UN Climate Change Negotiations: Last Tango in Paris?

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The Paris Climate Change Conference starting on 30 November 2015 is tasked to set the world on a path to address the greatest challenge to ever face humankind, by adopting a new climate agreement. It was hoped that agreement in Paris would bring an end to the impasse that has long affected international climate governance. However, the outlook for the conference is rather bleak. We are just a few weeks away from the conference, but Parties remain far from reaching any agreement. Negotiations under the body entrusted to draft the text of the Paris agreement, the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP), have abundantly shown that Parties’ views on how to tackle climate change still significantly diverge. At the end of the last ADP session before Paris, progress on the preparation of the text of the agreement remained limited. In fact, Parties even backtracked on the little compromise they had managed to achieve at earlier ADP sessions. This post reflects on the difficulties experienced in the work of the ADP and on their implications for the Paris conference.

Ever since 1992, Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have attempted to agree on measures to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.’ The international scientific body entrusted to assess climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has indicated that such a level requires keeping the increase in global annual average temperature below 2° C as compared with pre-industrial times. Over twenty years after its adoption, however, the UNFCCC has struggled to keep the world within the limits indicated by the IPCC. In fact, global emissions of greenhouse gases have anything but diminished.

The reason international climate governance has proven to be such an intractable affair relates both to the enormity of the challenge at hand, as well as to the gaping disparity in States’ capacity to tackle climate change. The main instrument adopted to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere under the UNFCCC, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, fundamentally acknowledged this gap. Building upon a static differentiation between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries, the Protocol imposed binding emission reduction targets only on the first. With ever growing emissions in emerging economies, like China and India, however, the IPCC has repeatedly flagged that both developed and developing countries need to reduce their emissions.

To make matters worse, political will behind the Kyoto Protocol has significantly faltered. After the elapse of the first commitment period in 2012, it has proven impossible to negotiate new targets for some important players, such as Japan, New Zealand and the Russian Federation, whereas others, like Canada and the US, are not even Parties to the Protocol. This situation has left the European Union and a few other developed countries, like Australia, Norway and Switzerland, in the uncomfortable position of being the sole Parties to the Protocol with emission reduction targets.

In the hope of inducing more States to reduce their emissions, in 2007 UNFCCC Parties embarked upon the difficult process of negotiating a new climate agreement. This negotiation process has suffered numerous setbacks and almost collapsed in 2009 in Copenhagen. Subsequent negotiations have potentially opened the way to a new geometry of commitments, based on a new approach to differentiation between Parties. The adoption of a legally binding agreement that includes emission reduction commitments for all Parties, however, was but one of the possible outcomes opened up by the new negotiation scenario.

The Paris Climate Change Conference is meant to be the end of this long negotiation cycle. The road to Paris has nevertheless been laden with obstacles.

Established in the aftermath of the Copenhagen debacle, the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) was specifically tasked to develop ‘a protocol, another legal instrument or a legal outcome’ applicable to ‘all Parties,’ to be implemented from 2020. The ADP has met fifteen times to try and complete this endeavour. After two first convulsed years, in February 2015 the ADP formally adopted a negotiating text for the Paris agreement (so called ‘Geneva text’).

This 90-page text was hastily compiled on the basis of UNFCCC Parties submissions. Subsequent ADP sessions were dedicated to trying to turn this sizeable, chaotic text into that of a legal instrument to be adopted in December 2015. Nobody expected this task to be easy. Indeed, as soon as negotiators set themselves to it, they were confronted with a host of procedural, as well as substantive obstacles. Finding a mode of work suited to negotiate a text based on the mechanical compilation of Parties’ submissions, with hardly any common ground on fundamental choices regarding the nature and the content of Parties’ obligations, was a veritable conundrum.

From the beginning, a variety of approaches to streamline, cluster and reduce the size of the Geneva text were experimented with. These efforts, however, delivered only very meager results. Frustrated with the limited progress, in September 2015 UNFCCC Parties resolved to mandate the ADP Co-Chairs to prepare a non-paper containing a basis for negotiating a Paris climate ‘package,’ including a draft agreement text, based on the Geneva text.

