In the success camp are those dedicated to the process: declaring the UN negotiations a failure will only discourage further participation. Countries as well as ordinary people will become disheartened and turn their attention to other matters. For success, we need engagement, and people engage with successes. This might be called the “fake it till you make it” camp.
On the other side are those who point to fundamental shortcomings in the agreement. The 195 nations participating have agreed to keep planetary temperature increases to 2C, but the emissions pledges they submitted come nowhere near that goal.
In truth, there are two metrics in use here, and neither is particularly useful.
Measured in terms of progress — is what we get an improvement over last year? — almost anything deserves a “yes.” The UNFCCC has so consistently failed to deliver meaningful results that any movement, no matter how minimal, is an improvement.
Measured against where we need to be — decarbonizing the economy, compensating the impacted, building a more peaceful and just society, and finding the funds to make it all happen — there is no doubt that the agreement will fall far, far short. Even the official U.S. position, with perhaps the most modest definition of “success,” acknowledges that the agreement won’t get us to 2C. Again, this metric offers a foregone conclusion — failure.
These two narratives — marginal improvement over the past, nowhere near the minimum we need — dominate the analysis of the climate change negotiations. Because both are nearly always true, neither is helpful in actually measuring the progress made at this round of talks.
One of the advantages of quantitative metrics — in this case, emissions reduced or funds delivered — is that they allow a more nuanced analysis than the binary “success or failure” framework. We all understand that 60% of a goal is a substantial achievement, still far from what’s needed, and yet significantly better than 40% of the way there. Unfortunately, we won’t know if this meeting has had any impact on the carbon or financial budgets for some years, and we’d like a more immediate report card on the meeting itself.
So, what better yardstick is there to measure the success of the climate negotiations? I wish I knew. Because until some clever thinker gives us a different lens into this process, we’re going to end up hearing the same recycled narratives, year after year.