Countries are now on their own to mitigate, adapt as well as pay for the costs of climate impacts, but this cannot keep the rise below 2oC.
At one level there is relief that it is all over. We now have a rulebook that operationalises the Paris Agreement. At another level, there is the stark realisation that we are in a deep trouble. The Paris rulebook is completely inadequate to contain the worst impacts of climate change. I have just returned from Katowice, Poland, where the 24th Conference of Parties (CoP24) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held. The negotiations went into extra time. But such delays are not always for valid reasons; they are also by design. Some big powerful countries drag negotiations and tire out negotiators from small/developing countries. As these negotiators cannot sustain the pressure indefinitely, they ultimately acquiesce to a weak agreement. That is what exactly happened in Katowice.
In the first week, the US, Russia, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia—all fossil fuel-dominant economies—held up negotiations on the matter of “welcoming” or “noting” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) special report Global Warming of 1.5°C. Words matter in international treaties. “Welcoming” the IPCC report would have meant that countries had accepted the findings of the report, and hence, would be guided by its conclusions. “Noting”, however, meant that countries had taken note that such a report existed and they could use its conclusions as they wished. At CoP24, both these words were not accepted and a list of fuzzy words was used to marginalise the IPCC report. This meant that the CoP24 could not start a process to increase the ambition of countries to cut emissions. Therefore, the Katowice negotiations will be best remembered as an anti-science CoP for its failure to take into account the findings of the IPCC’s special report on 1.5°C. But it will also be remembered for coming out with a rulebook that undermines the global effort to combat climate change.
Everyone deeply involved with climate negotiations knew it all along that the Paris Agreement will not meet its own goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”. However, given the fading interest in multilateralism, it was adopted to keep all the countries together in the international process. In such a case, the rulebook of the Paris Agreement had to be strong enough to hold countries accountable to whatever they had agreed under the treaty. Unfortunately, the rulebook further dilutes the Paris Agreement. Let me elaborate.
The Paris Agreement is a combination of bottom-up and top-down features. The bottom-up features are those which countries can decide on their own. For instance, countries can decide what they want to do to reduce emissions and to adapt to climate change. These domestic measures are called nationally determined contributions (NDCs). The top-down elements are those where countries are bound by the rules of the treaty—countries are bound by the rules on reporting requirements, stocktaking of the collective action, design of the carbon market and finances. Some of these top-down rules have been significantly diluted.
Reporting and transparency: Under the Paris Agreement, countries must report on their progress on NDCs. At Katowice, a certain flexibility was given to developing countries—which have lower capacity to collect and analyse information—to provide less rigorous information. But developing countries will have to provide “self-determined” time frames to improve the quality and quantity of reporting. Overall, while developing countries agreed to the overall transparency framework, developed countries diluted the framework of their financial contributions.
Financial contribution: In the Paris Agreement, developed countries had agreed to provide $100 billion each year by 2020 to developing countries. The rulebook had to define what constituted “finance”, and how it would be reported and reviewed. At Katowice, rules on finance were significantly diluted. Firstly, developed countries have the choice to include all kinds of financial instruments—concessional and non-concessional loans, grants and aids from various public and private sources—to meet their commitments. Secondly, rules on reporting of financial contributions and its reviews for adequacy have been significantly weakened. Developed countries now have the freedom to “self-determine” the kind of financial resources they want to give and do this without any strong mechanism of accountability.
Global stocktake (GST): GST was the most important top-down element in the Paris Agreement to increase ambition of countries. It was supposed to measure global progress, identify barriers and give recommendations. However, the GST rulebook has been watered down to a non-policy prescriptive process. That is, this process will neither give any recommendations to individual countries or a group of countries, nor will it give any prescriptive policy. The result is that a lot of technical information will be collected without any clear recommendation to increase ambitions of mitigation or finance.
Carbon market: The Paris Agreement allows emissions trading markets between two or more countries (such as the EU Emissions Trading System), as well as a unified market for all countries (which succeeds the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism). It also provides for a non-market mechanism to reduce emissions and enhance sinks in forests and land. But, in Katowice, there was virtually no progress made on non-market mechanisms, while all big countries, developed and developing, seemed to have great interest in trading carbon credits.
It is important to remember that carbon trading in the past had major problems, including cheap carbon credits from dubious projects, and corruption, which has put a big question mark on the overall emission reductions. Under the Paris Agreement, these drawbacks were to be removed so that real emissions reductions could be achieved. However, the rules made so far indicate that many of the problems of the past are likely to remain. For instance, the rulebook has different rules for different markets, which is non-transparent and makes emissions reductions unverifiable. Similarly, trading has been allowed for sectors which are not covered in a country’s emissions targets. This will dilute the overall mitigation effect. Moreover, many technical issues of the market mechanism have been shifted to the next CoP in 2019. Post Katowice, the Paris Agreement is all about “self-determined” processes and carbon markets. So the UNFCCC is now simply a platform to collect and synthesise information. It doesn’t have the tools to drive global collective action to combat climate change. In such a situation, one needs to seriously question the raison d’être of the UNFCCC.
The bottom line is that countries are now on their own to mitigate, adapt as well as pay for the costs of climate impacts. But this “self-determined” framework cannot keep the global temperature rise below 2°C. So, we have to quickly find ways to bridge the gaps that the Paris Agreement has created. Can this gap be filled via sectoral and regional platforms?Can we develop platforms that would allow large-scale diffusion of transformational technologies across the world? Or, do we scrap the Paris Agreement and start all over again? These are questions of our time. I will dwell on them in subsequent columns.
The author is Deputy director general of Centre of Science and Environment. Twitter: Bh_Chandra