Key issues still face COP21

COP21 was always going to come down to the last week, where ministers arrive and try iron out what disagreements are left in the draft text of a possible climate change agreement. 

Sleepless nights and intense pressure mean an agreement should still be reached – creating a global goal for managing temperature increases.

But the hurdles are great. After four years of negotiations – starting after COP17 in Durban – the draft deal still runs to 48 pages. It also has more than 900 square brackets, which are left to show areas of disagreement.

These brackets chart the different options available in a possible final agreement, often allowing for a choice between an ambitious path – such as the world completely moving away from fossil fuels by 2050 – and one riddled with political compromise – such as countries doing as much as they think they can, but without an overarching target.

A similar plethora of brackets and options led to the collapse of a possible agreement in 2009 in Copenhagen, at COP15. But then the text ran to several hundred pages and China and the United States were resolute in blocking action. This time the two countries have been solidly backing a positive outcome.


Now the disputes have focused on several core issues, which tend to divide the world into developed and developing countries. These have to be decided by Friday for an agreement to be signed, although most negotiations run over time by at least a day. 

This week will be about ministers coming together to iron out any problems, by agreeing to compromise or trade to get what suits their country best. This compromise will decide whether or not the world has a document with which to lower carbon emissions and adapt to climate change. 

1 – Finance
The developed world wants a COP agreement to focus on mitigating – lowering emissions to keep global warming below 1.5°C or 2°C this century. But the developing world wants the agreement to have a solid component dealing with the damage caused by climate change, with most historical emissions coming from the Europe and North America. 

Island states – which are already being eaten away by rising sea levels – and poor developing countries are at the forefront of this movement. These are the countries least responsible for carbon emissions, but most likely to suffer. They want a “loss and damage” compensation for climate damage.

At most, the developed world has agreed to have $100-billion a year by 2020 in the Green Climate Fund. This will equally fund adaptation and mitigation projects. But the developing world – particularly India – has questioned how much will actually be committed to this fund and want stronger guarantees. 

2 – How hot can the world get
Climate negotiations have as their stated goal the imperative of ensuring average global warming does not exceed 2°C. Average global temperatures have already increased by half that number. It is a number pushed by the developed world. 

But COP21 has seen a strong call for that target to be revised down to 1.5°C. This is because vulnerable countries will struggle to survive a change that great. This is especially true in Africa, where the temperature has increased at 1.5 times the world average. As a result, this is a cornerstone of the African group negotiations in Paris. 

The current draft agreement allows for both of these options. But countries – particularly those in the oil-rich Middle East – have pushed back against this, as it requires the world to move away from fossil fuels at a much quicker rate.

3 – Will the agreement have legal force
Paris is about getting countries to agree to a framework that ensures everyone lowers their carbon emissions. It is a process that relies a great deal on trust between nations, and the expectation that everyone will do their bit. 

Prior to last Monday, most of the world’s countries had submitted their plans – Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. These are voluntary plans that each country says they will implement. But there is no punishment for not doing what is in the plan.

Many countries are therefore pushing for a legally-binding agreement, which will force countries to act on climate change. This is especially important for the developing world, which wants guarantees on funding and renewable technology to be carried through – instead of the possibility where developed countries lower carbon emissions and do nothing for those suffering from historical and current emissions. 

4 – How much pressure for change going forward
The intended contributions are only applicable in the 2020s and many countries have called for a continual updating of these contributions. The most-supported plan has been for the contributions to be revisited every five years so that their ambition can be increased as technology improves and national circumstances change. 

This will allow a possible Paris framework to continue long into the future, with a chance for plans to be changes as circumstances demand. 

5 – Who is responsible
When climate negotiations started in the early 1990s, they divided the world into two simple blocks – developed and developing. The former included western countries and the latter covered everyone else. This would allow the developed world – with more money and technology – to lead the push away from fossil fuels and help the developing world with the damage from a changing climate. 

But this binary world has been broken by the arrival of mega developing countries – particularly in the form of India, China and Brazil (which along with South Africa form the Basic negotiation group). These want to be classified as developing so they do not have to pay for the damage their emissions are doing – China and India are the first and third largest emitters in the world, respectively – and get climate finance. 

The developed world is resistant to this, and is pushing for a classification of the world according to current capabilities. This has come down to a straight fight between the United States, European Union and the Basic countries and presents one of the largest hurdles, politically, that will have to be overcome in Paris. 

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

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