Climate Summit: Round 21

By David Holmquist

The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) opened in Paris on November 30, in the shadow of the attacks by ISIS on the cultural life of the city. Heads of state or government from more than 140 countries attended the conference over the first two days, addressing plenary sessions and holding private meetings.

After these preliminaries, the negotiating teams hunkered down in informal sessions to create a proposed agreement from a 50-page draft that has been formulated over the past year and highlights the issues still in contention.

At the weekend little progress had been made, and some issues considered vital by developing countries and civil society had been moved into “annexes,” the diplomatic term for side agreements. The French government, as host to the conference, has appointed ministerial-level working groups and tasked them with negotiating the necessary compromises by Wednesday, December 9.

The contentious issues in the talks are not new. Developing countries—the ones whose populations are most at risk from the effects of climate change—have called in recent years for “increased ambition” on the part of developing countries with regard to:

Recognition that the goal of limiting global average temperature increases to 2o C over pre-industrial levels is insufficient to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Over 100 countries have signed a declaration calling for a downward revision of the temperature target to 1.5o C. They include 44 nations from the Alliance of Small Island States, and a newly-formed bloc of nations calling themselves the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) or V20, which represents 700 million people. It has been reported that the executive secretary of the UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres, will also sign their declaration.

Commitments, even if not legally binding, to emissions reductions that adequately address the scale of the problem. Voluntary commitments were tabled in the months leading up to the conference by some 150 countries responsible for 97 percent of global emissions. The total of those commitments would put the world on a path to warming of 2.7 to 3.3o C.

Fulfillment of the climate finance pledges made at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. Financial transfers in the amount of $100 billion were promised to developing countries by 2020 through the UN’s Green Climate Fund, to enable those countries to leap-frog to clean energy sources as they developed their economies. To date, less that $10 billion has been provided. Discussion of climate finance has come to focus on “innovative finance,” contributions from the private sector, and funds generated through carbon trading schemes. Developing countries are, legitimately, concerned about the speculative nature of these approaches. They are also concerned that the funds will be diverted from already-existing aid agreements, contrary to the deal struck in Copenhagen.

Recognition of liability for Loss and Damage, another longstanding demand of the small island nations. The United States Climate Change Special Envoy, Todd Stern, has flatly rejected this principle. Claiming to speak for “all developed countries,” he told reporters in Paris that “… the US will not accept liability and compensation in the final Paris agreement. This is a red line we cannot cross.”

The United States has by all accounts been pushing hard for formal acceptance of the voluntary approach to emissions reductions as expressed in “indicated nationally determined contributions” (INDCs), in part as acknowledgment that the Republican-controlled Congress will not ratify a binding climate treaty. American negotiators are also concentrating on establishing universal standards for emissions reporting in order to meet expected Congressional objections to future agreements. This proposal was rejected by the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, as an attempt to weaken the UNFCCC commitment to “common but differentiated responsibilities” between the developed and developing nations.

The seeming intractability of these fundamental issues has led most commentators to predict a weak deal—one that would not be acceptable to the developing nations. But other issues have been elevated by participants within the talks in an attempt to re-frame the negotiations and give greater weight to considerations of climate justice and humanitarian necessity.

As the summit began, Oxfam International published a report entitled “Extreme Carbon Inequality,” calling for an agreement in Paris that puts the poorest, lowest-emitting and most vulnerable people first. Building on the work of economists Thomas Piketty and Branko Milanovic, the report concludes that the world’s richest 10 percent account for half of personal lifestyle emissions, while the poorest half account for only 10 percent. The new analysis shows the stark differences that exist between the ecological footprints of the rich and poor countries, and between the rich and poor within countries.

Source: Oxfam International

Source: Oxfam International

Climate scientist James Hansen supported the position of the developing countries in a speech to a public forum outside the Paris talks. Dr. Hansen is credited with being the first scientist to sound the climate alarm, in his 1988 testimony to the Congress of the United States as head of NASA’s Goddard Space Center. Speaking in Paris, he pointed out that it is cumulative historical emissions that have been to blame for warming the planet to its current point, now estimated to be fully 1o C above pre-industrial levels. “For that the US is responsible for 25 percent, and the EU about 25 percent, China only 10 percent. Per capita, the UK, US and Germany are by far the most responsible. China [per capita] is by an order of magnitude smaller,” he said.

On the third day of COP21, the UN Advisory Group on Human Mobility and Climate Change released a set of recommendations for incorporating proactive approaches to migration in the Paris agreement. At a news conference, Marine Franck, the group’s coordinator and climate change officer for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) pointed out that climate migration is addressed under the very contentious Loss and Damage provisions of the current agreement. It must, she said, also be addressed under the Adaptation provisions, prioritizing the prevention of displacement. Failing that, she went on to say, “…enabling people to migrate in dignity, to seek alternative opportunities when living conditions deteriorate and crisis comes knocking at their door, is also an important measure.”

The Guardian (UK) is providing comprehensive coverage of COP21, including a report on the revised strategy for the second week of the conference.