What to Look For During the Paris Climate Change Conference

The stakes are incredibly high as representatives of 196 countries meet in Paris to forge a new international climate change agreement at COP 21.

By Melissa Harris, Frédéric Gagnon-Lebrun, Alice Bisiaux on November 16, 2015

The stakes are incredibly high as representatives of 196 countries meet in Paris to forge a new international climate change agreement at COP 21 (November 30 to December 11).

With 2015 likely to be the warmest year on record, and alarming signs of a changing climate around the world, this is a critical moment for international climate governance.

A quick recap of what’s taken us to this point. A negotiating text was developed in Geneva in February, providing the basis for the subsequent negotiating sessions. These have aimed at streamlining the 80+ page-long draft text and identifying areas of convergence. But progress has been slow, including at the last major negotiating session held in October in Bonn. The incoming COP 21 presidency (France) has organized a series of informal ministerial consultations and a ‘pre-COP’ aimed at building consensus. Yet much remains to be agreed in the final text.

Here are six of the major issues that need to be resolved.

Agreeing to legal forms and time frames

In December 2011, countries agreed that they would develop “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties” to be adopted in Paris in 2015. But governments have not yet determined the specific legal form the Paris agreement will take. For example, the European Union, Small Island Developing States and many developing countries prefer a legally binding agreement. The United States, however, may not be able to ratify such an agreement.

On timeframes, it is expected that the agreement will enter into force in 2020. However, no decision has been made with regards to the implementation and compliance mechanisms of the agreement and the length of commitment period(s). Countries have agreed generally to review and take stock every five years, although disagreement remains between 2025 and 2030 as the first commitment period end dates.

Raising the ambition of national contributions

In the lead-up to Paris countries have submitted national plans to take action under the new agreement; these are known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). As of November 11, 2015, 160 countries representing nearly 90 per cent of global GHG emissions have submitted their INDCs.

The UNFCCC secretariat released a Synthesis Report on the Aggregate Effect of the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions that had been submitted by October 1, 2015. The report estimates that these pledges, if fully implemented, will bring global average emissions per capita down by as much as 8 per cent in 2025 and 9 per cent in by 2030. In addition to the impact on per capita emissions, the report shows that INDCs are expected to slow emission growth and deliver emission reductions of around 4 gigatonnes by 2030 compared to pre-INDC scenarios.

The report did not directly assess long-term implications beyond 2030. However, the UN Environment Programme’s annual emissions gap report concludes that, if fully implemented, the INDCs would set the world on a path towards a 3°C temperature rise. Clearly, more action will be needed from countries. The call for greater ambition in Paris will be tied closely to discussion on finance.  Nearly all developing countries have made their INDCs conditional on elements such as finance, the form of the agreement and developed country action.

The fact that developing country INDCs are viewed as voluntary is also a concern for developed country parties. To a large extent, success in Paris will hinge upon agreement on a robust system to ratchet up ambition in the post-2020 period. Adding an agreement to not “backtrack” on ambition is also under discussion.

Giving equal weight to adaptation and the treatment of loss and damage

For an agreement to be reached in Paris, it is paramount to most developing countries that adaptation be prioritized to the same extent as mitigation.

Some developing countries call for a global goal for adaptation to be integrated into the agreement, and so far ministerial support has been expressed for the inclusion of a qualitative goal. Yet several developing countries go further by seeking the creation of a new compensation mechanism or insurance for loss and damage resulting from the adverse impacts of climate change, as a separate and new pillar of the climate regime. They make a clear distinction between adaptation, which aims to build resilience to the risks of impacts, and compensation or even liability for loss and damage suffered as a consequence of impacts that are beyond adaptation. But some developed countries prefer using the existing mechanism on loss and damage, and argue that it should be treated under the umbrella of adaptation.

Securing finance for developing countries

In 2009, developed countries committed to mobilizing US$ 100 billion per year by 2020 to help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. Since then, and despite several rounds of talks dedicated to long-term financing, it is unclear where the money will come from and how the private sector will be brought on board. Developing countries want to ensure that climate finance is new, predictable, additional to development aid, and available for both mitigation and adaptation. Some developing countries call for the setting of interim financing targets between 2016 and 2020. But various developed countries resist that push.

Seeking a solution to technology transfer

Developing countries also suggest adopting a global goal on technology, calling for a clear signal that clean technologies emerging from publically funded research and development projects fall within the public domain, and are therefore easily accessible. This is opposed by most developed countries, although a proposal by African countries on a framework for enhanced action on technology development and transfer has gained some traction.

Leveraging market mechanisms

It is anticipated that market mechanisms—a term that refers to various financial incentives designed to influence business decision—will be an integral part of the 2020 international climate regime. Nearly 50 per cent of the submitted INDCs refer to economic instruments or market mechanisms as part of the tools needed to meet their commitments. A number of countries have submitted their ideas regarding the format of a New Market Mechanism (NMM) though some countries oppose such a mechanism due to concerns about double counting of emission reductions.

It is unlikely that countries will reach a substantive agreement on this in Paris given the longstanding deadlock on the issue. But it is anticipated that the Paris agreement will not disqualify international transfers and that the subject will be taken up in subsequent UNFCCC sessions.  

 A fit conclusion to 2015?

If this sounds like a lot of ground to cover in two weeks—that’s because it is. Negotiators have been working throughout 2015 and the elements necessary for an ambitious global climate agreement are within reach. But finding the language that all 196 countries can accept and fully implement nationally will be critical to ensure environmental integrity and a truly successful outcome.