Ewan Kingston

Ewan Kingston

Exploring the Anthropocene

Thoughts on current developments in environmental governance and policy

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Celebrating the Paris Agreement

Posted on January 12, 2016 at 7:00 PM Comments comments (0)

 Explain the Paris agreement to me in 17 words.

Countries agreed to collectively to solve climate change, and individually to set their own targets for doing so.

So won't every country just set weak-sauce targets, and leave the hard work to others, meaning nothing gets done?

First of all, even some developing countries have already set some pretty strong-sauce targets. Morocco, for example set a target of emissions reductions of 32% by 2030, effectively freezing its emissions while growing its economy. The EU is already aiming for a substantial 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

But more importantly, the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that countries have submitted so far are not set in stone. In fact, after a five-yearly "global stocktake" (effectively starting in 2018 ) that reviews the additive effect of all countries targets, countries are required to re-up their NDC. EU Climate chief Miguel Arias Cañete has already strongly suggested that the European mitigation target will be significantly boosted after the first formal review, and there will be powerful incentives on all countries to increase their efforts, as technology makes cuts easier, and the impact of peer pressure pushes countries to do more on all their goals.

But there's no consequences for failing to meet their targets!

Well, welcome to the messy world of international law. Unlike the national communities we live in, the global community does not have its own police force that can legitimately coerce law-breakers back into compliance. The only real resources the UNFCCC ever had on its side was via reputational effects – other countries naming and shaming those that didn't live up to their pretty promises. The strength of the Paris Agreement is that it embraces this constraint, rather than ignoring it, like the Kyoto Protocol did. It also allows “clubs” of countries to form that require strong actions from prospective members.

Further, what experienced Panamanian diplomat Gilberto Arias calls the  "hidden triumph" of the Paris agreement is that the process of regularly making public targets empowers civil society (that's us) to compare and contrast different countries efforts and call out laggards and loop-holers. Whereas the targets set at Kyoto were arranged behind closed doors through a small number of state-state negotiations. Paris ensures target setting will be in full sight, and reach, of increasingly sophisticated climate justice NGOs.

Still, carbon emissions “peaking as soon as possible”? Net-zero emissions “in the second half of the century“? Transparency rules that “build upon collective experience”? Couldn’t the agreement have been much more precise?

Let's think about the circumstances of the agreement. There are 196 countries at the table. Each one had a different set of objectives going into the deal. Low-lying and vulnerable countries wanted a tight cap on emissions and temperature rises, oil-producing countries and developing economies didn't. Countries with a lot of forests wanted forests in the deal, many other countries didn't. The US and EU wanted tight reporting requirements on all countries, large developing economies didn't. Countries that were classed as developing in 1992 wanted to hold on to the "Annexes" from the 1992 Framework convention, the EU and other developed countries wanted a new start.

Add to this volatile mix the decision rule of the UNFCCC: consensus. So any country has the power to quash an agreement if it left out anything from its "christmas list". On paper, the hopes of getting an agreement any stronger then Copenhagen's 5-page "climate change is bad, mmmmmkay?" seemed slim.

Vague language is the lubricant that allows some of the most difficult political conversations to be postponed, while settling others. But it's a delicate thing. Too much lube and it will be impossible to hold anyone to the Agreement they make, too little and it will be too abrasive for anyone to consent to it.

It's true that the Agreement and Decision are vague, but there's also substance there. For instance, we have an ambitious long term goal, a clear process for submitting targets, and a timetable for reviewing them. In the Decision we have the commitment to address climate displacement, a floor of 100bn per year in climate finance from developed countries, high-level champions and a major meeting to promote ambition before 2020. That the Paris Agreement says anything at all is as George Monbiot reluctantly agrees, really a miracle, brought about by some stunning diplomacy from the French hosts.

Your Paris Climate Talks Cheat-sheet

Posted on December 6, 2015 at 10:35 AM Comments comments (0)

Edit: Adding references to what actually emerged in the text of the final agreement, in italics below - October 24, 2016

We're midway through two weeks of negotiations that will influence the world for decades to come. What are some of the points of contention, and how might they be dealt with in the final text? 

photo: UNFCCC

Mitigation of Climate Change

Everyone seems to accept: that determining individual targets of every country by direct negotiations and then enshrining them in a treaty will not work. The US recalled the difficulty of doing this with just a handful of countries at Kyoto in 1997 and noted [@25:00] "you can't do that with 196 countries". Brazil agrees in this press conference [@5:30].

The alternative, "self-differentiation", with countries determining for themselves what represents their fair share of the task, inspires wide participation, albeit with mixed levels of ambition. 184 of the 196 countries have submitted their planned contributions to the global mitigation effort, very many for the first time.

The big question: Should the same rules around the monitoring, reporting and verification of mitigation targets (i.e."transparency") apply to all countries?

"Yes": The US said on Friday  "Transparency is vital... we are pushing for a responsible and strong system" [@8:30]

"No": Brazil on Friday: "Intrusiveness is not welcomed. We have countries that have always had different obligations in terms of reporting... a lot of things still need to be worked out on this issue" [@9:30]

What to watch for in the final Agreement: Is there a section on Transparency that refers back to "The Convention", or mention phrases such as "differentiated between developed and developing countries"? These are wins for developing countries. 

