What to Make of Top World Leaders' Opening Climate Bids

The leaders of Russia, China, Germany, and the United States offered ambitious initiatives in their speeches at COP21. How optimistic should we be?
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President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry greeted today at COP21 by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, United Nations climate chief Christina Figueres, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and French President François Hollande. (Photo: Christophe Ena/AFP/Getty Images)

Heads of state took the stage at the Paris climate summit on Monday, exhorting negotiators to unite over the global challenge of climate change. While most of their rhetoric centered on infusing talks with optimism, they also offered new ideas and points of focus. Below are some of these points, as parsed by experts.

President Xi Jinping of China reiterated his country's commitment to the goals outlined in its post-2020 climate plan. In addition, he highlighted a number of other actions such as adopting a spate of new policy measures aimed at creating a low-carbon energy system, implementing a carbon-trading market nationwide, and piloting 10 low-carbon development zones in other countries. In a press conference following Xi's speech, World Wildlife Fund's Deng Liangchun, who serves as senior policy program manager at WWF's Climate Group, expressed tempered excited about those low-carbon development zones, which would build on the South-South Climate Cooperation Fund that China first announced back in September.

"This is something that China has been highlighting domestically for quite a while," Liangchun said. "And China wants to expand that to other least-developed countries and island countries as well." Liangchung also highlighted the Chinese president's vow to launch 100 adaptation and mitigation projects in developing countries, which would provide approximately 1,000 people with training opportunities around the world. "These are good things coming from China," was Liangchung's verdict.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel began her remarks by denouncing the Paris terror attacks, then segued into a pep-talk on the need for countries to work together. Merkel said the core purpose of these talks is to keep the Earth from warming more than two degrees Celsius, and added that for island nations, even this benchmark may not be enough. (Merkel also urged the Parties to re-assess commitments every five years.) “Chancellor Merkel sees the urgency in addressing the climate crisis as well as the promise in shifting to a zero-carbon economy," wrote World Resources Institute's Jennifer Morgan in an analysis after the speech. Morgan added: “Her support for strengthening country commitments every five years—starting in 2020—is particularly important to informing negotiations in the coming days. She reiterated her call for a long-term goal in the agreement to decarbonize the global economy over the course of this century.”

Morgan also addressed Putin's remarks, noting with approval all that Russia had done to cut emissions. "President Putin's speech was a constructive addition to the climate talks," wrote Morgan, who serves as global director of WRI's climate program. "He acknowledged the grave challenge that climate change poses for all of humanity and lent his support to reaching an international, binding agreement that keeps global temperature rise below two degrees."

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama spoke directly about his country's central role in global warming—America is the world's second largest emitter of greenhouse gases—and promised to "embrace our responsibility to do something about it." It was arguably the president's strongest statement to date acknowledging America's heavy responsibility with respect to climate change; in remarks following Obama's speech, World Wildlife's Lou Leonard agreed.

"What we saw was the president recognizing the importance of giving countries confidence that resources will be available for them to begin to move in the right direction," he told reporters after the president spoke. Leonard also expressed enthusiasm for an adaptation-investment fund that Obama mentioned. "We'll have to see the level of investment," Leonard said, adding that current projections for the fund suggested "useful" but not "game-changing" levels of finance.

Another thing that stood out to Leonard: Obama said the United States would help establish a "risk initiative" to fund an expansion of clean energy research and development, though here, too, Leonard qualified his optimism.

"Again, we'll have to wait for the details to know how significant it is," said Leonard, who serves as vice president of climate change for WWF. "The most important thing the U.S. delegation can bring is signals that they are going to take responsibility to help trigger this transformation that we need to see in developing economies."

Of course, these NGO experts have good reason to be banging the drum for hope—part of their job is to steer people away from cynicism. Still, if their insights are any measure of progress, we have a lot of momentum going into these talks.

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Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change” is Pacific Standard’s aggressive, year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.

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