Climate Agreement in Paris - Over to USA

Before going into the nuances of the Paris deal, it is important to list the various milestones that 196 nations of planet earth covered on their journey to Paris.
Climate Agreement in Paris - Over to USA
Climate Agreement in Paris - Over to USA
Written by:

By Alok Bhatt 

“It is my deep conviction that we have come up with an ambitious and balanced agreement. Today it is a moment of truth." With these words, Laurent Fabius, French Foreign Minister announced the successful culmination of 23 years of hard work towards achieving a global climate deal. Before going into the nuances of the Paris deal, it is important to list the various milestones that 196 nations of planet earth covered on their journey to Paris.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

The journey that ended in Paris on a cold winter evening of Dec 12, 2015 actually began in the hot and humid summer of 1992 at Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) when 154 nations agreed to sign a landmark agreement called United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC). This is an Environment Treaty that was negotiated at Rio Earth Summit, held between June 3 to June 14, 1992. The background document for the Rio Treaty was first adopted at New York on May 9, 1992 and it defined "Climate change” as a “change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.”

After intense negotiations, 154 nations signed the UNFCCC, that upon ratification, committed (non-binding one) the signatory countries to reduce atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases with the end goal of “preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with Earth's climate system”. This treaty came into force on 21st March 1994,  22 years after Environmental concerns were first introduced into the political and development sphere at Stockholm’s United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. Notable also is the role played by the Brundtland report (also known as Our Common Future) of 1987, that laid the groundwork for Rio Declaration.

The UNFCCC signed in 1994, recognized the need for developed countries, also called as Annex 1 countries, to take the lead in addressing the problem of climate change. But at the same time, it was agreed that the responsibilities of the parties to protect the climate system will be "common but differentiated".

Through UNFCCC, all the signatory countries committed themselves to meet annually for a meeting to be called as Conferences of Party or CoP with the stated objective of achieving the treaty's aims. The first such CoP was held in Berlin, the current summit at Paris being the 21st, CoP21.

Kyoto Protocol and Binding Targets

Seeking to extend the scope of UNFCCC signed at Rio, CoP3 or the Kyoto Protocol placed binding emission reduction targets— calculated as percentage of emission levels in base year, set as 1990 for all but few ratifying nations— on the Annex 1 or developed countries. These emissions reduction targets (ranging between 6% to 8% below 1990 levels) were established for commitment periods with the first such commitment period being 2008-12. The United States was the only developed country that didn’t ratify the Kyoto Protocol-signed & ratified by 192 countries.  Canada, another Annex 1 country, withdrew from the treaty.

To achieve the overall aim of reducing the effect of Greenhouse gases (GHGs) on the earth’s atmosphere, Kyoto Protocol allowed Annex 1 countries to meet their GHG emission reduction commitments by acquiring GHG emission reductions credits through 3 efficiency mechanisms- Emission Trading, Clean Development Mechanism and Joint Implementation. These mechanisms enabled the parties to achieve their binding emission targets in a cost effective manner.

Hits and Misses- Durban Platform and Doha Round

Currently the second commitment period (2012-2020) as agreed at the Doha is in place but the treaty hasn’t come into force as yet because only 55 nations of the required 142 have ratified it. Besides, the scope of emission reduction targets was limited to only 15% of the global emissions due to the lack of participation by USA, Canada, Japan, Russia, New Zealand, Ukraine & Belarus. Also, India, Brazil and China, being the developing countries, are out of the purview of Kyoto Protocol.

Prior to Doha amendment in 2012, a significant agreement was reached at CoP17, called as Durban Platform, where all the participating nations agreed for 2015 deadline for a legally binding deal governing the period beyond 2020.

CoP21- Paris- History being made

Twenty three years of intense climate change negotiations finally culminated with the adoption of a legally binding Paris Agreement on 12 Dec 2015 at CoP21 Paris. It would be naïve to not term the Paris deal as a globally historical event. For the first time in the history of climate change negotiations, a deal was struck whereby 196 countries of the planet, unlike only developed ones at Kyoto, agreed to set the emission targets for themselves to meet the threat of climate change.

Recognizing the need for sustainable development and also the efforts to eradicate poverty, Article 2 of Paris Agreement seeks to strike a balance between the right of nations to develop with the need to protect the planet. Article 2 of the agreement provides for-

A goal of holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels; and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels,

Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production;

Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate resilient development

Paris Deal- Finer points

The Paris agreement factored in the need for emissions of greenhouse gases to reach a peak level globally and then work towards reduction thereof, so that the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity is maintained at the same levels that trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally during the second half of the current century.

The nature of the responsibility envisaged in the Paris Agreement is no more divided between developed and developing but is “common but differentiated per their respective capabilities and national circumstances”.

Mindful of the failure at Copenhagen, a system of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) was adopted. The Paris deal now makes it legally binding for individual countries to set their post 2020 emission targets and also seeks to create a mechanism to report and verify those emission targets and review them every five years. The First review of current commitments will take place in 2018, which will be followed by the first stocktaking in 2023. The next round of GHG emission commitments will have to be made in 2025.

Curiously, the current emission targets put forward by all the nations under INDC system, as per some assessments, will limit the global temperature rise at 2.7 °C against the collective stated goal of “well below 2 °C” agreed at Paris. Given the wide gap between the current temperature rise, already hovering at 1 °C above pre-industrial levels, and the commitments under INDC system, climate change challenges are here to stay. Nevertheless, the stated goal at Paris is an extremely significant step and would help the planet in years and decades to come.

One notable aspect of the Paris deal is the commitment of the rich nations to maintain the current $ 100 billion a year fund beyond 2020. This limit of $100 billion will be the base figure for negotiating the new funding support by rich nations in 2025. This money will be used as “climate aid” to provide financial and technological help to the developing and other nations to help them meet their adaptation and mitigation responsibilities by making them move away from fossil fuels and adopt renewable energy.

Paris Agreement- “Loss and Damage” not to kill the deal

Last but not the least, the demand of poor countries for the inclusion of “Loss and Damage” mechanism has always been one of the most contentious of the issues holding back the global climate deal. The contention of the poor countries was that while the climate aid will help them meet the cost of mitigation and adaptation responsibilities assumed by them; rich countries should also assume their responsibility for damaging the earth’s climate over past 2 centuries. Hence, poor countries were pressing for a mechanism that would compensate them for those events that are likely to be caused in future because of past irreversible damage to climate over last two centuries. Paris deal, while stopping short of placing any liability on the rich nations for such losses and damages, agreed to include Loss and Damage section in the main agreement itself. Further, it was decided to continue the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) framework by subjecting it to the authority and guidance of CoP and WIM secretariat has been asked to create a task force to suggest an integrated approach to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.

The real work towards securing the planet earth will begin now. 55 countries producing 55% of world’s greenhouse gases will have to ratify Paris agreement to become a legally binding agreement. While I am hopeful of this deal being successful in arresting the harmful effects of climate change, USA remains my biggest worry. Many wouldn’t know that USA, along with Afghanistan and Sudan, is the only country that never ratified the last such historical climate deal- the much famous Kyoto Protocol.

Over to Washington now!

(The author is a Chartered Accountant, founder of Nature Connect Outdoors- an adventure tourism outfit in Uttarakhand and has a keen interest in politics and economic development of hills. He tweets @alok_bhatt) 

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