Paris Climate Change Conference

Paris Climate Conference: State of Play as Week Two Begins

First dispatch: A final universal climate accord by the end of the week?



Paris, France – ?? "The clock is ticking toward climate disaster," warned U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon at the opening of the high-level ministerial session of the Paris climate change conference here in Paris on Monday. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius expressed a similar urgency over the weekend when he declared, "We're talking about life itself." And on Saturday, former Vice-President Al Gore likened the fight against climate change to earlier great moral crusades such as the abolition of slavery and apartheid, the right of women to vote and civil rights for all. Just like them, Gore said, the climate change struggle has a simple "right" or "wrong" answer. "The right choice is to safeguard the future for the next generation and for the generations to come," he declared.

The battle plan to preserve "life itself" and "safeguard the future" is, in large part, embodied in a draft climate change outcome numbering 48 pages that was submitted this weekend by negotiators here at the U.N. climate change conference. That document is supposed to be finalized as a universal climate agreement by foreign and environmental ministers gathered here by the end of this coming week. At these meetings negotiators "bracket" sections of text that are not yet agreed to. Since 939 brackets still litter the final negotiation text, the government ministers who flew in on Sunday to finish up the accord have their work cut out for them.

At the center of the accord are intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs), which are basically the promises that each country has made with regard to how much fossil fuel it plans to burn. For example, the Obama administration pledged earlier this year that the United States would reduce its emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. For its part, in its INDC India promises to quintuple its renewable energy capacity by 2022, but makes no commitments with regard to fossil fuel emissions reductions. So far 185 countries have submitted INDCs covering 98 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

By how much future warming is projected to occur by 2100 if these pledges were honored? Estimates vary from a low of 2.7°C by the Climate Action Tracker group to 3.5°C by MIT's Climate Interactive. The difference between the two estimates is that the folks at Climate Action Tracker optimistically expect countries to continue to ratchet down their emissions reductions after 2030 whereas the Climate Interactive makes no such assumption. More dismally, Copenhagen Consensus Center head Bjorn Lomborg published in November an analysis that concluded that implementing the current INDCs would reduce future warming by just 0.17°C

 In any case, the issues that remain undecided in draft climate agreement are what the actual climate goal should be: how should rich countries pay poor countries to enable them to adapt to future climate change; how should the agreement be monitored; how often should parties meet to evaluate each other's progress; and how should the agreement be enforced?

With regard to the overall goal of the agreement, the draft now offers negotiators a choice between holding the increase in the global average temperature "below 1.5°C" or well "below 2°C" above pre-industrial levels by ensuring deep reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, global average temperature is just shy of 1°C above the pre-industrial average. According to the satellite temperature data, the globe is warming at the rate of 0.11°C per decade, while warming in some surface temperature datasets runs as high as 0.18°C per decade. If the new universal climate agreement settles on 1.5°C as the goal that would imply that humanity would have only three to five decades in which to switch entirely away from greenhouse gas emitting coal, oil, and natural gas as the world's primary energy sources.

Still, the fight over how high future temperatures should be allowed to rise is trivial compared to the one over money. At a Friday press conference one of India's lead negotiators Susheel Kumar flatly stated that climate finance is "not a donation, but is an obligation on the part of developed countries" and that correspondingly there is "an entitlement to receive finance on part of developing countries." At the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference, the Obama administration persuaded the rich countries to promise to "mobilize" $100 billion per year by 2020 in climate finance to help poor countries adapt to global warming. In Paris, poor countries are insisting that $100 billion is a floor and that climate finance should be substantially scaled up from there. The poor countries are also insisting that the accord adopt mechanisms that track and verify the amounts of climate finance flowing from rich countries.

As it happens, the rich countries are now claiming that they are already well on the way toward fulfilling their $100 billion climate finance promises. In October, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) issued a report that estimated "the aggregate volume of public and private climate finance mobilized by developed countries for developing countries reached $61.8 billion in 2014." About 70 percent of the climate finance identified by the OECD is public funding. At the Paris conference the developed countries now contend that their climate finance commitments already stand at $94 billion. Indian negotiators fervently counter that only $2.2 billion is clearly climate finance. Obviously, there is a huge gap between the amounts of climate money the rich countries say they are supplying and what the poor countries believe they are getting. The climate negotiations could founder if the poor countries maintain their "no money—no agreement" stance. 

How to hold countries to their climate change promises is also still far from decided. The rich countries want to set up a system in which all parties account for their emission reductions and other targets that is comparable, measurable, reportable and verifiable. In addition, the negotiators are still haggling over how often parties should be expected to increase their INDC pledges. The United States would like a global stock taking of how effective the INDCs have been to occur every five years starting 2020, whereas China would prefer to wait until the current INDCs play out in 2030.

Even the legal status of the Paris accord is still not settled. The European Union wants the greenhouse gas reduction commitments pledged under the agreement to be equally legally binding on all Parties.  China's chief negotiator Su Wei also asserted over the weekend that if an accord is adopted, then "all the provisions, starting from the preamble to the final clauses would be legally binding." One proposed provision sets up an International Tribunal of Climate Justice. That Tribunal would "address cases of non-compliance with the commitments of developed country Parties on mitigation, adaptation, provision of finance, technology development and transfer, capacity-building, and transparency of action and support, including through the development of an indicative list of consequences, taking into account the cause, type, degree and frequency of non-compliance." The phrase "indicative list of consequences" means devising punishments for failure to cut greenhouse emissions or supply the climate finance promised. What those punishments might be is not discussed, but might include such things as the imposition of carbon-offset tariffs on imports from scofflaw countries.

Of course, one should keep in mind that the prior climate pact, the Kyoto Protocol, was also legally binding. Yet, countries that failed to meet their commitments – Canada and Japan—simply withdrew from it with no consequences whatsoever. Nonetheless, the Obama administration absolutely opposes the idea that emissions reduction commitments in the Paris accord will be legally binding. Why? Because that would mean that the administration would have to submit the accord to the U.S. Senate for its advice and consent. The Senate gets to weigh in if new international agreements impose new legal obligations on the U.S.

The president would instead prefer to interpret the Paris accord as merely extending our legal obligations under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change which was ratified back in 1994. This would avoid certain rejection by the Senate. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the Paris talks, the president did say, "Although the targets themselves may not have the force of treaties, the process, the procedures that ensure transparency and periodic reviews, that needs to be legally binding." So the U.S. will be legally obligated to follow procedures to track, review and report voluntary greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. Very interesting. 

Fabius, who is the president of the conference, has divided the work into four different themes, including implementation that focuses on finance; differentiation that divvies up responsibilities between rich and poor countries; ambition that aims to get countries to promise more action on climate; and what should be done by countries before 2020 when the new accord comes into effect. He promises to have a finished document by Wednesday. (That will never happen.)

This is my first daily dispatch from the Paris climate change conference. I will keep you posted on the plans, plotting, and pacts through the end of the conference this coming weekend.