UN Paris Climate Summit 2015: COP 21 —Amresh Chandra

The Paris Agreement marks the latest step in the evolution of the UN climate change regime, which origi­nated in 1992 with the adoption of the Framework Convention. The out­come of the 21st session of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties, or COP 21 which was held from November 30-December 11, 2015, has been hailed almost univer­sally by politicians and the press as a triumph of international collaboration that will pull mankind back from the brink of ecological disaster.

The UNFCCC established a long­term objective, general principles, common and differentiated commit­ments, and a basic governance structure, including an annual COP. In the years since, the regime has evolved in different directions. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol took a more ‘top-down’ but highly differentia­ted approach, establishing negotia­ted, binding emissions targets for developed countries, and no new commitments for developing coun­tries. Because the United States did not join, and some countries that did set no targets beyond 2012, the protocol now covers less than 15 per cent of global emissions.

With the 2009 Copenhagen Accord and 2010 Cancun Agree­ments, parties established a parallel ‘bottom-up’ framework, with coun­tries undertaking national pledges for 2020 that represent political rather than legal commitments. This approach attracted much wider parti­cipation, including, for the first time, specific mitigation pledges by deve­loping countries. However, coun­tries’ pledges fell far short of the reductions needed to meet the goal set in Copenhagen and Cancun of keeping average warming below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The negotiations towards a Paris agreement were launched with the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action adopted at COP 17 in 2011.

The Durban Platform called for “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties/’ to apply from 2020, but provided no further substantive guidance. COP 19 in Warsaw called on parties to submit “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) well before the Paris con­ference, signalling an important bottom-up feature of the emerging agreement. Heading into Paris, more than 190 countries producing more than 90 per cent of global emissions had submitted INDCs, a much broader response than many had anticipated.

Progress at the Global Agree­ment : A Brief Look

In 1992, governments met in Rio de Janeiro and forged the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. That agreement, still in force, bound governments to take action to avoid dangerous climate change, but did not specify what actions. Over the following five years, governments wrangled over what each should do, and what should be the role of developed countries versus poorer nations. Those years of argument produced, in 1997, the Kyoto protocol. That pact required worldwide cuts in emissions of about 5%, compared with 1990 levels, by 2012, and each developed country was allotted a target on emissions reductions. But developing countries, including China, South Korea, Mexico and other rapidly emerging econo­mies, were given no targets.

A1 Gore, then US vice-president, signed up to the protocol, but it was quickly apparent that it would never be ratified by the US Congress. Legally, the protocol could not come into force until countries representing 55% of global emissions had ratified it. With the US-then the world’s biggest emitter-on the outside, that was not going to happen.

So for most of the following decade, the Kyoto protocol remained in abeyance and global climate change negotiations ground to a near­halt. But in late 2004, Russia decided to pass the treaty – unexpectedly, and as part of a move to have its appli­cation for World Trade Organisation membership accepted by the Euro­pean Union. That made up the weight needed, and the protocol finally came into force.

But in true sense it was not a global agreement. The US, under George W. Bush, remained firmly outside Kyoto, so although the UN negotiations carried on year after year, the US negotiators were often in different rooms from the rest of the world. It was clear a new approach was needed that could bring the US in, and encourage the major deve­loping economies—especially China, now the world’s biggest emitter—to take on limits to their emissions. What followed was, agreed at Bali in 2007 after much drama, an action plan that set the world on the course to a new agreement that would take over from Kyoto.

Copenhagen Conference of 2009

In the Copenhagen conference of 2009 the entire world’s developed countries and the biggest developing countries agreed for the first time to limits on their green-house gas emis­sions. This was a landmark, as it meant the world’s biggest emitters were united towards a single goal. The emissions reductions agreed on were still not enough to meet scientific advice, but they were a big advance on reducing emissions com­pared with ‘business as usual’. But what didn’t happen turned out to be the point that NGOs and many in the press seized on. What didn’t happen was a fully articulated and legally binding treaty.

The Kyoto protocol was a beautifully written, watertight, fully legally binding international treaty, a sub-treaty of the similarly binding

What is Climate Change ?

The planet’s climate has constantly been changing over geological time. The global average temperature today is about 15°C, though geological evidence suggests it has been much higher and lower in the past.

However, the current period of warming is occur­ring more rapidly than many past events. Scientists are concerned that the natural fluctua­tion, or variability, is being overtaken by a rapid human-

induced warming that has serious implications for the stability of the planet’s climate.

What is the ‘Greenhouse Effect’ ?

