Skip to main content

What Would Success—and Failure—Look Like at COP21?

Here are the best- and worst-case outcomes for the Paris climate talks.
(Photo: Wally Gobetz/Flickr)

(Photo: Wally Gobetz/Flickr)

On December 11—or whatever day COP21 actually ends, since climate negotiators have a problem with deadlines—your newsfeed will be filled with articles analyzing who won and who lost in the various deals to cut carbon emissions and prepare for (and pay for) life in a warmer world.

Since you’ll probably be busy with holiday shopping by then, let’s jump ahead. Here are three possible Paris outcomes, from best to worst. Look for elements of these scenarios in whatever emerges from the conference, and you’ll be able to confidently opine on the success or failure of the talks.


If each country fulfills its carbon reduction pledge, known as an INDC (intended nationally determined contributions), average global temperatures will likely rise by 2.7 degrees Celsius come 2100, according to the United Nations. While analysts fiercely debate whether our target should actually be a maximum of two degrees or 1.5 degrees, no one wants to live in a 2.7-degree-warmer world.

The best scenario is that a wave of good feeling and cooperation in Paris inspires our leaders to do more. While the INDCs are already submitted, they won’t be formalized until after the conference. Each country will have an opportunity to strengthen its pledge, either by promising deeper cuts by 2030 or by moving its target date forward to 2025. The European Union, for example, wants to lead on climate change. Accelerating its commitment by five years would be a bold statement, and other countries (*cough* China *cough*) could follow.

In addition to a round of strengthened pledges, the best-case outcome would also include agreements on a slew of disputed issues, which brings us to....


If countries aren’t willing to voluntarily improve their carbon reduction pledges, the next-best thing would be a mechanism by which each nation could re-assess and improve its global warming mitigation commitment over time. Various scenarios have been floated, most notably a joint proposal by China and France for five-year review cycles.

Enforcement has been another major sticking point. There has been a great deal of talk across the Atlantic in recent weeks about whether the deal will be “legally binding.” While European leaders demand that it be, the United States says it won’t accept such an agreement. That matters, but it’s hardly something to fixate on. The line between what’s voluntary and what’s mandatory can be hazy when it comes to environmental agreements, and enforcement is somewhat soft. For example, countries guilty of violating the legally binding Montreal Protocol to limit ozone-depleting substances receive international technical and financial assistance. That’s hardly draconian. Trade sanctions are possible, but only after persistent noncompliance, and no country has ever been punished in that way.

Enforcement mechanisms aren’t necessarily important to ensuring compliance anyway. Peer pressure is a powerful tool in diplomacy. Just look north to Canada, where new Prime Minster Justin Trudeau won election in part by accusing his predecessor of turning the country into an international climate “pariah.” Presidents, prime ministers, and premiers will not want their peers constantly asking them why they’re not fulfilling their carbon promises.

In addition to re-assessment and enforcement, an acceptable agreement will need to provide funding for mitigation and adaptation beyond 2020 and will have to improve transparency in accounting and compliance, especially in the developing world. Read more on those issues here.


Despite the strong international momentum for an agreement, as embodied in the ousting of climate change-denying administrations in both Canada and Australia, the negotiations could still implode. Small island nations—which face the most severe and immediate consequences—may decide to walk away if they don’t get the adaptation assistance they need, or if they feel developing countries aren’t taking them seriously on “loss and damage” payments. India has campaigned hard for improved financial support for its mitigation efforts and could withdraw if it doesn’t get it. President Obama, who insisted during the Iran nuclear negotiations that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” might take the same approach in Paris.

More likely than a total collapse is a weak or pro forma agreement akin to what came out of the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference. A kick-the-can-down-the-road deal would earmark a re-assessment process for discussion in future meetings, leave the $100 billion funding commitment for 2020 as the only funding commitment, and fail to address the differing reporting requirements that apply to developing and developed countries.

The recent terror attacks in Paris may serve as an unfortunate reminder to global leaders of what can happen when they fail to work together and leave obvious problems to their successors. Let’s hope they have learned a lesson.


This story originally appeared on Earthwire as “Arc De Triomphe” and is re-published here under a Creative Commons license.