Poster on population and climate near Le Bourget COP21 centre. Takver/Flickr. Some rights reserved.On 30 November, about 40,000 delegates will gather in Paris for the opening of the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). For almost two weeks, representatives of 200 countries, including 127 heads of state and government, will try to agree on a text with some legally binding elements that will aim to limit climate change and help vulnerable countries adapt to its inevitable impacts.
Whether it is at the level of our energy supply or our ability to face climate change impacts (raising sea levels, extreme climatic events, droughts, etc.), the decision that will be made by the COP will undoubtedly have an impact on our way of life and that of future generations.
Over the past months numerous scientific reports have highlighted the urgency of promptly tackling climate change. The year 2015 is on track to break a series of climate records; not only is it likely to become the warmest year ever recorded to date, it is also projected to reach the symbolic threshold of 1°C average global warming compared to preindustrial times according to the UK Met Office.
Four years ago in Durban COP17 decided that a new legal text with some binding elements, applicable to all Parties, would be adopted by 2015 at the latest in order to take over from the Kyoto Protocol in 2020. Negotiations have been going on ever since and have resulted in a 51-page draft agreement that will be the basis for negotiations in Paris. Among the numerous elements contained in the text, five topics are particularly important for a successful outcome of the COP.
Climate change mitigation
Climate change mitigation is one of the key elements of the future Paris agreement with, at its core, three essential questions.
Firstly, what maximum temperature increase will we aim to limit global warming to?
The debate here will mainly revolve around whether Parties decide to stick to the largely supported 2°C limit or if they concede to the demands of vulnerable nations such as the Small Island Developing States who claim that 1.5°C is the absolute limit to guarantee their survival.
Secondly, what greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction objectives will we collectively support?
Various proposals are still on the table: the global peak of GHG emissions, emissions reductions expressed in percentage compared to baseline years (i.e. 40% reduction by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, as is the case for the EU), complete phase out of fossil fuel energy, etc.
On top of agreeing on tangible objectives, Parties must also concur on deadlines: 2030, 2050, or 2100, for example. Finally comes the opportunity for Parties to decide whether they want to account for “net emissions”, which consider the possibility of removing carbon from the atmosphere, for example via tree plantation or geoengineering. In terms of collective objectives, there is still a lot to be discussed.
Thirdly, how do we ensure that we will remain within the agreed temperature limit despite insufficient current climate pledges?
In the past months, more than 150 nations responsible for about 90% of the world’s GHG emissions have submitted their Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (aka emissions reduction pledges). Although these contributions – if implemented – are likely to help limit global warming to 2.7°C by 2100 according to a UNFCCC report, they will be insufficient to stay within the 2°C, let alone 1.5°C, maximum average increase of temperature.
In order to bridge that gap, a mechanism that allows ratcheting up national ambition every five years has been proposed. Despite the fact that a series of countries refuse to make this mechanism compulsory, the informal “Pre-COP” meeting that gathered 60 climate ministers last week ended with a broad consensus in favour of that process.
Climate change adaptation
Closely related to the issues of funding and loss and damage, discussions on climate adaptation will revolve around the definition of an objective or long-term vision in order to increase resilience and reduce people’s vulnerability to climate change. Currently, the money set aside for climate change is mainly allocated to mitigation but developing countries are calling for a rebalancing of these funds in favour of adaptation. They consider that they are the main victims of climate change even though their contribution to it is minor.
Negotiations will also cover the implementation of solutions such as information sharing, capacity-building, technical support between Parties and scientific research. The most contentious issue concerns the means of implementation that will be deployed for reaching adaptation objectives since they touch upon sensitive issues such as climate finance and technology transfer.
Loss and damage
This refers to the losses and damages caused by climate change and for which it is not possible to adapt to - such as increasing sea levels for island nations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. This is one of the most contentious issues in the negotiations as it involves potential compensations for the losses and damages incurred by the victims of climate change. In 2013, a Loss & Damage Mechanism was adopted in Warsaw aimed at improving the understanding of various loss and damage approaches and to consolidate action, coordination and support between Parties in that regard.
Nowadays, a series of countries, particularly Least Developed Countries (LDCs), want to go further by integrating an insurance or compensation mechanism for loss and damage within the Paris agreement. They also wish to secure specific funding for this issue, distinct from the money allocated to adaptation. This would entail considerable financial support in favour of developing nations, an obligation that developed countries are reluctant to take on. They fear that their financial support will continuously be solicited as climate change impacts are difficult to isolate from naturally occurring events.
Finally the G77 (representing 134 developing and emerging countries) and China last September proposed including a reference to the establishment of a climate change displacement coordination facility to help coordinate efforts in order to address the displacement of people as a result of climate change, hence bringing back the issue of climate refugees to the global debate.
Climate finance probably holds the key to COP21’s success but is also likely to be one of its main stumbling blocks.
In Copenhagen in 2009, Parties agreed on the objective to provide at least $100 billion per year (approximately 0.2% of OECD countries’ GDP) for climate finance by 2020 in order to help developing countries reduce their GHG emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. This amount – which might seem pretty ambitious – pales in comparison with the $150 billion needed per year solely for the adaptation component in 2030, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.
During the last negotiation round, divisions settled around that issue with developing countries insisting on the need to establish developed countries’ responsibility in achieving this $100 billion target. They also called for a clear roadmap on post-2020 climate finance in order to better plan their climate action. Furthermore. Developing countries wish to ensure that the money for climate finance is in addition to – and not taken from – development aid money. On the other hand, developed countries refuse to be the only ones responsible for finance and ask for private sector and developing countries’ involvement, in accordance with their evolving responsibility and capabilities.
Common but differentiated responsibilities
At the heart of these negotiations lay the ideas of equity and justice, expressed in UN jargon under the name of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. This principle relies on the recognition of common responsibilities for all states in the fight against climate change, which are different due to developed countries’ higher contribution to GHG emissions and developing countries’ lower capacity to deal with it.
As can be expected, there are numerous discrepancies as to the meaning of these differentiated responsibilities, particularly in the light of increasing GHG emissions by low and middle-income countries. The biggest risks for causing deadlocks are likely to come from discussions on the means of implementation: technology transfer, climate finance, capacity-building and transparency of reporting processes.
Of course, Paris won’t be the miracle cure that will save the world from climate change. It may, however, be the beginning of a lengthy endeavour that will, hopefully, limit climate change and support vulnerable populations’ efforts to adapt and become more resilient to climate change. All of these collective efforts will be vain, however, if countries themselves do not take urgent and drastic measure to phase out fossil fuels and support a transition towards a green economy, renewable energy and more sustainable behaviour.
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