Tick-Tock Moment for the UN’s Climate Talks

Sunday night’s vote in the U.N. climate talks at Bonn, Germany, could end up deciding whether they do — or don’t — do so. While negotiators in Bonn have been close in some areas, the real crunch is expected Sunday, when the vast majority of emissions actions taken by each nation must be approved or not. This is an important reminder of the other forces that shape the success or failure of the talks: the atmosphere, the politics, and how they interact.

Since 2014, almost every climate agreement has required a “ratcheting down” of carbon pollution by its signatories. But this week, there’s evidence that doing so alone could be a difficult sell. In early December, when the talks opened, more than 55 percent of countries announced that they wouldn’t even be trying to meet the current, top level of ambition for reducing carbon pollution in their plans for the post-2020 period.

Some have written off the meagerly scaled commitments as a natural compromise to pander to national politics, some as a byproduct of the fact that the agreements must have “buy-in” by both the large and small emitters. But there’s also precedent for countries to bluff in their climate plans and then walk away if necessary. In 2015, the French economy minister made a very public promise to cut greenhouse-gas emissions at the talks: “I guarantee the cuts are there,” he said at a news conference at U.N. headquarters. “I’ll keep them under lock and key if we’re meeting all of our commitments.” He didn’t, though, because France had decided it wouldn’t reach the official carbon-savings goal it set in Paris. The “lock and key” quip, while poorly-timed, was nonetheless straightforward enough to strike. It would have been much harder to use a similar threat if the French government had failed to deliver on the carbon-reduction promises that it made in the lead-up to the Paris talks — although not necessarily to walk away from Paris-grade ambitions, either.

Leave a Comment