- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Paris Climate Conference 2015: A key step in stopping climate?

| Fall/Winter 2015-2016

David Keith and Robert Stavins agree to disagree

Was the Paris Climate Conference of 2015 a key step in stopping climate change? We asked the Belfer Center's Robert Stavins and David Keith to give us their answers to that question. They agreed to disagree in some of their answers and comments. Their essays (written before the conference) follow.

Robert Stavins

The international climate change negotiations that will take place in Paris the first two weeks of December hold promise to be key steps toward reducing the threat of global climate change.  Although it will be many years before we can truly assess the impact of the Paris talks, it is clear now that they represent—at the very least—an important attempt to break with the past thrust of international climate policy and start anew with a much more promising approach.


"[T]he new approach being taken in Paris can be a key step toward reducing the threat of global climate change."

The Kyoto Protocol, which has been the primary international agreement to reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause global climate change, included mandatory emissions-reduction obligations only for developed countries. Developing countries had no emissions-reduction commitments. The stark demarcation in the Kyoto Protocol between developed and developing countries was one approach to realizing a principle in the underlying United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), that countries should act to “protect the climate system…on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”

The dichotomous distinction between the developed and developing countries in the Kyoto Protocol has made progress on climate change impossible, because growth in emissions since the Protocol came into force in 2005 is entirely in the large developing countries—China, India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and Indonesia.  The big break came at the annual UNFCCC negotiating session in Durban, South Africa, in 2011, where a decision was adopted by member countries to “develop [by December 2015, in Paris] a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.”  This “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” broke with the Kyoto Protocol and signaled a new opening for innovative thinking (which we, at the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, took to heart).

In Paris next month, countries will likely adopt a new hybrid international climate policy architecture that includes bottom-up elements in the form of “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs), which are national targets and actions that arise from national policies, and top-down elements for oversight, guidance, and coordination.  Now, all countries will be involved.

The current commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol covers countries (Europe and New Zealand) that account for no more than 14 percent of global emissions (and 0 percent of global emissions growth).  But as of November 9, 156 of the 196 members of the UNFCCC had submitted INDCs, representing some 90 percent of global emissions (and this will likely reach 95 percent or more by the time of the Paris talks)!

Such broad scope of participation is a necessary condition for meaningful action, but it is not a sufficient condition. Also required is adequate ambition of the individual contributions. But keep in mind that this is only the first step with this new approach. The INDCs will likely be assessed and revised every five years, with their collective ambition ratcheted up over time. That said, even this initial set of contributions would cut anticipated temperature increases this century to about 2.7 degrees Centigrade, not terribly much more than the frequently discussed aspirational goal of limiting temperature increases to 2 degrees C, and much less than the 5 degrees C increase that would be expected without this action.  (An amendment to the Montreal Protocol to address hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) could shave an addition 0.5 degrees C of warming.)

The problem has not been solved, and it will not be for years to come, but the new approach being taken in the Paris Agreement can be a key step toward reducing the threat of global climate change.  Only time will tell.




David Keith

To a good approximation, the amount of climate change is proportional to humanity’s cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide. So, if we are to stop making the problem worse, we will have to stop putting CO2 in the atmosphere. And, if we want to make the problem less bad, we will need to figure out a way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere (often called carbon removal) and use solar geoengineering to make the earth a little more reflective in order to partially and imperfectly offset the risks of the accumulated carbon.


"Major progress will require partial disassembly and reconstruction of the current climate policy architecture."

My interest in climate policy started around 1988, the time of the Toronto meeting that set a goal to cut emissions by 20 percent by 2005. It was perhaps the first inclusive effort to articulate a global goal for emission reductions and was a big step on the way to the 1992 Rio meeting and the Framework Convention.

Since then, excitement about global negotiation has waxed and waned, but one would be hard-pressed to see any impact of all this negotiating on emissions.

Emissions are up by more than 60 percent since Toronto. They were growing at about one percent a year in the 90s, but their growth has accelerated to about three percent a year in this century.

One unequivocal bright spot is that the world is now spending roughly $320 billion (.4 percent global GDP) a year on renewable energy. And one spectacular success of this subsidy-driven renewables boom has been an extraordinary drop in the cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) technologies. Costs for power from industrial solar PV have come down more than threefold in five years. This is a major victory, as solar is perhaps the only renewable that could plausibly be scaled to meet the energy demands of a wealthy (my hope) late-21st century world.

Yet, it’s hard to see that this huge investment in renewable energy has had any impact on emissions. What it has done is lowered the cost of solar, buying the world a hugely important option for cutting future emissions. But exercising that option requires policy and technology to enable integration of intermittent power as a major part of the world’s energy supply.

An unavoidable consequence of the cumulative link between emissions and climate risk is that the benefits of cutting emissions are global rather than local and go mostly to future generations. Climate change thus poses an extraordinary public goods problem. The challenge is to constrain free-riding—the incentive to let others pay the costs of cutting emissions while doing little oneself. To date, negotiations have rested on such idealistic exhortation, with no effective mechanisms to punish free-riding.

Serious progress on climate will likely require two things—one political and the other technological.

First, serious progress in cutting emissions requires a political mechanism to discourage free-riding. I am persuaded by Bill Nordhaus’s argument that a “climate club” provides the best path. In such a club, members would agree to a fixed carbon price and then punish nonmembers with import tariffs. Whatever the mechanism, the key is to provide a tangible near-term incentive to cooperate.

Second, we need to admit that the toolbox for solving the climate problem must include more tools than just incentives for renewables and energy efficiency. We need carbon-free power at a scale that meets growing demand for energy, here and especially in the developing world. Solar is great, but we need other options, and nuclear power is perhaps the only plausible alternative. Moreover, while emissions cuts are necessary they are not necessarily sufficient; the toolset must expand beyond emissions cuts to encompass geoengineering and carbon removal.

The Paris meeting will help strengthen existing national efforts. That’s a big success for one meeting, a better outcome than we have seen from these negotiations in years. But I don’t expect Paris will make significant headway on either of the two topics which are central to getting climate risk under control. Major progress will require partial disassembly and subsequent reconstruction of the current climate policy architecture. We will get there, but I hope we move faster.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Stavins, Robert and David Keith. Paris Climate Conference 2015: A key step in stopping climate?.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Fall/Winter 2015-2016).

The Authors

Robert N. Stavins

David Keith