In the final text: A compromise - there is a single transparency framework but it does contain "built in flexibility" to take into account countries' "different capacities". It also draws on the "collective experience" of the current  two-track transparency framework under the Convention.  (Article 13)

On Finance

Everyone agrees: That some emerging developing countries are in fact already voluntarily contributing funds to combat climate change.

The big question: Should this pattern of "South-South co-operation" be enshrined in the Paris Agreement?

"Yes":  The EU said on Saturday: "We will keep on supporting, and increasing [our support], but every country in a position to do so should also support developing countries. We have to enlarge the base of donors" [@ 26:30] The US:"There is already an "expanded donor base, we just want to capture that" [@20:00].

"No": Malaysia, for the group of "Like Minded Developing Countries" quoted UN statistics on the proportion of the worlds poorest living in India, Brazil, China and South Africa in Saturday's plenary. "Has the world changed?" he asked. [@49:00]. India's chief negotiator Susheel Kumar even rejects the very language of a "donor base" that is being used at the conference, stating [@12:00]  "it's not donation...it is an obligation". 

A related big question: Are developed countries actually on track on their current commitment to "mobilise" 100bn in finance per year by 2020?

"Sure": The OECD put out a report this October, which suggests that developed countries "mobilised" USD 62 Billion in 2014 from private and public sources. The US refers to the report as using "conservative methodology" [@17:00] and suggests the number could be even higher. 

"No Way":  The G77 and China (a bloc of almost all the developing countries) called the OECD report "a mirage", developed cynically outside of the UN. On Saturday in a COP session, the Marshall Islands stated that " the100 bn promise at Copenhagen is tainted by what some feel is creative accounting" [51:00]

What to watch for: Does the final agreement mention "Parties in a position to do so" in the Finance section? This would be a concession by major developing countries. 

In the final text: "Parties in a position to do so" was dropped from the drafts. Its replacement in Article 9 states only that emerging powers are  "encouraged to provide or continue" financial support "support voluntarily."


Compensation and Liability

Everyone agrees: text on "loss and damage" (roughly, the damage that occurs depsite mitigation and adaptation) can form some part of this Agreement, or at least the weaker Decision coming from the same meeting.

The tricky question: what does "Loss and Damage even mean?

"Compensation and Liability": The word "compensation" has been deleted from the draft text months ago, and is not used in the official negotiations, but it's common knowledge that vulnerable countries hope that "loss and damage" will eventually mean  processes for extracting compensation for irreversible damage from historic emitters.

"Anything but that": The US support Loss and Damage initiatives being placed under the current Warsaw International Mechanism, which currently looks like another body to help countries adapt to climate change. At Saturday's press conference they said: "There's one thing that we don't and won't accept in this agreement - the notion that there should be liability and compensation for loss and damage" [@13:45].

What to watch for: A key insertion in the draft text refers to the initiation of "a process to develop approaches to address irreversible and permanent damage" within four years. If something like this survives, it's definitely a win for vulnerable countries and a step to keeping liability and compensation at least on the agenda in the near future.

In the final text: While the Agreement contains a "laundry list" article on Loss and damage, outlining many different possible paths the Loss and Damage Mechanism could take, compensation and liability is explicitly ruled out in the COP decision (paragraph 51)

Legal form

The Obama administration has made two points clear. The bad news is that a treaty with legally binding individual targets on emissions or finance will have to go to the US Congress where it will almost certainly be rejected. The good news is the President wouldn't need to send to Congress what Special Envoy Todd Stern calls a "hybrid treaty" [@26:30] that is only binding about the process of submitting and the MRV of countries self-determined targets, not the targets themselves. Individual US senators have also stressed these points in press conferences at Paris.

The tricky question: How important is it to write a treaty that the US can ratify?

"Very": The Obama administration, obviously. Allies such as New Zealand seem committed to a hybrid treaty, and allies in the forum such as New Zealand propose text to implement that.*

Not convinced?: The EU on Saturday publicly stated that "the European Union clearly supports a binding international agreement with mitigation agreements that are also binding" [@16:00]. However, they also recognise the importance of US participation and seem to be showing willingness to compromise on this. 

What to watch for: It sounds trivial, but if the final agreement states that countries "should" meet their mitigation targets, this is not legally binding language, and probably will be ratifiable by the US. If it says they "shall" it may well not be ratifiable by the US.

In the final text: This was an interesting one! The official "take it or leave it" version of the Paris Agreement that was circulated around all countries on the afternoon Saturday 12th December had a "shall" in a place the American delegation thought would be unacceptable to congress. The Americans claimed it had slipped in as a typo, while some developing countries suspected a last minute bait-and-switch.  Whatever the provenance, the "typo" was corrected, and while countries "shall" submit 5-yearly pledges, Developed Countries only "should" take economy-wide emissions reductions. (Article 4)

A whole bunch of other stuff

I've left out many issues here, including the discussions about how ambitious a long-term temperature goal should be, the timing of successive rounds of countries' commitments, the appropriate role of forests in the UNFCCC and more. I gotta leave something for y'all to find out, right? 

Follow the rest of the negotiations via official webcasts of selected sessions and on this amazing google doc from a pair of young observers. Latest draft texts and the final text will appear here.

Hit me up with comments and questions: [email protected]

 *minor edit 6 Dec for clarity