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After nearly three decades of climate talks the future remains uncertain

  • Published at 05:54 pm July 24th, 2020
Ct_July 2020_Page 2
Photo: Pixabay

While the Paris Agreement is a great achievement in international diplomacy its direct impact on climate change is another matter

The 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) meeting for the UN climate negotiations was planned to take place in Glasgow, UK in November. Like many other large events, the negotiations were postponed due to Covid precautions. Now that the mid-year meeting to prepare for COP 26 has also been delayed to 2021, it is unclear when the world will again convene to tackle the problem of climate change. 

Some might say this is worrisome because we don’t want to lose momentum. Since the 2015 Paris Agreement, each year of negotiations has been a slow but steady process of building on the agreement and preparing for its implementation. However, I want to suggest that the delay is also worrisome because the thread of global action on climate change is thin, and straining what little has been built through the negotiations over the years might cause it to snap. 

So how did we get here?

The international community began conversations on climate change in the early 1990s.  The UN established the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Framework Convention on Climate Change (the INC) to develop a plan for climate change that would be presented at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. After several meetings beginning in 1991, they developed the text that would become the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 

At the time, the climate debate centered mainly on the issue of mitigation, or the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to prevent climate change from happening (or now, worsening). Developing countries mainly saw this as a problem for the wealthy industrialized nations to solve – after all, they had caused the problem. Nonetheless, by 1994 the Convention had entered into force with over 150 countries signed on as Parties, and the COP meetings began the following year. 

There were a few key elements to the Convention that made it amenable to a broad range of Parties. Developing countries were promised funds that were “new and additional” to development and humanitarian aid flows. The different roles of countries in addressing climate change was captured through the phrase “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” And while sustainable development was emphasized for developing countries, the Convention did not set timelines and goals for emissions cuts, mostly to appease the United States. 

The main goal of the first COP meetings was to create a treaty with clear goals and timelines for reducing GHG emissions. These efforts resulted in the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The Protocol required developed countries (designated as “Annex I Parties”) to reduce their emissions by at least 5% below 1990 levels before 2012. Unfortunately, the United States and other large emitters decided not to ratify the Protocol, and so there were significantly lower emissions reductions than expected. Also, countries like China and India were considered “non-Annex I Parties” without emissions reduction requirements, and are now two of the world’s biggest GHG emitters.

In the early 2000s, developing countries brought another issue to the negotiating table: adaptation. Adaptation refers to actions that aim to reduce the impacts of climate change on communities. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its fourth assessment report, finding that developing countries were likely to experience the worst effects of climate change and would need urgent adaptation action. Adaptation then became a second pillar in the negotiations alongside mitigation.

"The main goal of the first COP meetings was to create a treaty with clear goals and timelines for reducing GHG emissions"

In the Bali Action Plan that same year, negotiators agreed to start planning the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, to be finalized at COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009. Instead of producing a new climate treaty, Copenhagen ended in an embarrassing failure. A leaked draft treaty written by a few developed countries created an atmosphere of distrust, and there was little agreement on how to move forward. On the last night, leaders from the US, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa locked themselves in a room to write the Copenhagen Accord. The next day, unhappy countries were forced to sign the Accord, which contained little more than a pledge to mobilize US$100 billion in climate finance.

Many began to lose hope that the climate negotiations would ever be able to produce an effective climate treaty

However, the COPs continued along with some important developments. In 2013, the small island states and LDCs had an important win at the meeting in Warsaw. At that meeting, delegates negotiated the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage. Loss and damage refers to the effects of climate change impacts that could not be avoided through mitigation and adaptation efforts. It can be economic, such as property loss, or non-economic, such as damage to mental or physical health. For countries that are projected to experience the worst effects of climate change, loss and damage calls attention to their vulnerabilities.

By 2015, countries were again prepared to buckle down and come up with the next climate treaty. The stakes were high, and it’s likely that if these negotiations were unsuccessful they may have ended permanently. After much work and compromise, the Paris Agreement was signed at the end of COP 21. It contained a Global Goal for Mitigation (keeping global average temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, with an enhanced goal of 1.5 degrees), an unspecified Global Goal for Adaptation, and Article 8 on Loss and Damage. It also tackled issues of finance, capacity building, transparency, and many more.

While the Paris Agreement is a great achievement in international diplomacy its direct impact on climate change is another matter. It does not require any emissions reductions, nor any adaptation action, and countries are not obligated to provide climate finance. Instead, countries make pledges for what they want to achieve in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Countries only must report on their progress at designated intervals, and enforcement consists of “naming and shaming” those that have not fulfilled their pledges.

I am glad we have the Paris Agreement, but I am skeptical that it is a guaranteed pathway to success. Not only has the US moved to withdraw from the treaty, participating countries can still set and work toward their goals as is convenient for them. While this structure removed the differentiation between developed and developing countries that plagued earlier plans, it also allows for inaction.

And so we return to 2020. What makes the Paris Agreement work is that countries are supposed to regularly submit increasingly ambitious NDCs. This “ratcheting up” is meant to be a central feature of the negotiations over the next several years. Jamaica, setting a laudable example, has already submitted their new NDC. But it is unclear whether other countries will be compelled to do the same without the deadlines and fanfare of the COP.

As the international negotiations are delayed, climate change risks slipping down countries’ lists of priorities. In the past, the COP has served as a focusing moment, at which new plans and pledges are announced and celebrated publicly. It is not only the progress in the negotiations but the progress around the negotiations that enhances climate action.

I have my critiques of much of the climate action that is taking place around the world. There is not nearly enough of it and I argue that much of what is happening is ineffective. However, the UN negotiations have been a critical constant, pushing climate change discussions forward in the international arena for nearly three decades.

The delay in COP 26 due to Covid makes clear that we need to find new and more stable structures to ensure that global disasters do not destabilize the foundations for progress that have already been laid. Parties to the UNFCCC should know best that there are likely even more disasters on the horizon.

Danielle Falzon is a PhD Candidate at Brown University (USA) and a Visiting Research at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Dhaka (ICCCAD)

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