BioRes Paris Update #3 | “The end of a journey, the start of another” as Paris Agreement adopted

13 December 2015

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To the sound of applause and cheers, nearly 200 nations enthusiastically welcomed the adoption of the world’s first-ever universal emissions-cutting regime, finally clinched on Saturday evening in Paris following an extraordinary diplomatic push over the last fortnight that saw ministers hammer out key details in several all-night negotiating sessions and a flurry of last-minute bilateral meetings to ensure a safe landing.

The deal was gavelled by the emotional host nation France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, charged with steering the Twenty-first Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP21).

Under the new “Paris Agreement” ­– the first formal multilateral climate pact struck in 18 years ­– all nations from 2020 will present “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) every five years. These self-defined national climate action plans should outline mitigation pledges and should increase over time. 

Other notable features include a new best-endeavour temperature limit outlined as part of the “purpose” of the agreement. Although parties reaffirm previously-agreed intentions to hold global average temperatures well below a two degree Celsius rise from pre-industrial levels, they would also pursue best efforts to limit these to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The inclusion of this lower limit came as a surprise to many observers and has been credited to both the efforts of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a 43-country coalition currently chaired by the Philippines, as well as the sign-up of Brazil, Canada, the US, and the EU to a “High Ambition Coalition” in favour.  While seen as more of an aspirational goal by some, others underscore the addition of this lower temperature goal as a pinnacle feature of the Paris deal.

The agreement also aims to increase countries’ abilities to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change – establishing a new global adaptation goal to strengthen climate resilience and reduce vulnerability– and make finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.

The remainder of the deal addresses a range of areas relevant to international cooperation on climate change captured both in a COP21 decision and the annexed agreement. The 19-page decision elements cover practical details and contain many key modalities to hash out in the coming years through an “Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement” (AWGPA), while the 12-page agreement focuses more on aims, obligations, and general guidelines.

“The text before us is not perfect, but we believe it can launch our further efforts, and it is the best we can get in this historic moment in time,” said South African environment minister Edna Molewa on Saturday night on behalf of the G77 and China negotiating group, adding that further technical work will be needed on the decision elements.

A key section in the decision focuses on enhancing action before the deal’s entry into force, including by urging all nations to implement past UNFCCC decisions and encouraging the voluntary cancelling of emissions units issued therein.

There are provisions within this pre-2020 action section urging parties engaged in internationally transferred mitigation outcomes to report transparently in order to ensure environmental integrity and avoid double counting. It also strongly encourages developed countries to scale up climate finance and commits to several other processes for boosting interim mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Final denouement

The new deal is broadly based on elements from a 42-page draft outcome agreed last Saturday by the “Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” (ADP) – the body created in South Africa in 2011 with the mandate to reach a legally binding climate deal by the end of 2015 to replace the current Kyoto Protocol upon expiry in 2020. That document drew on nearly four years of talks, reflection, and sometimes-fraught debate on how to structure a comprehensive framework for addressing climate change in a world long-defined by high-emissions growth pathways.

Last Saturday’s draft document left some of the toughest areas in the UN climate discussions for ministers to tackle in the final week, including differentiation in climate action between countries at varying stages of development, financial support to help boost efforts in poorer nations, and the precise collective level of ambition.

Steadfast divisions in these areas persisted throughout last week and other new rifts emerged. Tentative progress was nevertheless showcased through new draft outcomes, penned by Fabius, released on Wednesday and Thursday with each iteration slashing the number of brackets in the text. In a bid to accelerate compromise, Fabius whipped ministers into closed roundtable talks until dawn on Friday, but reported spats over the key areas continued to stall conclusion.

Phone calls between world leaders fuelled rumours in a tense COP21 venue that a deal was close, with Fabius, French President François Hollande, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon eventually presenting the final text on Saturday morning.

“Do we want an agreement? The impasse between nations over the years on climate change has been so much of a disappointment for all those that wanted the world to have a future. This impasse has thrown doubt on the ability of the international community to act. But you, with all the progress you have made here, you and only you can provide us with the answer,” Hollande told country delegates, with instructions to convene in the afternoon for the final rendezvous that eventually came three hours late as countries ironed out last hiccups with the text.

Learning curve, new approach

For many stakeholders, the new climate regime marks a concrete turning point both for tackling climate change, as well as for international governance more generally.

“The Paris conference is not the finishing line but a new starting point. The global efforts on climate change can be taken as a mirror for us to reflect on what models to have for future global governance,” Chinese President Xi Jinping had told fellow world leaders gathered at the start of the talks. “We should create a future of win-win cooperation with each country making contributions to the best of its abilities.”

Although the Paris Agreement is adopted under the UNFCCC, in pursuit of the “objective of the Convention” and “guided by its principles,” its approach to international cooperation on climate change differs from past formulas tried and tested over the last two decades.