The greenhouse effect refers to the way the Earth’s atmosphere traps some of the energy from the Sun. Solar energy radiating back out to space from the Earth’s surface is absorbed by atmospheric greenhouse gases and re-emitted in all directions.

The energy that radiates back down to the planet heats both the lower atmos­phere and the surface. Without this effect, the Earth would be about 30°C colder, making our planet hostile to life.

What is the Evidence for Warming ?

Temperature records going back to the late 19th Century show that the average temperature of the Earth’s surface has increased by about 0-8°C (1-4°F) in the last 100 years. About 0-6°C (1-0“F) of this warming occurred in the last three decades.

Satellite data shows an average increase in global sea levels of some 3mm per year in recent decades. A large proportion of the change in sea level is accounted for by the thermal expansion of seawater. As seawater warms up, the molecules become less densely packed, causing an increase in the volume of the ocean.

But the melting of mountain glaciers and the retreat of polar ice sheets are also important contributors. Most glaciers in temperate regions of the world and along the Antarctic Peninsula are in retreat. Since 1979, satellite records show a dramatic decline in Arctic sea-ice extent, at an annual rate of 4% per decade. In 2012, the ice extent reached a record minimum that was 50% lower than the 1979-2000 average.

The Greenland Ice Sheet has experienced record melting in recent years; if the entire 2.8 million cu km sheet were to melt, it would raise sea levels by 6m. Satellite data shows the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is also losing mass and a recent study indicated that East Antarctica, which had displayed no clear warming or cooling trend, may also have started to lose mass in the last few years. But scientists are not expecting dramatic changes. In some places, mass may actually increase as warming temperatures drive the production of more snows.

The effects of a changing climate can also be seen in vegetation and land animals. These include earlier-flowering and fruiting times for plants and changes in the territories (or ranges) occupied by animals.

Greenhouse gas emissions by type
Carbon dioxide
Carbon dioxide (deforestation decay of biomass, etc.)
Methane — 14%
Nitrous oxide — 8%
Carbon dioxide (other) || 3%
Fluorinated gases

Source: IPCC



UNFCCC. But it never met its objectives, because it wasn’t ratified by the US, and not by Russia until it was too late. And none of the coun­tries that failed to meet their com­mitments under Kyoto has been sanctioned.

The Copenhagen agreement, on the other hand, was not fully adopted by the UN in 2009 because of last- minute chaos at the conference, though it was ratified the following year in the form of the Cancun agree­ments. For this reason, the Copen­hagen agreement was derided as a failure by green groups. But the
targets agreed at Copenhagen, in the form of a document signed by world leaders, still stand.

Global Situation Leading to Paris Summit

International community already knows wl)at the biggest emitters have committed to. The EU will cut its emissions by 40%, compared with 1990 levels, by 2030. The US will cut its emissions by 26% to 28%, com­pared with 2005 levels, by 2025. China will agree that its emissions will peak by 2030. Nations respon­
sible for more than 90% of global emissions have now come up with their targets—known in the UN jargon as Indented Nationally Deter­mined Contributions or INDCs. These include all of the major developed and developing countries, though their contributions vary : in the case of developed countries, actual cuts in emissions, but for developing coun­tries a range of targets including limits on emissions compared to ‘business as usual’, and pledges to increase low-carbon energy or pre­serve forests.

Analysis of the INDCS, endorsed by the UN, has suggested that these pledges are enough to hold the world to about 2-7°C or 3°C of warming. That is not quite enough to meet the scientific advice. However, that is not the end of the story. One of the key components of any Paris agree­ment would be to institute a system of review of the emissions targets every five years, with a view to ratcheting them upwards. Another, and complementary approach is to make more effort to bring down emissions outside the UN process, for instance by engaging ‘non-state actors’ such as cities, local govern­ments and businesses to do more.

The other key question, apart from emissions reductions, is finance. Poorer countries want the rich world to provide them with financial help that will enable them to invest in clean technology to cut their green­house gas emissions, and to adapt their infrastructure to the likely damage from climate change. This is a hugely contentious issue. At Copenhagen, where the finance part of the deal was only sorted out at the very last minute, rich countries agreed to supply $ 30 billion ($ 20 billion) of ‘fast-start’ financial assis­tance to the poor nations, and they said that by 2020, financial flows of at least $ 100 bn a year would be provided.

