Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday, 26 October 2015

Big divides remain just a month before Paris climate meeting

Much is expected of the important Paris climate conference, but so many huge differences remain among the countries and time is running out


In just over a month, the UN Climate Conference will open in Paris on 30 November.

Much is expected of it, as a new international agreement on how to deal with climate change will be established there.

But the members of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are still very far from seeing eye to eye on the content, structure and legal nature of this agreement . 

Expectations are high because the climate change situation continues to be in severe crisis, or has even worsened. 

This crisis is marked by the highest average global temperatures, the months-long serious haze caused by forest burning in South East Asia, heavy rainfalls causing floods in many parts of the world, as well as typhoons and cyclones.  

Against this backdrop, a negotiation session was held last week in Bonn, aimed at making progress on the text of the agreement that will hopefully be concluded in Paris.

But there were so many differences on so many issues that it would take a heroic effort to reach a deal in the two weeks in Paris.

The Bonn session showed that the developed and developing countries, or the North and South, are still split on the key issues of mitigation, adaptation, finance, and technology.

Most importantly, they are deeply divided on what are the respective responsibilities and obligations of the North and the South in the new agreement.

The Paris agreement will come under the UN Climate Convention. According to this Convention, established in 1992, the developed countries are obliged to undertake more obligations, including in reducing Greenhouse Gases and in providing finance and technology to developing countries.

Developing countries also have obligations to take mitigation and adaptation actions.  It is also recognized that poverty eradication and economic development are their top priorities, and the extent of their climate actions depends on the level of financial and technology support they receive.

The Convention’s provisions and structures were built on this equity principle, including the notion of “common but differentiated responsibilities”.   All countries have to take actions, but the richer countries have to do more.

In recent years, the developed countries have sought to change the nature of the Convention.  Led by the United States, they want to remove the differentiation between developed and developing countries, so that all countries are obliged to take on the same types of mitigation commitments.

Moreover, they want to very much loosen the obligations of the North to provide funds or transfer technology to the South.  They want developing countries to make the same commitments as them to cut emissions, and to de-link this from the funding or technology they receive.

The developed countries have made proposals that the new Paris agreement incorporate these ideas.  But this is tenaciously opposed by the developing countries who argue that accepting this would be tantamount to overthrowing the existing Convention as it contradicts the main tenets of the UNFCCC.

And the Paris agreement comes under the UNFCCC, so it has to be in line with and not go counter to the principles and the provisions of the mother body, which is the Convention.

The developing countries were fighting an uphill battle last week in Bonn as the two Co-Chairs of the committee preparing for Paris issued a draft of the Paris agreement that was very lop-sided in favour of the views of developed countries.

The draft of the Co-Chairs, an American and an Algerian, was supposed to be the basis for negotiations.  But it faced a storm of criticism from developing countries’ groupings including the G77 and China, the Africa Group and the Like Minded Developing Countries (LMDC).

The criticisms include that:

·         The draft Agreement is one-sided in favour of developed countries.

·         It departs from or dilutes the principles and provisions in the Convention, especially its Article 4.

·         There is no differentiation between developed and developing countries in the proposed operational provisions.   They are all treated in a like manner, wiping out the notions of historical responsibility and equity.

·         In mitigation, there is a downgrading of developed countries obligations and an upgrading of developing country obligations.

·         The focus is overwhelmingly on mitigation, with no obligation for developed countries to provide the needed funds (with no mention or roadmap to the earlier promised US$100 billion a year by 2020).

Ambassador Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko of South Africa, speaking for the G77 and China, said the Co-chairs’ text “seems to attempt to rewrite, reinterpret and replace the Convention. It is extremely unbalanced and lopsided, to the extent that it jeopardizes the interests and positions of developing countries.”

The developing countries insisted that countries be allowed to insert their own proposals into the Co-Chair’s draft, so that it could better reflect their views.

This was agreed to, so most of last week’s negotiations involved the countries (and their groupings) making proposals to inject their own ideas and texts into the draft.

Having the ideas of the various countries in a new draft of the Paris agreement is more inclusive and democratic.  Countries can then see the different options and try to agree.

The problem is firstly that the basic differences (especially between North and South) are still there, and secondly time is running out.  How to bridge the seemingly unbridgeable differences among countries in the 10 or 12 working days in Paris, when they have not been able to do so for so many years?

Meanwhile, a group of important NGOs last week published a report analyzing whether the emission-reduction actions submitted by countries are sufficient to address climate change and whether each country was doing its “fair share” of contributing to the global action.

The country’s actions have been submitted as “intended nationally determined contributions” (or INDCs), and these are a key feature of the Paris agreement.

A country’s fair share depends on two factors:  its historical responsibility, (i.e. its contribution to climate change in terms of cumulative emissions through the years), and capacity to take climate action, using national income over and above what is needed to provide basic living standards as the principal indicator.

The NGOs involved in the study include ActionAid International,  Asian Peoples Movement on Debt and Development, Center for International Environmental Law, Christian Aid, CIDSE,  EcoEquity, Friends of the Earth International, International Trade Union Confederation,  LDC Watch International,  Oxfam,  Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, Third World Network, What Next Forum, and WWF

The key findings of the study include:

·         Together, the commitments captured in INDCs will not keep temperatures below 2°C, much less 1.5°C, above pre-industrial levels. Even if all countries meet their INDC commitments, the world is likely to warm by a devastating 3°C or more, with a significant likelihood of tipping the global climate system into catastrophic runaway warming.

·         The current INDCs represent substantially less than half of the reduction in emissions required by 2030.

·         The ambition of all major developed countries fall well short of their fair shares, which include not only domestic action but also international finance. Those with the starkest gap between their climate ambition and their fair shares include:

o   Russia: INDC represents zero contribution towards its fair share

o   Japan: INDC represents about one tenth of its fair share

o   United States: INDC represents about a fifth of its fair share

o   European Union: INDC represents just over a fifth of its fair share

·         The majority of developing countries have made mitigation pledges that exceed or broadly meet their fair share, but they also have mitigation potential that exceeds their pledges and fair share.

·         Most developed countries have fair shares that are already too large to fulfil exclusively within their borders.  The remainder of their fair shares must therefore be accomplished by enabling an equivalent amount of emissions reduction in developing countries through financing and other support. This accounts for almost half of the reductions that need to take place globally, which indicates the need for a vast expansion of international finance, technology and capacity-building support.

·         Although climate finance is critical for developed countries to deliver their fair shares, there is a striking lack of clear commitments. Massively scaled-up international public finance is required to support developing countries’ efforts. In addition, significantly increased public climate finance is needed to meet the cost of adaptation, and to cover loss and damage in developing countries, particularly for the most vulnerable.

The Bonn negotiations last week and the very significant findings by the NGOs show how important but complex and difficult it is to get a good Paris agreement.

Such a good agreement must be ambitious enough to keep the world’s temperature rise to 2 degree Celsius, and it must be fair so that countries feel they are not being bullied to do more than their just share.

It also means the powerful developed countries have to step up to the plate and take the lead in cutting their emissions adequately and according to the “fair shares”, but also providing the means to developing countries to take sufficient climate actions.

And developing countries, assured by the serious actions of developed countries, and by their firm commitments on finance and technology, will be confident to make ambitious pledges on mitigation and adaptation.  


Given that there are still so many basic differences just five weeks before the Paris conference begins, it will take a huge leap, indeed a miracle, to achieve such a successful deal.