First proposed at the 2013 UN climate talks, the NDCs imply a “bottom-up” approach to international climate action.  This is in contrast to the top-down nature of the Kyoto Protocol that mandated emissions-reduction targets for only 37 developed nations as identified by Annex I of the 1992 UNFCCC founding text. However, the Kyoto Protocol has been widely labelled as inadequate for meeting the challenge at hand, in the face of spiralling global emissions and its limited coverage.

An attempt to remedy the situation and build a stronger climate deal in 2009 collapsed after world leaders arriving at the end of disgruntled negotiations in a freezing Copenhagen, Denmark, were faced with nearly 300 pages offering limited clarity on difficult issues. A “Copenhagen Accord” was outlined with countries to voluntarily submit emissions reduction pledges but this was widely rejected by many developing nations shut out of a final-closed door drafting session. For several observers, the UN climate talks have since engaged in a difficult process of rebuilding trust between nations and learning from past mistakes.

Heading into Paris over 180 nations had already outlined a first intended NDC. With several more countries having now also made announcements, these cover nearly 95 percent of global emissions, a feat seasoned climate observers have said is remarkable given the issue of “differentiation” that has long bedevilled the process. The principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” (CBDR-RC) is enshrined in the Convention’s opening paragraphs and refers to the idea that parties have different responsibilities and capacities for climate action as defined by national economic circumstances.

However, as centres of global growth and emissions have shifted, older industrialised nations have called for a deal that covers all. Meanwhile, developing nations underscore the importance of upholding obligations set by the Convention in terms of finance and technology transfer, among others, in light of these countries’ twin challenges of poverty alleviation and of tackling climate change.

The Paris outcome addresses the differentiation challenge in specific ways in almost every article. The level of detail speaks to the complexity of securing the final deal, with flexibility, timelines, capacity-building, and means of implementation ruling the day in order to ensure that all nations will be able to cut emissions and pursue sustainable development.   

For example, Agreement Article 4.4 on mitigation stipulates that developed countries should continue to take the lead through economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets outlined in the NDCs, while developing country parties should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts and are encouraged to move over time towards these types of goals or “limitation targets” – as opposed to weaker cuts from “business-as-usual” levels – in light of national circumstances.

As a testament to another shift in climate policymaking, the COP21 venue was vibrantly animated over the last two weeks by regional officials, mayors, business figures, innovators, and campaigners, as the accommodating French hosts sought to showcase existing momentum for climate action already underway. Many stakeholders commented on the unique atmosphere in Paris, a stark contrast to other UN climate talks where optimism has too often been absent.

Raising ambition, transparency, capacity

For all the potential benefits of the NDCs, various assessments of these have already determined that these fall short of the collective effort needed to lower emissions to address climate change.

In a surprise move for some stakeholders, the decision text includes a “carbon budget” by noting with concern that current efforts do not fall within least-cost two degree Celsius scenarios, and that much greater efforts will be needed to reduce emissions to 40 gigatonnes by 2030 from a current projected level of 55 gigatonnes. The agreement also includes a reference to a “global peaking” of emissions “as soon as possible,” in order to a balance between emissions and removals by “carbon sinks,” language some observers say is a watered down reference to net zero emissions.

Resistance reportedly also emerged around the five year review cycles mid-week from China and others, given that their current intended NDCs cover a 2020-2030 timeframe. This appears to now be accommodated in the decision text, with one paragraph urging countries that have already outlined 2025 timeframes to present a new NDC by 2020, and a subsequent paragraph requesting countries with 2030 targets to communicate or update these by the same date.

The new NDC submissions should be informed by a global stocktake as detailed in Agreement Article 14 designed to assess progress towards achieving the deal’s delivery on its long-term goals. A first review will take place in 2023, with subsequent ones to follow every five years. Under the decision parties will also convene a facilitated dialogue in 2018 to take stock of efforts and progress, an arrangement strongly pushed by the 28-nation EU.

Another potential stumbling block in the talks was around crafting common climate action accounting rules for all parties, a key demand from developed nations, suggesting that existing differentiated transparency arrangements for reporting on emissions reductions would be inadequate for an effective deal.

The decision establishes a new “capacity-building initiative for transparency,” in order to help developing countries meet transparency requirements as defined under Agreement Article 13. The decision text stipulates that all parties, except for least developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing states (SIDS), should submit at least every two years information on adaptation, loss and damage, finance, and technology.

The AWGPA will further develop recommendations for modalities, procedures, and guidelines for these activities by 2018 and define a year for their eventual update. Flexibility should be incorporated into the development of these modalities.