‘Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be’

As a cornerstone of any Paris agreement, poor countries want assurances that this pledge will be met. That has now been given, in several forms : the OECD issued a report in October 2015 showing that two thirds of the finance required is already being supplied; and a report by the World Resources Institute


showed that the remainder can be made up by increased finance from the World Bank and other develop­ment banks, and from the private sector. The World Bank and several governments haye already committed to upping their financial assistance, meaning that a clear path towards the 2020 target can now be discerned.

There is more, however. Poor nations also want a similar provision in place beyond 2020, but there is strong disagreement over how this should be done. Some want all the money to come from rich country governments, but those governments are adamant that they will not provide such funding solely from the public purse. They want international development banks, such as the World Bank, to play a role, and they want most of the funding to come from the private sector. An agree­ment on this is still possible, but it will be one of the main obstacles to a Paris deal.

The Paris Agreement

Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reached a landmark agreement on December 12, 2015 in Paris, charting a fundamentally new course in the two-decade-old global climate effort.

Culminating a four-year nego­tiating round, the new treaty ends the strict differentiation between deve­loped and developing countries that characterized earlier efforts, replacing it with a common framework that commits all countries to put forward their best efforts and to strengthen them in the years ahead. This includes, for the first time, require­ments that all parties report regularly on their emissions and implemen­tation efforts, and undergo inter­national review.

The agreement and a companion decision by parties were the key outcomes of the conference, known as the 21st session of the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, or COP 21. Together, the Paris Agreement and the accompanying COP decision :

  • Reaffirm the goal of limiting global temperature increase well below 2 degrees Celsius, while urging efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees;
  • Establish binding commitments by all parties to make ‘nationally..^

determined contributions’ (NDCs), and to pursue domestic measures aimed at achieving them;

9 Commit all countries to report regularly on their emissions and “progress made in implementing and achieving” their NDCs, and to undergo international review; 9 Commit all countries to submit new NDCs every five years, with the clear expectation that they will ‘represent a progression’ beyond previous ones;

9 Reaffirm the binding obligations of developed countries under the UNFCCC to support the efforts of developing countries, while for the first time encouraging voluntary contributions by deve­loping countries too;

9 Extend the current goal of mobilizing $ 100 billion a year in support by 2020 through 2025, with a new, higher goal to be set for the period after 2025;

9 Extend a mechanism to address Toss and damage’ resulting from climate change, which explicitly will not “involve or provide a basis for any liability or com­pensation;”

9 Require parties engaging in international emissions trading to avoid ‘double counting’; and 9 Call for a new mechanism, similar to the Clean Develop­ment Mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol, enabling emis­sion reductions in one country to be counted toward another country’s NDC.

Next Steps

The Paris Agreement will be open for signature on April 22, 2016. In order to become a party to the agreement, a country must then express its consent to be bound through a formal process of ratifica­tion, acceptance, approval or acces­sion (different terms for essentially the same thing). Each country has its own domestic procedures for decid­ing whether to join an international agreement.

The agreement establishes a ‘double trigger’ for entry-into-force : it requires approval by at least 55 countries accounting for at least 55 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. If states ratify quickly,
these conditions could be satisfied pre-2020, allowing the COP to begin meeting as the ‘meeting of the Parties’ to the Paris Agreement. In the meantime, pending the agreement’s entry into force, a new Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agree­ment will begin meeting to consider issues requiring further rules or guidance. This new Ad Hoc Working Group will meet for the first time when the UNFCCC subsidiary bodies convene in Bonn, Germany, on May 16-26, 2016. COP 22 is set for November 7-18, 2016, in Marrakech, Morocco.

A Critical Assessment of the Treaty

Any examination of the agree­ment, however, makes clear that it is entirely without substance. The ‘land­mark’ pact consists of nothing more than a general promise that govern­ments will make an effort to keep any “increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels,” and will seek to achieve “global peaking of green­house gas emissions as soon as possible.” There are no specific measures mandated for countries that ratify the deal besides a general appeal to be ‘ambitious’ and pursue policies “with the view to achieving the purpose of this Agreement.” There are no specific targets and no enforcement mechanisms, meaning countries that sign the treaty can do whatever they want.

Leading climate scientist James Hansen characterized the deal a ‘fraud’ and a ‘fake’, declaring, “It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises.”

“Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”

Even if, by some miracle, all of the signatories did their part to achieve the stated goal, global tem­peratures would still rise by some 2 degrees by the end of the century which is to experts ‘highly dange­rous’. It would produce a rise in sea levels by several meters, a circum­stance that would inundate many of the world’s major metropolises and lead to “hundreds of millionsjs] of climate refugees.” Amid the efflu­vium of official praise for the climate pact, that of French President Francois Hollande stood out as the most ludicrous.

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