A la carte action on climate change

PARIS (Reuters) - At the end of bargaining, when the last bracketed differences in diplomatic language were [resolved] [dropped] [glossed over], the global climate accord that emerged from two weeks of talks in Paris proved to be a very a la carte deal.

A woman walks past a map showing the elevation of the sea in the last 22 years during the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, December 11, 2015. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

The intentional flexibility of the Paris agreement was constructed not only to accommodate the diversity of 195 national interests. It had to compensate for its limited legal authority with enough aspirational language to send governments away confident that a global turn from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources was inevitable.

“You cannot always press the parties to do something on your own terms,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told Reuters in an interview just hours before the agreement was adopted but not in serious doubt.

“Just motivate the parties so that they do it in their own way.”

Most countries in Paris accept that they face a wicked problem in trying to stop rising global temperatures. With some exceptions, there is a willingness to get off dirty energy sources, though many will still need to burn a lot of coal for quite a while. All know it will take billions of dollars to get there.

What no one wanted to accept was an onerous collection of international rules dictating how they do it.

The final accord therefore repeatedly “invites,” “urges,” “requests” and “further requests” countries to take action. The most ambitious goals - such as holding the increase in global temperatures to 1.5 Celsius degrees above pre-industrial levels - are aspirational, requiring belief that technologies yet to be invented will offer a realistic route to achieving them.

Ban called the coming together in Paris “the apex of multilateralism.” And while he said the U.N. will actively encourage implementation of the deal, the real action on climate change has clearly moved to the national and local level, where hard strategic choices lie ahead for governments, big business executives and energy start-ups alike.

“This text will send signals to civil society, consumers and businesses,” said Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research as he mulled the prospects for the world to reach the 1.5 degree Celsius target someday. “It will be up to business, consumers, citizens and particularly investors to finish the job.”

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By almost all estimates, the transition to a low carbon economy will need to summon trillions of dollars for investment in renewable energies, conservation and subsidies for those new sources to compete with fossil fuels.

The shift is already underway. Coal prices have collapsed in the developed world, pressured by tough pollution regulations as well as newly abundant natural gas supplies. The last deep pit coal mines in Britain - birthplace of the fossil fuel-driven Industrial Revolution - are closing, and the price of energy produced from solar panels is falling.

“From now, on, the smart money will no longer go into fossil fuels, but into cleaner energy, smarter cities, and more sustainable land use,” said Felipe Calderon, former President of Mexico, one of the world’s biggest oil producers.

Now chair of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, Calderon argued that governments must turn their commitments in Paris into policy, adding that they will find “these actions are also in their economic self-interest.”

With some passionate exceptions, civil society groups also appeared energized by the Paris deal. Many chose to see a half-full version of the text, vowing to seize the spirit of Paris to step up a global movement to get investors to divest their holdings from fossil fuel companies.

“Since pace is the crucial question now, activists must redouble our efforts to weaken that industry,” said Bill McKibben, co-founder of, a grassroots movement that campaigns for divestment and direct action against projects that would further develop and transport fossil fuels.

Still, countries face distinct hurdles in driving energy changes at home.

The Obama administration has come close to exhausting the use of executive authority to push new regulations that would cut carbon emissions.

Nor is any new legislative action remotely likely as long as Republicans control the U.S. Congress. The party has made clear they don’t buy the argument that climate change is a serious problem, and it has no intention of voting to fund the U.S. contributions to helping developing countries convert their economies to a low carbon future.

It has also joined the fossil fuel industry and many states in a legal challenge to Obama administration regulations that would cut pollution from power plants.

Meanwhile in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is determined to electrify rural India, a gargantuan feat only possible at the moment by producing and burning vast amounts of cheap coal. Modi sees electrification as the route to improving the lives of millions of Indians, as well as a way to entrench the political appeal of his Bharatiya Janata Party with voters in rural areas.

“We should appreciate the challenges India has,” Ban told Reuters. “Three hundred million people do not have access to electricity and hundreds of millions of people live under the poverty level.”

How to square those demands for social and economic justice with the promises made in Paris is the calibration politicians and business leaders will now have to make. Those choices will determine whether the architects of Paris showed foresight with their creative flexibility, or just let everyone off the hook.

Reporting by Bruce Wallace; Editing by Sandra Maler