The agreement’s transparency section adds that all parties should also regularly communicate national inventory reports of emissions, complementing Article 4.13 on mitigation that states that all parties must apply guidance developed by the AWGPA for accounting the national contributions, starting from their second submission. Under transparency arrangements, information submitted on finance and technology will also undergo a technical expert review in order to identify areas of improvement, including consistency of information.

Means of implementation

As expected by many stakeholders, the framing of finance obligations in relation to differentiation was among the most difficult areas to crack last week. Both the decision and Agreement Article 9 stipulate that developed countries will provide financial resources to help developing nations with respect to both mitigation and adaptation.

In a separate paragraph, the agreement adds that “other parties” are encouraged to provide or continue to provide such support voluntarily, reflecting careful compromise after developing nations pushed back against any language implying they too might have financial obligations under the Convention. References to South-South finance have been removed compared with earlier drafts.

The agreement also specifies that developed country parties shall biennially communicate quantitative and qualitative information on climate finance mobilisation, with other parties doing so on a voluntary basis. Observers note that information on how to account for finance flows has been dropped in the final text compared to previous versions, and while this may be outlined as part of the transparency modalities, it could mean continued ambiguity around how to track climate finance.

On another hotly-debated issue in the talks, the decision text stipulates that all parties will before 2025 decide on a new collective quantified financing goal from a floor of US$100 billion per year, reiterating that developed countries intend to continue to mobilise that figure up to that point based on a 2009 pledge. Earlier drafts had suggested setting short-term collective goals for mobilising financial resources starting in 2020, creating some sort of burden-sharing formula, or focusing only on developed country obligations.

According to a number of experts, scaling up the right technologies for climate mitigation and adaptation is critical, but has thus far faced challenges including around capacity, finance, and expertise. To this end the decision decides to strengthen the Technology Mechanism (TM) and also establishes a new technology framework to provide overarching guidance for this work. The details of the framework will be elaborated next May by UNFCCC subsidiary bodies. “The enhancement of enabling environments for and the addressing of barriers to the development and transfer of socially and environmentally sound technologies” are among the areas to be considered.

The text also clearly creates links between the TM and the UNFCCC financial bodies, a key ask for many poorer nations who argued that insufficient funds had thus far been provided for technology-based activities, and decides to undertake a periodic assessment of the effectiveness and adequacy of support to the TM.

A separate “Paris Committee on Capacity-building” is also set up, with the aim to address capacity gaps along with current and emerging needs for developing countries. A work plan for the period 2016-2020 is defined and further terms of reference as well as membership will be worked out in due course.

Using markets, alleviating competitiveness concerns

Under Agreement Article 6 parties recognise that some nations may pursue voluntary cooperation to implement their NDCs. Where this involves the international transfer of mitigation outcomes, parties should promote sustainable development, environmental integrity and transparency, apply robust accounting, and avoid double counting, following guidance adopted by the first Paris Agreement COP as elaborated in the interim by UNFCCC subsidiary bodies.

The agreement also establishes a mechanism to contribute to the mitigation of emissions and support sustainable development under the Paris Agreement COP for use on a voluntary basis. The mechanism will, among other things, contribute to the reduction of emissions in a host party, which can be used by another party to fulfil its NDC. The mechanism will be supervised by a body designated by the parties.

Public and private entities as authorised by a party may participate in these activities. Proceeds generated by the mechanism will also cover its administrative expenses and assist particularly vulnerable countries in adapting to climate impacts. The Paris Agreement COP will adopt the rules, modalities, and procedures for the mechanism. The decision text also specifies that these reductions will need to be “real, measurable, and long term,” as opposed to “permanent,” implying that land use and forests carbon initiatives may be eligible. For some analysts this could lead to concerns around environmental integrity.

According to experts, the mechanism will draw lessons from Kyoto Protocol shared mitigation arrangements, but with an aim to deliver “overall mitigation on global emissions” it will move beyond traditional offsetting.  

“The text provides clarity that market approaches will continue to play a role in international climate policy,” Anthony Mansell, International Fellow at the US-based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) told BioRes. “Countries still need to develop detailed rules for an international mechanism, but this would be a positive step.”

Mention of market mechanisms in the final deal came as a surprise to some observers, after all references were bracketed in Thursday’s draft, and reports emerged that a group of countries remained ideologically opposed to their inclusion. Thus, an accompanying “framework for non-market approaches” is also defined in the agreement.

Several proponents of market-based mechanisms welcomed the Paris deal, suggesting that the expansion of tools putting a price on carbon could help to alleviate industry competitiveness concerns in a global marketplace.

A section in the decision welcoming the role of non-state actors in responding to climate change also recognises the role of providing incentives for emission reduction activities including carbon pricing. Many commentators ahead of the final deal had also hoped that the result would provide a sufficient market signal to economic actors to help shift investments.

In a further push for markets, New Zealand on Sunday unveiled a ministerial declaration on carbon markets, signalling the importance of these for implementing the Paris Agreement. 

