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In 1992, more than 150 nations agreed at a meeting in Rio de Janeiro to take steps to stabilize greenhouse gases at a level that would “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” — United Nations-speak for global warming.

Many follow-up meetings have been held since then, with little to show for them. Emissions of greenhouse gases have steadily risen, as have atmospheric temperatures, while the consequences of unchecked warming — persistent droughts, melting glaciers and ice caps, dying corals, a slow but inexorable sea level rise — have become ever more pronounced.

On Monday, in Paris, the signatories to the Rio treaty (now 196), will try once again to fashion an international climate change agreement that might actually slow, then reduce, emissions and prevent the world from tipping over into full-scale catastrophe late in this century. As with other climate meetings, notably Kyoto in 1997 and Copenhagen in 2009, Paris is being advertised as a watershed event — “our last hope,” in the words of Fatih Birol, the new director of the International Energy Agency. As President François Hollande of France put it recently, “We are duty-bound to succeed.”

Paris will almost certainly not produce an ironclad, planet-saving agreement in two weeks. But it can succeed in an important way that earlier meetings have not — by fostering collective responsibility, a strong sense among countries large and small, rich and poor, that all must play a part in finding a global solution to a global problem.

Kyoto failed because it imposed emissions reduction targets only on developed countries, giving developing nations like China, India and Brazil a free pass. That doomed it in the United States Senate. Copenhagen attracted wider participation, but it broke up in disarray, in part because of continuing frictions between the industrialized nations and the developing countries.

The organizers of the Paris conference have learned a lot from past mistakes. Instead of pursuing a top-down agreement with mandated targets, they have asked every country to submit a national plan that lays out how and by how much they plan to reduce emissions in the years ahead. So far, more than 170 countries, accounting for over 90 percent of global greenhouse emissions, have submitted pledges, and more may emerge in Paris.

Will these pledges be enough to ward off the worst consequences of global warming? No. Scientists generally agree that global warming must not exceed 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, from preindustrial levels. Various studies say that even if countries that have made pledges were to follow through on them, the world will heat up by 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century. That would still be much too high, and it would be guaranteed to make life miserable for future generations, especially in poor low-lying countries. But it would at least put the world on a safer trajectory; under most business-as-usual models, temperature increases could reach 8.1 degrees or higher.

Eventually, of course, all nations will have to improve on their pledges, especially big emitters like China, India and the United States. If the Paris meeting is to be a genuine turning point, negotiators must make sure that the national pledges are the floor, not the ceiling of ambition, by establishing a framework requiring stronger climate commitments at regular intervals — say, every five years. This should be accompanied by a plan for monitoring and reporting each country’s performance. Earlier meetings have done poorly on this score.

Other important items dot the agenda. One is how rich nations can help poorer ones achieve their targets. Another is stopping the destruction of tropical forests, which play a huge role in storing carbon and absorbing emissions. The meeting also seeks to enlist investors, corporations, states and cities in the cause. Michael Bloomberg, who made reducing emissions a priority as mayor of New York, will join the mayor of Paris in co-hosting a gathering of local officials from around the world.

The test of success for this much-anticipated summit meeting is whether it produces not only stronger commitments but also a shared sense of urgency at all levels to meet them.

Post Author: David Mayes

Founder, Mayo615 Technology Partners Ltd., UBC adjunct faculty, Intel alumnus, technology assessment, international business, cleantech, fly fisherman, native Californian and citizen of France, who has been very fortunate to have traveled, lived and worked all over the globe. My wonderful wife, Isabelle has reintroduced me to my French Provençal heritage.

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