A Climate Potluck in Paris

COP21, 2015, Paris“We have an agreement”. Those redeeming words from French foreign minister Laurent Fabius in the evening of Saturday the 12th of December unleashed a wave of standing ovations from high level UN staff, delegates and observers from business and civil society. Preceding this historic moment had been a fortnight of marathon negotiations and sleepless nights for the approximate 50.000 people that attended the 21st UN Conference Of the Parties (COP 21). The Paris meeting was a culmination of a 6-year redress effort for the UN climate regime following the catastrophic Copenhagen meeting in 2009, which collapsed into chaos and recriminations.

One point five, to stay alive

In The Paris Agreement developed and developing countries alike have agreed to limit emissions to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C (with an aspiration of 1.5 °C) above pre-industrial levels by the end of the 21st century. They have furthermore agreed to jointly mobilize billions of dollars in so-called climate finance, to help poorer countries cut emissions and manage the adverse effects of climate change. Targets will be subject to review on a 5-year basis.

The goal of limiting global temperature increase to 1.5 °C made it into the agreement through a well concocted lobbying campaignorchestrated by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). This was supported by over 100 countries and a large number of civil society organizations. According to the coalition, the half a degree difference is critical to the survival of the world’s poorest countries. In fact, Desmond Tutu once wrote, “A global goal of about 2 degrees is to condemn Africa to incineration.”

Unfortunately, reduction targets in the Paris Agreement are not yet adequate to avoid the disaster of more than 1.5-2°C of warming. More than likely they will lead to a 3 °C warming, which will bring with it disastrous climate change.

The Paris Climate Potluck

The inconsistency between targets and ambition has to do with the way the Paris agreement has been put together.

While the Kyoto Protocol set quantified and legally binding targets for rich countries related to their historic responsibility for causing climate change and current economic capabilities to mitigate them, the Paris agreement is essentially a ‘potluck’ of carbon-cutting plans submitted by each country.

These plans, which in UN jargon are called ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’, differentiate substantively in ambition and jointly they do not add up to the reductions required to stay below a 1.5 °C or even 2 °C temperature increase. Furthermore, since the Paris agreement does not have any enforcement mechanism, there will be no penalty if countries break their promises.

Developed vs. Developing

A returning schism in the UN climate negotiations is over who should pay for developing countries moving beyond fossil fuels in economic development and also helping them adapt to the adverse effects of climate change. Climate finance is supposed to be new and additional from e.g. development aid.

In Copenhagen, developed countries promised to mobilise $100 billion annually by 2020. This figure has not changed in the Paris Agreement, however new language introduces the possibility of fundraising being a global effort. This will entail developing countries chipping in as well.

Global fundraising for climate finance is highly controversial. Most developing countries find being forced to pay some of the bill for climate change, which they did not cause, very unjust. Meanwhile developed countries argue that the strongest (economic) shoulders should carry the heaviest weight and many of the richest economies today are considered developing countries in the UN climate regime. This has to do with the fact that the division between developing and developed countries was made in 1992, when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established. Back then major economies such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa were a lot less developed than today.

Essentially this boils down to a debate about what should be the basis for obligations: ‘historic emissions’ or ‘current economic capabilities’.

As this question has not been definitively resolved in the Paris Agreement, developed countries will likely look to the private sector to raise capital.

Granted, no one believes that it is possible to resolve the climate problem without engaging the private sector. However, it is important to identify the areas that private sector investments will not cover. Evidence shows that there is a lack of private climate finance flowing towards adaptation, which means that public funding will need to be allocated towards countries hardest hit by climate change.

Everything but the kitchen sink

Parties should also try to avoid creative accounting, such as the newly released report by the OECD, in which developed countries claimed to already be mobilizing $62 billion in climate finance. Using the OECD methodology (which accounts foreverything but the kitchen sink) to analyse new promises made in Paris could take that total to $94 billion per year.

Meanwhile an Indian finance ministry analysis of the OECD report said that the real flow of climate finance is closer to $2.2 billion.

The debate over what counts is yet another reason why a clear definition of climate finance is urgently needed if the UN system is to make greater progress in the future. Paris was an important first step, but it will take a lot more consensus building from all parties to keep us in a 1.5–2 °C trajectory.


This post was written by Jonas Amtoft Bruun and first appeared on Development@Manchester.

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