Paris may be the tipping point

A climate change agreement is the trickiest of international agreements. It has to ensure that everyone does something to lower carbon emissions, without intruding on the sovereign rights of countries. Its very ratification is not even by consensus. Rather it is agreed upon without a show of hands, unless a country objects. The vague wording then allows member states to go back home and interpret it their own manner. In this way, 200 very different countries can agree to do their bit to save the world and survive the political costs of that back home.

On Sunday that political game will enter its final stretch as negotiators start discussing the contents of what should be an agreement to lower emissions — and adapt to the consequent changes in climate — in Paris at the 21st Conference of the Parties. COP21 is the result of five years of intense discussions, following the collapse of a similar agreement at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. Negotiators will now argue over the final wording of a document which has been slimmed down to under 40 pages of treaty. The current version allows for any conceivable scenario to come out of Paris, thanks to the sheer number of square brackets in each clause — these give the different versions of each sentence.

The legalese and wording of every single sentence is critical. “Shall” implies that countries are legally obliged to do something, whereas “could” and “should” are merely suggestive by nature. The latter two have become more prominent since the concrete negotiations of the 1990s led to the Kyoto Protocol, with its top-down and prescriptive approach. At this level agreements are adhered to because of the political cost of a country not doing what its peers are doing. Few countries have turned their back on the climate change agreements they have signed — Canada, Australia and the United States are the rarity which tends to prove the rule.

But unlike the agreements they opted out of, COP21 appears to have enough momentum to create an agreement that will stick. At its core it has been bottom up, so countries are free to promise action and then do something concrete on their own terms. This has proven more palatable for countries that are concerned about sovereignty, particularly China.

Starting at COP20 in Lima last year, countries have submitted their own plans on what they will do to tackle climate change — the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. These give both adaptation and mitigation goals, but their sum total is not enough to keep temperature increases below 2°C, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the group that hosts the negotiations.

It is, however, a starting point, and allows the bridging of a chasm that previously stymied climate negotiations. In the past agreements have collapsed because of the radically differing demands of developed and developing countries. This divide was entrenched in the early 1990s, when the UNFCCC divided the world into Annex I and Annex II countries. The idea then was developed Annex I countries would do more to lower their emissions, and would help Annex II countries to adapt to climate change. This was due to their historical responsibility for the majority of carbon emissions. But this soon provided to be a major stumbling point because the developed world refused to pay that bill. Rapidly developing countries like Brazil, India and China further muddied the waters by demanding that they still be classified as Annex II, even though their emissions and economies now exceed those of most Annex I countries.

This divide led to the collapse of climate agreements, particularly the proposed agreement in Copenhagen in 2009. That divide still exists, but the creation of the Green Climate Fund has gone some way to bridging it. It will have $100-billion a year in its coffers by 2020, to distribute to countries for adaptation and mitigation work. And, importantly, it has been receiving contributions from both Annex I and Annex II countries. That and the increasingly profound impacts of climate change, mixed with the rapid advances in renewable technology, have given negotiators and civil society great hope that some sort of agreement will come out of Paris by the middle of December.     

The dream agreement

If an agreement does come out of Paris, it will be one riddled with political compromise. In preparation for that, negotiators have been saying that the most important aspect will be to show that governments are serious about tackling carbon emissions. This will then — they hope — give a strong enough signal to the private sector that they intend to actually tackle climate change.

But a stronger agreement may be sought, with civil society groups saying Paris should come up with a version that contains the following points:

– Commitment to steep reductions in fossil fuel use in economies, with a goal to have a world free of fossil fuels by 2050. This would come from Intended Nationally Determined Contributions until 2030, and much more ambitious pathways — allowed by increasingly efficient technology — to be set for the two decades after that;

– A legally binding agreement that is reviewed every five years so new targets can be set in light of new technology and changing national circumstances;

– 2°C is firmly established as the upper limit of average temperature increases, but allowance is made for this to be reviewed in 2020, with the aim of that limit being changed to 1.5°C. This is a big negotiating point for the African group.

– Set a global carbon budget which outlines the total amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted around the world for the 2°C limit to be kept;

– Ensure spending on research, and provision for technology transfer to developing countries. This will allow countries without the technical know-how to adapt development pathways that steer clear of burning fossil fuels;

– Inclusion of non-state actors and the scientific community so both can put their muscle behind finding other ways of developing without fossil fuels. This inclusion will also compel companies to lower their own emissions;

– Guarantee climate financing so that by 2020, $100-billion a year is put into the Green Fund. This will allow developing countries to finance low-carbon development models, and adapt to a changing climate; and

– Recognition of differing responsibilities, so that each country does as much as it possibly can to lower emissions. Those with greater historical responsibility for emissions will be forced to do more as a result.

The different negotiating groups

BASIC: The climate change equivalent of Brics, this includes Brazil, South Africa, India and China. The group rarely acts through this bloc, but it does provide a powerful base for other groups.

G77 + China: A group of 132 countries that present themselves as developing countries. This is the most powerful bloc of countries pushing for things such as finance for climate damage, and it has walked out of previous negotiations to get provisions included for its concerns.

Africa Group: This represents the interests of the continent, with its biggest push to ensure that a climate agreement aims for a maximum 1.5°C increase in global average temperatures.  

LDC: The Least Developed Countries represents 48 of the world’s poorest countries. These are the countries most in need of technical and financial assistance in adopting low-carbon development models, while they will feel the brunt of climate change because of their low adaptive capacity.

AOSIS: The Alliance of Small Island States represents the countries most immediately affected by climate change. Their islands are already disappearing under rising seas, so they are often the most active proponents of an ambitious climate agreement.    

European Union: Usually the most progressive bloc in terms of lowering emissions, it has repeatedly called for a strong, legally binding agreement. But its political capital is weakened by its contribution to historical emissions and calls for it to finance adaptation in developing countries.

Umbrella Group: An informal group of non-EU developed countries. This includes countries such as Canada, Japan, the United States and Russia, which have historically opted out of binding agreements. Their negotiators are often seen as the ones working against an ambitious outcome to climate negotiations.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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