UN climate talks: Paris is just the start

Katie Kouchakji

The universal and legally binding deal struck at the recent Paris talks is a crucial breakthrough in the fight against climate change. Work must move ahead quickly to ensure the agreement delivers on its environmental promise.

Paris, 12 December 2015: a date that will enter the history books as the official start of a new era of climate politics. As he brought down the gavel to mark the adoption of the Paris Agreement, Laurent Fabius, President of the COP21 climate change talks, was drawing a line between BP (Before Paris) and AP (After Paris).

Before Paris – and even during the two weeks of negotiations between more than 190 countries in the French capital – it wasn’t certain that governments were truly ready to embrace the future that our environment desperately needs, whereby every nation takes action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Since the remarkable agreement in Durban in December 2011 to forge precisely such a deal, the process has been precarious and slow-going. At times, it was doubtful whether the 2015 deadline for a universal, legally binding deal would be met – or if there would be any agreement at all. Things were kept on track by the Peruvian government, which oversaw the COP20 meeting, held in
Lima in 2014.

Incidentally, the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, under which these meetings take place, is the only previous international agreement on climate change that calls on all nations to take steps, commensurate with responsibility. This legal principle, known as ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’, was updated in Lima ‘in light of different national circumstances’ to bring the concept more in line with the current reality.

This update survived in the final Paris Agreement and is a real break from before Paris, where the onus was firmly on developed countries to lead. Now, more advanced developing countries, such as China, are expected to do more than less developed ones. The lines are beginning to blur – and better reflect today’s economic situation, rather than that of 24 years ago at the time of the 1992 convention.

Getting the rules right

Moving forward, the challenge is to implement the agreement – to turn the words into real, on the ground results. Tired as everyone may be after the efforts of the last four years, the next wave of hard work must start immediately.

However, the Paris Agreement’s deference to domestic efforts poses a risk to the ultimate goal of stabilising the average global temperature increase to 2°C, warns Roger Martella of Sidley Austin in Washington, DC, who is also the Climate Change Justice and Human Rights Task Force Liaison Officer for the IBA Environment, Health and Safety Law Committee. The lack of an ‘international climate change police force’ could lead to questions about the accuracy of reported actions, he adds.

This is why the accompanying decisions to the Paris Agreement are so important, and why the hard work is a long way from over. The 19 pages of decisions set out a comprehensive work plan for the coming years, including aspects such as guidance to report actions, the rules governing the use of ‘internationally transferred mitigation outcomes’ (the new phase for emissions trading), strengthening efforts on climate change adaptation in developing countries, and finance to reduce deforestation and forest degradation.

The other big challenge facing governments is ensuring public support for the agreement and domestic efforts to fulfil stated goals, and indeed in ratcheting up efforts over time

Most of these rules and sets of guidance are to be adopted at the first COP after the agreement enters into force. This is defined as the 30th day after the date on which at least 55 governments, representing at least an estimated 55 per cent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions, have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession with the UN Depositary.

As a result, there are potentially only two or three years to get this work done. Given the scale of the challenge, and the intended permanence of the agreement (the
five-yearly reviews and increase of goals should, hopefully, render redundant the need to go through this negotiation process again for a new framework), it is important to get these rules right.

Unlike the last international framework for climate change, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, we’re not starting from scratch this time. For all its flaws and controversy, Kyoto has bequeathed the Paris Agreement with a solid institutional infrastructure: accounting provisions, methodologies and governance structures for market mechanisms, reporting systems, IT systems to handle emissions trading and reporting, and so on. It has also led to national efforts by developing countries, Korea and China being two notable examples, which helped greatly with getting a deal in Paris. Indeed, the decisions from Paris state that these lessons and experiences should be drawn from in developing the new rules, which should get things off to a strong start.

Politics and the public

The other big challenge facing governments is ensuring public support for the agreement and domestic efforts to fulfil stated goals, and indeed in ratcheting up efforts over time. Looming elections in the US and Australia in the next 12 months could significantly change the political landscape, for better or worse, despite increasing public support for action.

While there is always an election somewhere that could change things, the next few years are crucial to ensuring the Paris Agreement is all that we hope it can be. But without solid rules to implement it, and without an increase in national efforts by all, that 2°C goal will be missed – and action will become even
more expensive.

We’ve already lost time: it is more than nine years since the UK government published the Stern Review on the economics of climate change, which warned that failure to act could cost five per cent of global GDP annually – and potentially as much as 20 per cent. The cost of action was estimated at one per cent of global GDP. The world cannot afford, either financially or environmentally, to waste another decade. 

Katie Kouchakji is a freelance journalist covering climate change policy and carbon markets, and can be contacted on katie@kkecomms.com