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Turning the Heat Down

By Zainab July 27, 2016

From Lima to Paris:

Global warming has been on the rise. Many fear that the implementation of the 2° C limit of temperature rise that was set in the Cancun summit in 2010 might not be realised any time soon if the global participation continues to be minimal and ineffective.

This fear was confirmed when the 20th Conference of Parties (COP 20) to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held during 1-12 December last year[1]. The COP was held in the Peruvian capital, Lima and was attended by a host of delegates from across the world. The Lima Conference was supposed to roll out a basic architecture for the crucial COP 21 in Paris scheduled to be held in December this year. However, despite the sprawl and the pomp that usually accompanies any international conference, the corpus failed to arrive at a comprehensive binding climate change agreement and fell short of safeguarding in concrete terms any of the goals laid out in its agenda.[2]

The primal aim of the agreement that is sought to be ready by the time COP 21 takes place, is “another protocol”, that is, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the UNFCCC. The purpose of the protocol as expounded by the phraseology used in the decision of COP 17 (2011) in Durban—is to limit carbon emissions from all countries in order to prevent the globe from breaching the guardrail temperature increase of 2° C by the turn of the century, a limit arrived at in the Cancun summit in 2010. An Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) was created in 2011 in pursuance of this goal.[3] Its mandate involved framing a protocol that would be put to vote in Paris and would enter into force in 2020. If there was any misplaced hope that COP 20 in Lima would take forward this task of creating a formal and satisfactory legal structure to achieve the goal laid out in Durban, it was belied.

The phrase "another protocol" is a reference to the only binding international treaty on cutting down carbon emissions that has hitherto been in place, that is, the Kyoto Protocol. It was framed in 1997 and entered into force in 2005, and its provisions and targets were based on some fundamental tenets of  UNFCCC, which required parties to protect the climate system for present and future generations, by adhering to the principles of CBDR (Common But Differentiated Responsibilities).

CBDR in essence means that all countries share a common responsibility of averting dangerous climate change; yet this responsibility is differentiated by capacity (technologically and financially) of several countries. Hence, developed countries have a greater responsibility to mitigate the effects of climate change, as they are primarily responsible for causing it and they have the capacity (greater than developing countries) to develop clean technology, to focus on cutting down emissions rather than development and helping developing countries to pursue sustainable development.

Accordingly, the Kyoto Protocol was organized such that member states were divided into Annex I (developed) and non-Annex 1[5] (developing) countries. While the former were required to commit to binding emission cuts with respect to their 1990 emission levels, the latter were not. The first commitment period ended in 2012, wherein many countries failed to meet their respective targets except for those in the European Union (E.U.), which in fact over-achieved their targets. The COP 18 Summit in Doha, 2012 recommended a second commitment period which would run up to 2020.[6] It was recommended therein that a second round of binding reduction targets ought to be imposed on 37 countries, based on historical and present-day levels of emissions. This round would act as a precursor to the major 2020 phase commencing in Paris, such that the 2° C goal could be attained in the long run.

The USA, which usually surges to get take leadership on any global issue, has in fact been the cog in the wheel when it comes to the global climate change regime. Despite being the second highest carbon emitter in the world, the USA has consistently rejected any binding commitment on the subject. It repudiated the Kyoto Protocol, which was then followed by many developed countries who also argued on the US lines that they would not accept binding commitments unless major emitters among the developing countries accepted likewise. In essence, developed countries do not wish to accept their historical responsibility of being the major cause of the present global warming and are against this differentiated emission reduction targets mandated by the protocol.

The developing bloc under the leadership of China and India has been arguing for differentiated standards for rich and poor countries, while the developed bloc has been pulling in the exact opposite direction. Therefore, for all practical purposes, the parallel exercise at climate summits to arrive at further commitments for exclusively Annex 1 countries has lost all its meaning. At Lima, too, there was not much headway on this front, and the protocol hangs in limbo today. Hence the principle of common but differentiated responsibility has been severely weathered down, thanks to the USA.

New Phraseology:

A new trend has developed since the developed versus developing bloc showdown in COP 15 (Copenhagen) in 2009. A bottom-up approach of “pledge and review” of mitigation commitments, based on voluntary emission reduction pledges made by countries, has arguably displaced the top-down legally mandated approach a la the Kyoto Protocol. The top-down approach wherein developed countries were mandated to commit to a minimum emission cut of 5% and anything above that voluntarily, was based on the principles of the convention and on what science says about emission pathways that the world needs to adopt to avoid exceeding the 2° C temperature rise limit. The new phrase in the negotiations glossaries that characterises this trend is known as “intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs)”, a term that was adopted in the COP 13 (Warsaw) in 2013.

As a result, the nature of the new protocol that delegates hope to finish drafting by COP 21 in Paris will be largely INDC-centric. It forms the core mitigation element in the draft text for the Paris negotiations and a complete abandonment of the common but differentiated standard.[7] It still remains a question as to how the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibility will be incorporated in the bottom-up-pledges-driven approach. Further, the Kyoto involved not just mitigation (emission cuts) but also adaptation, capacity-building, technology transfers from developed to developing countries (under the Clean Development Mechanism).[8] In the several COPs of the past, there has been contentious disagreement over the scope of INDCs. Developed countries wanted the scope of INDCs to be restricted to mitigation, while developing countries wanted the INDCs to include the related elements of financial contributions and technology transfer to assist them in their mitigation and adaptation actions in the post-2020 period.

