The Road to Paris

by Inline Policy on 22 Oct 2015

Politicians have shown they are serious - to achieve a positive outcome, the negotiators need to do the same.

For those not acquainted with the international negotiations on climate change - perhaps even more so for those who have that first-hand experience - they are at best an irritant, at worst a pointless relevance. Since the UNFCCC[1] process began in the early 1990s after the international community agreed that “dangerous” climate change should be addressed, negotiators have gathered year after year in different parts of the world to discuss how the international community can take action to mitigate the climate problem and how the most seriously affected regions (usually in poorer countries) can adapt to the changes brought about by the steady increase in atmospheric and sea temperatures.

There has been the occasional breakthrough, notably the Kyoto Protocol of 1997; but also disastrous reversals in the form of the 2009 COP in Copenhagen, 23 years on from its founding conference in Rio, it’s become a legitimate question: what is the UNFCCC for?

Of course there are extenuating circumstances. International trade talks (GATT, WTO[2]) that have rumbled on since the post-war period illustrate the challenge of multilateral diplomacy and decision-making in a process that involves (in the UNFCCC’s case) 196 country members. Moreover, it’s debatable whether anything more complex and far-reaching - taking into account past, present and future; reaching into the economic well-being of nation states as well as comprehensive energy and environmental factors - has been negotiated than an international agreement on climate change.

However, fundamentally, the negotiators who turn up at COP meetings and pre-meetings every year are ultimately answerable to their political masters. And in 2015, it seems that the political and external conditions necessary to enable a global deal on climate have never been so favourable. Here is the evidence:

1) The G2 genuinely want this. Ever since the US and China announced last autumn, following the UN Secretary-General’s high-level global climate summit in New York in September 2014, that they would strengthen their bilateral co-operation in tackling climate change, the focus of both the American and Chinese leaderships has been on domestic action which will also provide a backdrop conducive to an agreement at Paris. Their Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDCs) - the proposals to mitigate their emissions based on a range of national low-carbon measures - are proof of America and China’s serious intent. The joint Presidential announcement on climate change following President Xi’s visit to the White House in late September, setting out the two governments’ vision for Paris - “an agreed outcome with legal force” (comment: a harbinger for the Paris text itself?) - and including the potential game-changer of a Chinese national emissions trading scheme in place in 2017, underlined that the G2 see a positive outcome at COP21 as a very high priority.

2) The power and influence of US/Chinese words and actions can be seen on the other INDCs recently submitted, notably from India (who have exceeded expectations with their ambition) and Brazil (the first occasion on which a large developing country has committed to an absolute reduction in emissions). Overall on the INDCs, the single most important point is the number of countries who have now submitted their national pledges to the UNFCCC - a number which has now exceeded 150. This buy-in to climate action from around the world is really quite unprecedented: what this does is give these nations’ governments a commitment to global action and to acting on their own patch. In short the INDCs are probably the single biggest reason why Paris should not be Copenhagen 2.0.

3) The COP hosts, France, have been conspicuous through their public statements - from President Hollande downwards - in their determination to get a result at the COP. Their efforts behind the scenes, placing the French diplomatic machine at the service of the COP team in Paris, have been even more super-charged. All this activity has been particularly focused on the vexed issue of climate finance, where they and others appear to be making progress on the signature $100 billion climate finance for developing countries target - ref the recent report from OECD/Climate Policy Institute launched at the World Bank Annual Finance Ministers Meeting in Lima. On the political level, Hollande and his Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (the COP chair - this is also a signal of French intent, as the Chair is normally the Environment Minister of the host country) need this meeting to be a success and will do everything they can to avoid it being other Copenhagen. Which is not to say that the finance issue is resolved by any means -witness the statement from the V20 (developing countries most at risk from the impacts of climate change) calling for access to more money, which might be raised e.g. through a financial transactions tax (FTT). But Fabius has said, “with some certainty”, that the $100 billion target will be reached. (How much achieving this target goes towards resolving the much bigger issue of finance for the low-carbon transition overall is questionable, but its totemic importance for Paris should not be under-estimated.)

