Paris in three easy parts: Two, what are the issues?


Ruth Davis

The negotiations on a new climate deal are hugely complex and have been going on for years, so it’s easy to lose site of the big picture. Here is one take on the ‘make or break’ issues:

Agreeing global goals

Countries have already agreed that temperature rises should be limited to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and are considering whether this should be lowered to 1.5 degrees. But this temperature goal is hard to put into practice without understanding what it means for our energy system.

Because of this, 2015 has seen an unprecedented push by civil society, faith and business groups to secure a more concrete global goal in the new Paris deal which translates temperature limits into levels of pollution. A range of options for such a new goal are included in the draft agreement

Expect to see a fight in Paris on which option will prevail, with oil producing nations pushing back at anything that would threaten their business model, and China and India amongst others, wary of  backing a binding goal unless it can work hand-in-hand with their wider development needs.  

Of the runners and riders, a commitment to decarbonisation of the global economy gets closest to the demands of civil society, for a total phase out of fossil fuel emissions, and a phase in of 100% clean, safe, renewable energy by 2050.

Ministers are also thought likely to agree on a parallel goal for adaptation – an important step, signalling the need for much more concerted multi-lateral and national efforts to assess the risks from climate change and prepare for its future impacts.

Raising ambition

At the time of writing, 155 countries have put forward national climate plans as their contributions to the Paris deal.  Taken together, these plans will make a significant dent in the effort needed to keep warming below 2 degrees – with projections suggesting that temperature rises could now be contained to between 2.2 and 3.5 degrees, rather than spiralling up towards 4 or 5, as looked likely under previous business-as-usual scenarios.

But the plans – known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs – are not enough to keep us below 2 degrees on their own, let alone 1.5 degrees (the level above which many countries argue their survival will be threatened).  This is why the draft agreement includes provisions to bring countries back to the negotiating table with more ambitious proposals in the coming years.

While progress has been made in agreeing on the need for ongoing ‘cycles of commitment’ (ideally every five years), the details of how they will work are still up for grabs.  Crucial decisions include whether countries will have to come back with new offers by 2020; and if there will be provisions forcing countries to strengthen their targets, if collective efforts fall short. These discussions are likely to get highly technical, with different dates flying around and even experienced observers getting confused; diagrams like this can help.

Agreeing who will take on binding commitments to cut pollution

Under previous agreements, only developed countries (as defined in 1992) had legal obligations to cut climate pollution.  This strict ‘firewall’ between groups of countries is unlikely to survive in the Paris agreement in its current form; but there will be tough discussions about how to differentiate between countries at different stages of development, to make sure the deal is fair, and that those with the greatest ‘responsibilities, capabilities and capacities’ pull their weight.

Language agreed last year by China and US on this issue could point towards a ‘landing ground’, as a final compromise text is often called in negotiator-speak.

Having a plan for finance

Climate finance is the money that richer countries are committed to provide to poorer countries, to help them adapt to the impacts of climate change, and to build clean rather than dirty energy as they become more industrialised. Without a clear indication that rich countries are delivering on their promise to provide $100 billion a year by 2020, and have a plan to make finance flow after 2020, many poorer countries will feel they have been left  to ‘pick up the bill’.  

In particular, they are looking for greater priority to be given to grants to help them adapt to climate impacts.  There is also growing recognition that Paris must give a strong signal to investors, that will help ‘shift the trillions’ of private sector dollars needed to secure a switch from dirty to clean energy across the whole global economy. 

Recognising that less mitigation means more adaptation

Countries facing severe impacts from climate change have argued that adaptation must receive as much political attention as mitigation (cutting pollution) in the Paris agreement.  Progress is being made towards agreeing a global goal on adaptation, but for many, the critical question is whether Paris will acknowledge the link between the scale of mitigation action taken on the one hand, and the need for adaptation on the other.

Put simply, if pollution cuts don’t keep us on course for 2 or 1.5 degrees, adaptation efforts will need to increase to match the effects of higher temperatures.  This requires a greater focus on risk assessment, resilience and adaptation planning; but also an acknowledgment of the costs of inaction, expressed as higher adaptation costs.

Dealing with loss and damage from climate impacts

There are some impacts of climate change to which it will not be possible to adapt – instead, we will be faced with residual ‘loss and damage’.  Examples include Peoples and communities obliged to leave their countries and homes permanently; or the losses associated with destroyed ecosystems.  Countries facing such impacts argue that there should be a specific stream of work to deal with them, referenced within the Paris agreement. Resistance comes from big polluters, who fear that establishing such provisions will open the door to future compensation claims.  

Securing transparency and a level playing field

Countries that take on international obligations like to have evidence that others will take their commitments seriously – including having clear accounting systems, and high-quality monitoring and reporting.  But in reality, whilst it’s great to have someone else’s actions scrutinised, its less fun when it comes to your own; creating a risk that bigger countries will agree to a ‘don’t look at mine and I won’t look at yours’ regime in Paris.

Businesses hate this and it is bad for the credibility of the future agreement.  This is an area where the EU has traditionally been a leader; they will now need to persuade others that strong rules and a commitment to transparency build a good environment for investment.

Getting a binding deal

The agreement being negotiated in Paris is intended to be legally binding.  It will not be a political declaration or other non-binding deal unless there is a catastrophic breakdown in the negotiations.  But within this framework, there is considerable nuance.

This is because the United States Senate will not ratify an international climate agreement; so the deal needs to be constructed in such a way that it will not trigger the need for Senate consent, but instead can be signed off directly by the President.

Basically, this means that specific national targets will not be included within the core agreement, but referenced or ‘anchored’ in a way that commits countries to the actions needed to fulfil them.  At this point, any further explanation will require a raft of lawyers. Watch this space.

Ruth Davis is a senior associate at environmental think tank E3G and consultant to Greenpeace on international climate policy