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The COP20 Desert Road Leads Somewhere

This time the global climate change talks were definitely not different. In Lima last week the global climate intelligentsia concluded their most recent horse trading on how to increase ambition before 2020 and thereafter. In the end, it was a decidedly bracketed affair, with many items left undecided. Still, important groundwork was laid for COP 21 in Paris, 2015 where world leaders will come together to ratify a long-term global climate deal committing their countries to reducing emissions, supporting adaptation, raising climate finance and developing technology.

But then again, COP 20 was never intended to be a defining moment in solving global climate change. Instead, it is a milestone on the road to developing post-2020 global architecture aimed at stopping political backsliding on greenhouse gas abatement commitments and to accelerate ambition consistent with a 2oC world.

The question is has anything changed as the global climate intelligentsia close yet another Conference of the Parties?

On the plus side, there has been significant learning in the art of the global deal. The Kyoto Protocol era that died in Copenhagen in 2009 sought legally binding targets for the world’s largest emitters. This placed the mitigation burden solely at the feet of the developed world. It then became easy for factions within developed countries to point to rising economic stars such as China, India and South Africa and assert, under the competitiveness flag, that taking climate action would destroy markets. Deferring domestic policy to a legally binding international treaty also did not sit well with domestic legislatures like the U.S. Congress, and so the dream of a unified global policy architecture died a slow and painful death.

Learning from the Kyoto era, climate negotiators have taken a country driven approach where mitigation plans and policies are set by national governments while the global architecture defines common administrative benchmarks for monitoring and reporting. The new country driven focus asks national governments to bring forward self-determined GHG reduction pledges and importantly how domestic policy will deliver. The China-U.S. bilateral deal of a month ago is a direct outcome of this new bottom-up approach. Expect Canada to come forward in the first half of 2015 with a long-term emission reduction pledge and even perhaps, a climate change plan.

Which then brings us to what has not changed. Leaders at home and abroad have consistently made pledges and committed to policy only to pivot away later as costs were revealed. Pledge and backslide seems to be the dominant climate policy trend of the last 20 years with no government immune. Examples include the weakening of the European Union emission trading system, the inability of the U.S. to implement policy consistent with its 2009 targets until very recently, Canada’s eight national climate change plans, and Australia’s long and winding road in and out of carbon pricing. Even Germany, that hotbed of green energy, is of late burning more coal, putting its GHG targets at risk.

But the political pivot goes both ways, and when world leaders come together anything can happen. In Kyoto in 1997, Prime Minister Chretien pivoted with world leaders in the room by adopting a target that was well beyond what had been negotiated with provinces and industry. Prime Minister Harper in Copenhagen in 2009 also surprised many by aligning Canada’s target with the US, even though analysis showed that Canada has fundamentally different mitigation costs. Just last month the Prime Minister pivoted significantly on climate finance, getting ahead of the bureaucracy in announcing in the heat of the G20 Brisbane Summit that Canada would contribute $300 million to the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund.

So what can we expect from climate policy in 2015? The optimist foresees an emerging global climate architecture more in tune with political realities while keeping the spotlight on global laggards. The pessimist is wary of the twin ghosts of climate negotiations past and the politics of the present. In the end, as always, it boils down to fickle political will. In Canada, fickle political will is the only constant in climate policy. With a federal election in 2015 and global pressure on the Prime Minster to act, anything is possible. Just don’t expect an uptick in ambition.

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