After years of failure to draft global agreements on climate change, the upcoming UN Paris climate conference may be turning a corner. Diplomats have drafted a practical text that will be adopted. Business and environmental groups are engaged in this process in an unprecedented way.

Governments, development banks and foundations are raising money to help the poorest countries pay for emissions cuts and prepare for a changing climate – the main sticking point in 2009, when the last major climate conference in Copenhagen, in disarray was over.

The United Nations and the French hosts have a sophisticated agenda to bring all these efforts together. Even religious leaders have spoken out loudly about the dangers of uncontrolled climate change.

The good news from the Paris meetings will build confidence, which is a vital component for effective international cooperation. Governments and firms will invest in the future with lower emissions if they think others will do the same.

The agreement will demonstrate the feasibility of a new, flexible ‘bottom-up’ mode for climate diplomacy – based on national pledges accommodating different priorities and capabilities. In contrast, the Kyoto Protocol’s rigid goals and timetable attracted few of the world’s emitters.

Yet a dose of moderation is also needed. Agreements are only possible now because diplomats are postponing the toughest problems, such as how to hold nations accountable.

Business engagement can prove short-lived when the spotlight shifts. The good news about climate finance is now possible because the mix of public funding (which is difficult to mobilize and spend effectively) and private funding (which is plentiful but often focused on global goals) is unclear.

Whether the Paris Conference will be successful or not depends on what happens afterwards. Diplomats will have a lot to do until 2020, when the main agreements take full effect. Civil society – businesses in particular – must move from making bold promises to cut emissions.

Governments and businesses must build and invest in review and accountability mechanisms to ensure that they are delivering on their promises – an area in which non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have an important role to play. And scientists must conduct research that is directly relevant to policy making, as well as assessing the underlying causes and effects of climate change.

engage business

The most important challenge will be getting the business on board. It’s easy for companies to make commitments when the world’s media and political leaders are watching. Changes are difficult to implement when fierce competition makes it risky to invest in more expensive but less polluting technologies and practices.

The most striking example of business engagement is the pledge made by several firms and governments to cut deforestation.

In 2010, the Consumer Goods Forum (which includes the largest retailers and consumer-products companies) announced that its members would eliminate deforestation from their supply chains, particularly for palm oil, soy, beef, timber and for the pulp. More than 300 companies have followed (see www.supply-change.org). Major producers and traders of palm oil in Indonesia – which accounts for half of the world’s supply – have pledged to stop converting forest or peat land.

Palm oil is a main culprit in fires that have spread a suffocating haze across the region since August, afflicting more than 40 million people and often causing daily emissions of greenhouse gases that exceed those of the United States.

It is not sure whether these pledges will result in permanent changes in complex supply chains – from how land is managed, to oil produced and finally to consumer products.

There are already signs of trouble. Most businesses pledge to become more sustainable following pressure from NGOs. (One of us, JPL, led WWF International for nine years, during which time the organization was centrally involved in many such efforts.) Firms fear consumer backlash if their products are tied to environmental destruction. (see go.nature.com/5l8yjm).

Following the Paris meetings, CEOs will be required to activate changes through the ranks of their organizations and suppliers; NGOs will need both to keep up with the pressure for action and to work with companies to secure comprehensive reforms in major producing countries.

Shifting entire industries to more sustainable modes of production requires collaboration between government, business, and civil society. Economic incentives must be reimagined so that no firm can profit, for example, by continuing to destroy the forest.

Solutions will vary by country and region, but common threads include better governance – laws, financial systems, property rights and public governance – and investments in helping countries, communities and small producers to transition to sustainability. .

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