bloomberg Markets article on the efforts of Tom Steyer, a billionaire hedge fund manager, to highlight the risks of climate change.
- Text of the Kyoto Protocol.