What stage are climate change talks at?

Climate change talks are dragging. After more than 20 years of negotiations, countries have agreed that we must keep global average temperatures from increasing more than 2 degrees Celsius, but they have not been able to agree a plan that would achieve that goal. They have made voluntary commitments to begin reducing emissions, and they’ve agreed some of the building blocks for a global deal. But we see neither the urgency nor the ambition that will be required.

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Why has it been so difficult to reach an agreement on climate change?

This may be the most difficult diplomatic challenge we have ever faced. The problem is hugely complex – the causes and effects of climate change implicate every facet of the global economy. Every country has a stake in the issue, and success will demand bold action by all the world’s largest countries to achieve both sharp reductions in emissions in industrialized countries and an aggressive shift to low-carbon development paths in emerging economies. And of course we are trying to negotiate a solution with 194 parties around the table.

Which countries are most reluctant to take serious action?

The US is most often singled out for its reluctance and appropriately so. It is stunning to see national political leaders asserting that the science of climate change is somehow in doubt. There is no question that leadership from the US would yield a breakthrough in the negotiations. It is also important to note, however, that other countries – Canada, Japan, Russia, to name a few – have also been resisting action.

How will any agreement be enforced?

The short answer is that we don’t know. One can be sure that before the parties agree to a binding deal, there will be intensive negotiations on how it is to be enforced.

Given the difficulties of getting an inter-governmental agreement, could action in the private sector act as a substitute?

It is still vitally important that we establish a global regime that ensures a concerted effort to reduce emissions. Given the pace of negotiations, however, it is also clear that we must find other ways to spur action. We need leadership both from companies and also from individual governments at all levels.  

Companies can reduce emissions from their own operations, of course, and many have already done so. They can also help drive down emissions across their entire value chains, and by making products such as electric cars that help consumers reduce their own emissions.  Already you see some companies stepping up to this challenge, because they recognize that the future belongs to businesses that are leading the way to a low-carbon economy.

Governments can also act without waiting for an international agreement. Last year, Denmark announced that they would meet all of their energy needs with renewable sources by 2050, and mapped out a detailed road map for achieving that goal. China, the world’s second largest economy, is investing very intensively in developing renewable energy and driving greater efficiency into its economy.  Some states in the US are taking action, despite a political stalemate at the national level. And many of the world’s largest cities are expanding transit systems, discouraging car use, and establishing strict efficiency standards for new buildings. There are many compelling reasons to get much more out of the energy we use, and to shift from fossil fuels to energy sources like sunlight and wind that are clean, abundant, and free.