Other controversial issues

Apart from the scope of INDCs, several issues regarding the new protocol remain either completely unaddressed or lacking consensus among member states. For instance, the issue of financing for the post-2020 period,[9] the inclusion of the issue of the “international mechanism for loss and damage” to least developed countries (LDCs) and vulnerable countries due to climate change,[10] which was mandated a COP 19 decision. In a similar vein, some developed countries (mainly among the EU) proposed a system for assessment and review of the INDCs by mid-2015;[11] this was to be done so as to see whether the mitigation commitments would in fact limit the temperature rise to below 2° C. The EU wanted the 2015 agreement to have a mechanism that allowed a revisit of the collective mitigation potential.

But these proposals were rejected by developing countries. They argued that an  assessment regime was beyond the Warsaw Mandate and therefore  did not need to be done under the convention. It was further argued that such an assessment might result in the developing countries being brought under greater pressure to enhance their commitments. As a result, the Lima Conference ended in a botched and hurried compromise agreement with many countries pulling in opposite directions instead of working together.

Commitments made by major emitters leading up to COP 21

The commitment of several countries toward climate change mitigation can be fairly gauged by their INDC targets. Unfortunately, the respective announcements of these two largest carbon emitters of the world, who account for nearly 44 per cent of global carbon emissions (China 27 per cent, the U.S. 17 percent) amount to only marginal improvements over their earlier stated positions. These will barely have any substantive impact on the long-term prognosis of climate change. China recently announced in a bilateral deal with the USA that its carbon emissions would “peak” around 2030 and that it would endeavour to cap emissions even earlier. It also announced that renewable energy would account for a 20% share of all energy produced. The US, on the other hand, declared that it would cut its emissions by 26-28% by 2025 relative to 2005, which is more than what it declared in Copenhagen in 2009 and in Cancun in 2010.

Although the US never embraced the Kyoto Protocol, the US did in fact meet its target in 2012. The US has been pushing for clean technology within its borders, however not with the same kind of vigour that is seen in the EU. Further, China’s declaration of a peak year, to which it had been steadfastly opposed until a few years ago, is new and extremely welcomed. However, a peak year between 2020-25 would have been an even more significant contribution on China’s part in the pursuit of limiting global emissions to 2° C. More pertinently, the rate of increase towards the peak, when the decline would start, and the rate of decline have not been indicated. The Chinese declaration does indicate a possible earlier peaking year; perhaps one has to wait until China announces its INDCs to see whether they are ready to hold themselves to more ambitious targets than indicated in the bilateral deal.

Given its track record, the EU’s declaration of its INDCs is meaningful and reasonable. It has committed a 40% reduction of its 1990 levels by 2030. The indications from other countries such as Japan (whose emissions are likely to significantly increase because of Fukushima), Australia and Canada, whose target is aligned with the 17 per cent reduction target of the US, are, however, hardly encouraging. India, too, has stated that it is working on appropriate INDCs, which it will submit to the UNFCCC sometime this year.[12]

In conclusion, a great deal of doubt and confusion looms large over the Paris Conference later this year. Will delegates engage cooperatively and enter into a deal that will save us from the disastrous effects of climate change? Will the developed and developing blocs reconcile their differences? Will the Paris agreement, (in whatever form it will come through) compromise on the basic tenets of the UNFCC Convention? Many questions need to be answered by the COP 21. One can hope that the Paris Accord is not fraught with lacunae and weaknesses, and that it actually reflects the needs of those who will bear the brunt of climate change to the maximum degree however play no part in its initiation. The turn of this century will bring with it many events, one can only pray that one of them is a deal in Paris that saved the world!

 Photo courtesy: http://farrellfile.com/2016/02/poll-91-of-americans-arent-worried-about-global-warming/

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[1] Micheal Jacobs, The Lima Deal Represents a Fundamental Change in the Global Climate Change Regime, The Guardian (December 15, 2014), available at: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/dec/15/lima-deal-represents-a-fundamental-change-in-global-climate-regime

[2] Micheal Jacobs, The Lima Deal Represents a Fundamental Change in the Global Climate Change Regime, The Guardian (December 15, 2014), available at: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/dec/15/lima-deal-represents-a-fundamental-change-in-global-climate-regime

[3] See UNFCCC Bodies, Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP), available at: http://unfccc.int/bodies/body/6645.php.

[4] UNFCCC, Article 3.1.

[5] http://unfccc.int/parties_and_observers/items/2704.php

[6] Famously known as the Doha Amendment. This Amendment has been ratified by only 23 countries (none of which are developed), while the Amendment requires 144 ratifications in order to enter into force.

[7] INDC Submissions of different countries (both developed and developing) building up to the Paris Agreement, available at: http://www.c2es.org/international/2015-agreement/indcs.

[8] INDC Partnerships, available at: http://www.mitigationpartnership.net/intended-nationally-determined-contributions-indcs.

[9] Nordic Council of Ministers, Accounting Framework for the Post-2020 Period, available at: http://climateobserver.org/reports/accounting-framework-for-the-post-2020-period/.

[10] See http://unfccc.int/adaptation/workstreams/loss_and_damage/items/6056.php.

[11] See http://www.cop21makeitwork.com/2014/12/lima-paris-beyond-options-ex-ante-assessment-intended-nationally-determined-contributions-unfccc/.

[12] For a detailed report on the different INDCs and India’s current potential: http://ceew.in/pdf/ceew-india-indcs-re-and-the-pathway-to-p.pdf.

TAG: 2° C temperature rise , global warming , Cancun Summit , United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) , 20th Conference of Parties COP at Paris , Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) , Lima Conference , Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) , “intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) , Kyoto Protocol


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