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A New Climate-Policy Paradigm

BERLIN – Let’s be serious: the ongoing United Nations climate negotiations will probably fail. To be sure, as with the recent gathering in Bonn, expectations for the November climate conference in Warsaw are so low that there is almost no room for failure. But, with climate negotiators promising to deliver the global agreement that they could not deliver in Copenhagen in 2009, the December 2015 summit in Paris is almost certain to be another debacle.

For the European Union, the leading authority in international climate policy, the outcome of the Copenhagen summit was particularly disappointing. After years of negotiation and numerous scientific-assessment reports, delegations had the highest expectations for concluding a comprehensive climate treaty. Those expectations turned out to be illusory.

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This time will not be different. While an agreement might be reached in 2015, it will probably not cover all major emitters, and it definitely will not be ambitious enough to achieve the overarching goal of international climate cooperation, which is to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Moreover, negotiators will not get another chance. After more than two decades of largely fruitless debate, during which CO2 emissions have continued to rise, another failed summit will trigger a profound crisis for international climate diplomacy, forcing its proponents either to change the rules of the game or accept that it cannot be won.

The first victim of such a crisis will be the top-down approach to climate policy pursued by the EU and many prominent scientists. This policy-making model begins with the limit for tolerable climate change; the world’s remaining emissions budget until 2050 is calculated from the agreed boundary, then divided among the 193 UN member states.

Should the Paris summit fail (and it likely will), the resulting collapse in confidence in the top-down approach could lead to one of two outcomes. In the worst-case scenario, the very concept of global climate policy would lose all value, with decades of climate alarmism giving way to fatalism. Given that the UN formally accepted the 2°C limit as the starting point for the top-down approach in 2010, the well-practiced strategy of obscuring current failures by announcing more ambitious future efforts would become unsustainable.

At that point, the EU’s role as global climate-policy leader would be weakened, as would its emphasis on building a green economy. With the EU forced to promote second- and third-rate strategies, countries would lose confidence in international climate policy’s problem-solving potential and become unwilling to pursue shared solutions.

As a result, international climate policy would become unrecognizable, ineffective, and, ultimately, irrelevant. Countries would begin to focus almost entirely on enhancing their own ability to adapt to climate change, with ambitious emissions-reduction agreements giving way to exclusively national initiatives in areas ranging from regulatory policy to geo-engineering.

This would leave the EU no choice but to change its internal plans, undermining its ability to stay on track to meet emissions-reduction aspirations for 2050 and diminishing member states’ willingness to agree to ambitious and legally binding climate and energy targets for 2030. Furthermore, the loss of legislative continuity beyond 2020 would create considerable insecurity for businesses in the EU, leading to diminished investment and interrupting – if not terminating – Europe’s advance toward a low-carbon economy. Once such a process begins, the politically fragile EU will be unable to stop it, at least in the foreseeable future.

The other, more promising scenario involves a fundamental shift in how the problem of climate change is understood, and thus in how potential solutions are framed. A new bottom-up approach, whose contours are only just emerging, is predicated on the basic principle that the less emissions, the better.

In order to ensure this outcome, the EU must begin preparing a Plan B that accounts for the coming climate-policy paradigm shift. Such a plan would prioritize measurable progress toward decarbonizing the world’s largest economies over the establishment of global climate treaties or long-term global targets.

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While the new paradigm would safeguard the legitimacy of existing regulatory and diplomatic instruments, such as emissions trading, the EU would have to reconsider the framework for applying them. Plans for flexible, incentive-led cooperation between developed and developing countries (so-called “clubs”) would become increasingly important, with progress depending on the cooperation of major emitters like the United States, China, and India.

In the future, the EU will have to approach climate change primarily as a matter of politics, rather than in terms of scientifically defined objectives. Only by adjusting to the international system’s practical constraints can the EU stay the course of economic transformation, remain relevant internationally, and help to contain global warming.