The Paris Climate Negotiations Next Year Will Be a Fiasco

Why there will not be a global climate change treaty in 2015


Lima COP-20

Next December, the nations of the world are supposed adopt a "protocol, another legal instrument or agreed outcome with legal force" in Paris to comprehensively address the problem of man-made climate change. That's not going to happen.

Consider what happened earlier this month at the 20th Conference of the Parties (COP-20) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Lima, Peru. The rich countries, including the United States, sought to get an agreement that focused chiefly on persuading all nations to make firm commitments about how they planned to handle their greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades. The developed world wanted every country to submit their "intended nationally determined contributions" (INDCs) by the end of March 2015. From the rich nations' point of view, the INDCs should aim at achieving the 1992 UNFCCC's goal of stabilizing "greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." This means that INDCs should be primarily about reducing emissions—in climate-negotiators' parlance, at mitigation.

The developed world also wanted to set up a formal process in which all INDCs would report roughly comparable information: baseline dates, the current sources and amounts of emissions, the projected trajectories of future emissions, and so on. They further proposed that every country's INDC be rigorously assessed by next June to see whether, when combined, they would be adequate to keep the global average temperature from increasing more than the 2 degree Celsius temperature limit set at the Cancun climate change conference in 2010.

When a draft version of the Lima Call for Climate Action reflecting this agenda was issued toward the end of the negotiating session, the poor countries rebelled. They were particularly vociferous in arguing that the draft agreement violated the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" enshrined in the UNFCCC. Without going into legalistic detail, the developing countries—including China—interpret that principle as requiring only the countries that were rich and developed in 1992 to cut their emissions. Nations that were then poor, they argue, are not obliged to do so. In addition, the poorer states want to be paid for the damage the wealthier countries did to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels as they got rich.

In the face of a threatened walkout by the poor countries, the Lima Call for Climate Action was substantially modified. The draft document had contained no promises with regard to financing or technology transfers from rich to poor countries. The new version, instead of focusing on emissions cuts, now states that the Paris agreement "shall address in a balanced manner, inter alia, mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology development and transfer, and capacity-building, and transparency of action and support." In addition, the mandate detailing the information that that all countries, rich and poor, were supposed to provide in their INDCs was scrapped and replaced with provisions that allow countries to present information "as appropriate." Basically, governments can decide for themselves if they even want to cut their emissions and what information they want to provide.

From the poor countries' point of view, the Paris agreement next December must include provisions requiring rich countries to provide them with climate financing to aid their adaptation to a warming world, plus funds to pay for the loss and damage that they suffer from climate change. Notionally, financing for adaptation is supposed to cushion poor countries against future climate change, whereas loss and damage payments compensate countries and communities for climate change damage to which they cannot adapt. The poor states are demanding $100 billion in climate aid by 2020. After that, climate aid payments might exceed $1 trillion annually.

Attached to the Lima Call for Climate Action is a preliminary draft document outlining various options for a Paris agreement. It is a Chinese menu of provisions that highlights just how much discord there is over global climate policy. For example, the draft offers several options with regard to setting a firm goal for greenhouse gas emissions cuts. Countries might agree to cut emissions to 40 to 70 percent below their 2010 levels by 2050; or cut them by 50 percent below their 1990s levels with a continued decline thereafter; or go for full decarbonization by 2050. Or rich countries could agree that their emissions will peak in 2015 and then aim for zero net emissions by 2050.

The section on the financial resources to be provided to poor countries suggests an annual floor of $100 billion; or, alternately, the agreement might not specify any amount of climate aid at all. Under the proposed provisions dealing with sources of finance, Option 1 states that climate aid should primarily come from the rich countries' government budgets. Under Option 2, private funds would play a greater role. Also undecided is whether countries will have the right to assess and challenge data issued by other countries with regard to their treaty commitments. They also need to figure out whether the parties will have to update their INDCs every five years or every 10 years.

According to the Lima Call for Climate Action, climate negotiation sessions this coming spring are supposed to reduce these options and produce a slimmer "negotiating text" before May.

The interests of the rich and poor countries just don't converge on this issue. The poor nations are not going to forego using cheap fossil fuels to energize their economic growth unless the rich states agree to fork over huge sums to them annually. And the rich countries aren't about to give hundreds of billions to corrupt governments in the developing world, particularly when many of the latter are declining to make any commitments until they see the money—and are refusing to let anyone monitor and assess whatever commitments they do make.

So there will be a big flop in Paris this time next year. And then the climate-crisis circus will roll urgently on to still more venues in the years after that.