Climate action in a connected world

The decision preamble acknowledges the specific needs and concerns of developing countries arising from the impact of the implementation of “response measures” – a technical term for climate action impacts on third parties – and decides that a “forum” focused on this issue will now continue after its previous mandate expired in 2013. To this end, UNFCCC subsidiary bodies will recommend by the Paris Agreement’s first COP the modalities, a work programme, and functions for such a forum, geared towards exchange of information, experiences, and best practices to raise countries’ resilience to these impacts.

For some observers, this partially extends and will replace debates in UNFCCC subsidiary bodies on the subject, which had seen the G77 and China negotiating group push for a “cooperative mechanism” on response measures to recommend specific tools, actions, and programmes to address adverse impacts. (See BioRes, 30 November 2015)

The agreement’s preamble does recognise that “parties may be affected not only by climate change,” but also by measures taken in response to it, and emphasises the intrinsic relationship that climate change actions, responses, and potential impacts have with equitable access to sustainable development and the eradication of poverty.  The agreement’s mitigation section also specifies that parties should take into consideration in implementing the agreement the concerns of parties with economies most affected by response measures, particularly developing nations.

In addition, according to the decision, parties should consider information on the social and economic impact of response measures when developing the accounting modalities under the transparency framework.

“Response measures” have proved a complex topic in the UNFCCC context, held dear by a number of developing countries, who recall Article 4.8 of the Convention specifying that their needs should be taken into account in the face of the adverse effects of climate change and/or the impact of climate action. Article 2.3 of the Kyoto Protocol meanwhile stipulated that bids to cut emissions should try to minimise any adverse effects, including on international trade, as well as impacts on developing nations.

Although all parties to a degree recognise the value of discussion, the topic has been troubled by perceptions that it serves the interest of oil-dependent economies, and concerns around superfluous obligations.

“It is increasingly an issue that touches all countries, as the level of climate ambition increases,” Andrei Marcu, Head of the Carbon Market Forum of the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), told BioRes on Saturday on response measures. “This cannot be about compensation, but about a sustainable transition, as well as a level playing field for competitiveness in the global economy.”

References that “unilateral measures” should not constitute a disguised restriction on international trade, and that developed countries should not use these against goods and services from developing country parties on any grounds related to climate change, have been scrubbed from the final text compared to previous versions.

However, given that the agreement is under the Convention, analysts recall that the deal should respect UNFCCC principles that include a pledge to promote an open international economic system to enable sustainable economic growth in order to enhance climate action.

“The Paris text is a solid basis on which to build the global transition away from fossil fuels. The agreement recognises the role of the private sector, and of technology in contributing to holding global warming to a safe level. By helping to ensure the most economically efficient means of delivering the transition, trade will be an important tool in this effort,” said Adrian Macey, a former New Zealand climate change ambassador and WTO negotiator.

Non-sectoral approach

Through the NDCs the Paris outcome eschews a sectoral approach in most instances. Compared to last Saturday’s draft, the final text drops references to working through the relevant UN agencies to cut emissions from international aviation and shipping. Although a disappointment for some green groups, given that each accounts for around three percent of aggregate emissions, a figure projected to significantly grow if no further actions are taken, some work is already underway multilaterally in this area.

International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) members have pledged to develop a proposal for the first-ever global market-based mechanism (MBM) on aviation emissions by 2016. A proposal to set a quantifiable emissions reduction target under the International Maritime Organization (IMO), however, was put off in May with the body instead focusing on energy efficiency regulations.

Agreement Article 5  does carry over efforts already underway through the UNFCCC to reduce emissions from deforestation, including through encouraging results-based payments designed to maintain or boost forest cover in some developing countries given that these act as a major carbon sink.

Practical details

According to the final text, the UN Secretary-General will convene a high-level signature ceremony in New York on 22 April 2016, with the window for signing on staying open for twelve months thereafter. Article 21 specifies that the agreement will then enter into force 30 days after 55 nations accounting for a total of an estimated 55 percent of total emissions have presented the UN with instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval, or accession.

Many ministers last night acknowledged that the deal is just the start of broad efforts to secure a low carbon economic transformation, given that climate-warming fossil fuels remain the source of 81 percent of the world’s energy mix.

“This COP may be the best chance we have to correct the course of our planet,” US Secretary of State John Kerry had said last Wednesday. “We already have the solution. That’s part of what is so frustrating about this.  The solution to climate change is energy policy,” he continued.

Whether the Paris deal has “done enough” to tackle one the world’s greatest existential challenges remains to be seen in the months, years, and decades ahead. Despite the hurdles faced in the final stretch, its passage underscores that international cooperation can find solutions to common challenges, a message of hope to buoy the world into the new year.

ICTSD reporting. 

Photo credit: Siqi Han 

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