In October 2015 the ADP Co-Chairs issued a non-paper that dramatically down-sized the Geneva text to 9 pages. The lean text took a ‘de minimis’ approach to the key elements of the agreement, pragmatically leaving the most difficult political decisions to post-Paris negotiations. The bold move of the Co-Chairs to salvage Parties from the quicksand of the Geneva text was admittedly risky. Yet one could have hoped that the succinct text prepared by the Co-Chairs would at least enable Parties to work in a more orderly fashion, around a text that was reasonably and logically structured, and for the first time actually looked like that of a treaty.

At the last ADP session held in Bonn in October 2015, however, this opportunity was sorely missed. The opening of the session saw Parties vigorously refusing to use the ADP Co-Chairs text as basis for negotiation. To address its perceived shortcomings, Parties resolved to integrate the ADP Co-Chairs text with insertions. This re-compilation exercise quickly saw the text swelling back to an unmanageable size. Even worse, textual insertions largely represented a return to Parties’ long-held views, and dissipated the little compromise capital that had so carefully been accumulated at earlier ADP sessions. So by the end of the Bonn session the ADP was left with a messy 31 page draft agreement text, with largely incoherent and diverging options on all core issues, and no overall sense of direction.

As if this was not bad enough, the session was marred with political wrangling, resulting from a growing level of distrust not only between Parties, but also towards the ADP Co-Chairs. This tension became palpable in the closing hours of the October session of the ADP, where Parties resolved not to entrust the Co-Chairs to undertake any further streamlining of the text. Instead, they only requested the UNFCCC Secretariat to prepare a technical paper identifying ‘closely related paragraphs and duplications within sections, and possible areas for streamlining,’ ‘without changing the content of the text.’

As drama unfolded in Bonn, many evoked memories of the difficult negotiations that preceded the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009. There are, however, fundamental differences between the negotiation process that preceded the Copenhagen conference and that preceding Paris.

Ahead of Copenhagen, it had been impossible to formally adopt a negotiating text. As a result, delegates had to work with a voluminous text of over 200 pages, based on an unofficial compilation of Parties’ submissions. As no progress on text negotiations could be made, the Copenhagen Conference was haunted with rumours about a possible ‘Danish text’ that the presidency might table at the eleventh hour. The ensuing break-down in trust and diplomatic mismanagement of the process led the conference to conclude with a non-inclusive, untransparent, last-minute political agreement, known as the Copenhagen Accord, which marked the low-point in the history of the climate regime.

Contrariwise, ahead of Paris, a negotiating text was formally adopted within the timeline required by Article 17 of the UNFCCC and by the Draft Rules of Procedure for the adoption of protocols to the Convention. A quick glance at the 31 pages draft agreement text that emerged from the last session of the ADP seemingly suggests that the outlook for Paris is more favourable than that for Copenhagen.

Yet, appearances can be deceitful. While in fact formally UNFCCC Parties are in a much better position than they were six years ago, politically their situation is just as hopeless. The last session of the ADP has shown that consensus on how to collectively tackle climate change remains distant. Parties’ views on fundamental substantive issues still significantly diverge.

The veritable bone of contention undoubtedly is the question of differentiation. States’ views still greatly differ on how to distribute amongst themselves the burden to mitigate climate change, as well as to provide capacity-building, finance and technology to those in need. On the one end of the spectrum, numerous developed and developing countries converge on the need to move beyond a ‘bifurcated approach’ to differentiation, even though not on how this ought to be done. On the other end, however, some developing countries vehemently oppose considering moving beyond existing differentiation parameters.

Even more critically, Parties are struggling to find consensus on an overarching architecture to capture their ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ (INDCs) in the Paris agreement. INDCs are meant to provide information on what each Party to the agreement intends to do to tackle climate change post 2020. At the aggregate level, however, submitted INDCs remain far from a level of ambition consistent with the 2° C goal. Yet, ADP negotiations have failed to produce agreement on a process to review and adjust INDCs in order to enable the achievement of the goal.

Finally, even at this late stage, negotiators are yet to come to a common understanding on whether the Paris agreement ought to be a protocol to the UNFCCC or not. With no common vision on all of these issues in sight, the ADP process has eloquently demonstrated the futility of technical negotiations, without prior political consensus on the core elements and features of the Paris agreement.

UNFCCC Parties have learnt important lessons from the Copenhagen debacle. In Paris, they will do everything they can to avoid repeating the same mistakes. How they will manage to get to an agreement, and what this will consist of, however, remains to be seen. What seems already clear is that, while the Paris conference may avert diplomatic disaster, it may well once again fail to put the world on a path to avert dangerous anthropogenic climate change.

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