4) The push for a climate deal coming from business and non-state actors. High-profile interventions like those of the Pope have been well-documented. Perhaps less well understood has been the steady and growing lobbying from business for a climate deal in Paris. The catalyst for this was probably Ban Ki-Moon’s Global Climate Summit last year, which brought together top business leaders as well as heads of government. Since then, even fossil fuel companies have been prominent in calling for an agreement in Paris, cf the statement from 10 large fossil fuel companies setting out their demands for a “progressive pathway for addressing climate change” coming out of Paris. There will be an avalanche of statements from business associations between now and the end of November that they want a climate deal and what they would like to be included in it.

So why the continuing nervousness about whether Paris will deliver an agreement, even if it’s an imperfect one? In short, the negotiators on the road to Paris this year have collectively failed to demonstrate that they have kept pace with the more enlightened approach shown by many of their political leaders. Two previous negotiating sessions in Bonn (June and August/September) exhibited too many of the UNFCCC’s past failings: an obsession with process over content; a focus on excessively narrow national interests married to an inability to see the bigger picture; lack of consideration for the timetable, and negligible recognition that a primary reason why Copenhagen failed in 2009 was that there was no proper draft text on the table before the parties convened at that COP. Heads of government, foreign and environment ministers, as President Obama has passionately testified, were then left in the invidious position of having to do their own negotiating on the text in only 24 hours - under the full glare of the world’s media. It’s no surprise that they failed to produce a positive outcome.

It’s therefore encouraging that the two co-chairs of the Paris negotiating process (in UNFCCC parlance, they are co-chairs of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform - the ADP) have seized the bull by the horns and published a much-streamlined text (only 20 pages, contrasting with the 76 page version released in July after the parties met in Bonn in June. This latest text, despite its relative brevity, has still come in for criticism: European Climate and Energy Commissioner Cañete has called it “not balanced, lacks in ambition, and in specificity in too many issues.” This text is conspicuous for what it doesn’t include as much as for what it does contain. Many are disappointed that it insufficiently points the way ahead on decarbonisation by its failure to contain language on a zero emissions goal. Most pertinently, the language on how countries should progressively ratchet up their targets for emissions reductions is not clear-cut and lacks bite - even if does propose that parties should re-submit their target pledges every five years.

This issue of “progressivity” - increasing ambition - may well be the most important (and therefore potentially contentious) of all the crux issues that will need to be determined at the COP if a satisfactory agreement is to emerge. Enough analysis has already been published to tell us that the accumulation of INDCs won’t do enough to enable the rise in global warming to be limited to 2 degrees C - a point which will be reinforced by the synthesis report on the INDCs to be published by the UNFCCC Secretariat shortly. A commitment to build on the INDCs in future years so that climate and low-carbon policy actions are steadily ramped up - in line with the climate science and responding to technology developments - and will be extremely important to persuading the business and financial communities, above all, that the world is on a low-carbon pathway and that the direction of travel is set.

The UNFCCC negotiations in Bonn this week will therefore be a significant test of the negotiators that they can match the signalling on a low-carbon future that has come from so many national sources, symbolised by the INDCs. No-one is pretending that the negotiations in Bonn and then in Paris itself will be easy. History has taught us that, and that every party will understandably want to argue hard for their own national interests; it may yet be significant that several of the fossil fuel-based economies, such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, are still to submit their own INDCs. In the final analysis, negotiators will need to take forward their discussions so that the process, via the co-chairs, is ready to deliver a substantive, coherent and presentable text to representatives before they gather in Paris on 30 November. Otherwise, nerves and apprehension will intensify that the UNFCCC process is simply too dysfunctional to supply an international climate change agreement which perhaps, finally, the political will really is there to uphold.

[1] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

[2] General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade; World Trade Organisation

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Topics: Paris, Bonn, Conservative party, Energy and environment, Economy

Inline Policy

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