Paris Climate Change Conference: Week two of COP 21 in Paris: Nations show off and make empty promises… Climate catastrophe is now unavoidable

Soybeans show the affect of the Texas drought near Navasota, TX on Aug. 21, 2013. USDA photo by Bob Nichols.
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Soybeans show the affect of the Texas drought near Navasota, TX on Aug. 21, 2013. USDA photo by Bob Nichols.

In the second week of negotiations in Paris a long-form draft agreement has been handed to ministers to begin discussions. More than one negotiating team expects that, given the sensitivity of the issue and the gulf between various parties’ positions (especially between those of developed and developing nations), these discussions will run not hours but days over the allotted timeframe. There are those who still fear that the major powers are cooking something up outside framework of negotiations. There are those who continue to rest their hopes on the promises made by the conference chair at the start of proceedings when the parties elected Laurent Fabius, France’s minister of foreign affairs and international development after Fabius had outlined the duty of the French-held chairmanship as follows: to listen to all points of view, to guarantee transparency and inclusivity, to work to reach an ambitious agreement, to guarantee the production of an accord between all parties, and to leave the “final points” to be reviewed by ministers during the course of the second week.

Similarly, talks and speeches continue to focus on the need to reach a legally binding, ambitious, universal, and balanced agreement on climate change and to keep global temperature rises below the two-degree limit, though there are ingoing disputes whether this rise should be measured against the temperature at the start of the industrial revolution, or in 1995, or even in 2005, and the concomitant discrepancies in emission levels at each of these dates.

A further dispute has arisen over the nature of the agreement itself. Is it a “convention”, or an “agreement”, or a new “protocol” to replace the “Kyoto Protocol” which the world’s powers failed to implement. Each of these terms has legal ramifications and affects how binding the document is on its signatories. Logically speaking, there should be no need for a new convention given the existence of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change which was ratified by nearly all nations in 1992. What is currently needed is a new binding and executive protocol which sets out obligations, standards, and the means to achieve them, as well as the penalties so noticeably absent from the Kyoto Protocol.

A week into proceedings here in Paris talks continue to focus around the same issues. Developed nations continued to insist on the need to offer gradual and practically attainable reduction measures, while developing nations call for funding means of adjusting to climate change and free access to emission reduction technologies (i.e. technological transfer), as well as establishing an international court for environmental justice. Finally, there is the demand for greater equality, which according to developing nations, means international support for the provision of electricity to the least-developed nations from renewable energy sources and the injection of more resources into the Green Climate Fund to support climate-adaption. But in no time the response comes, albeit indirectly, from producers of green technology such as Denmark, “that the principle objective of COP 21 is to make clean energy widely available at affordable prices and to increase support for renewable energy technologies,” which completely ignores the possibility of supplying these technologies free of charge to developing nations as compensation, on the principle that developed nations should accept historical responsibility for the build-up of global emissions.

This issue of developed nations’ “historical responsibility” has been a commonplace since Rio 1992, but in recent years it has come to include a call for emerging economies such as China (which cannot be properly classified as “developing”) “to play their new roles in the international community”, coupled with claims that the world today is radically different to the one in which the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997. This issue seems to be a prominent factor in all current climate change talks, now that China (the number one producer of emissions worldwide) has become a “developed nation” following its membership WTO and yesterday’s announcement that the IMF will be adding the yuan to its basket of reserve currencies (joining the US dollar, the Euro, the Japanese yen, and the pound sterling).

We have begun to hear new voices emphasizing the role of women and their special status: “a victim of climate change and part of the solution,” as President of Chile Michelle Bachelet phrased it. Bachelet also insisted on the need for countries to look at the social component of the struggle to achieve climate justice, as well as the importance of strengthened initiatives to reduce emissions resulting from the cutting down of forests and woodlands in developing countries, and the Warsaw International Mechanism for Damage and Loss. However, more profound examinations of the problem at hand—addressing the need to change current economic, development and energy models, and treating climate-related disasters as primarily an economic and moral issue requiring a comprehensive and global change in value systems—were absent from the debate, meaning that climate catastrophe is now inevitable.

Saving the planet

One of the major, and most debated, subjects—and one which Al Gore himself opened for discussion in 1997 when he was the US representative at Kyoto, is that of the buying and pricing of carbon credits. In Paris this has been a main concern of the Korean delegation, which has argued for the creation of a world carbon market including developed and developing nations alike.

As for the importance of “common but differentiated” responsibilities, the majority of developing nations regard them as the cornerstone of any agreement to be reached in Paris, emphasizing that differentiation with respect to obligations is vital if the agreement is to be effective. Bolivian president Evo Morales reviewed the results of the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Defence of Life hosted in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in October of this year, and called on COP 21 to tackle capitalism, as the ultimate cause of the climate crisis. Except that the dominant issue at recent climate talks, and one which has continued to be debated in Paris, is the importance of ensuring every country is able achieve its own emission reduction targets and adaption goals. This has often been a means of pre-empting or avoiding a universal and binding agreement, which is why there have been calls to set out a document that will prevent an increase in harmful effects from climate change, and to encourage adaption. The emphasis on differentiated obligations must be addressed through the introduction of a “realistic and flexible” system that preserves the principle of “common but differentiated” responsibilities. Likewise the issue of the right to development continues to be raised when discussing measures for reducing emissions, their impact on the economies of developing nations, and compensation. Other issues include the demand for clear targets, common rules for transparency and accountability, and establishing processes for annual or five-yearly evaluations.

Pledged funding

Funding is still regarded as an issue of central importance in climate talks, and this year a new proposal has been put forward by the V20 group (the group of the twenty most vulnerable nations) regarding access to extra funding in October of this year, as well as calls to collect 100 billion US dollars annually as was agreed at Copenhagen in 2009. In Paris, willingness to offer funding went no further than pledges by eleven nations to provide a total of 248 million US dollars to Least Developed Nations Fund. This is regarded by some as an indicator of the severe drop-off in funding for climate change and climate-adaption.

Alongside funding, there were the usual calls to protect the ecologies and biodiversity of forests by offering alternative programs for preserving and protecting the lifestyles of their indigenous inhabitants, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable states. There was a reminder that the new agreement should pose no harm to the efforts being made by poor nations to combat poverty or to their right to development, an issue that has been repeatedly raised now and looks set to continue that way for the foreseeable future.

The United States disunited

The United States of America, since 2007 the second biggest global producer of harmful emissions after China, seems anything but united in its attitude towards climate change. While President Barack Obama admitted his country’s role in causing climate change, and said that, “the United States accepts responsibility for doing something about that,”—calling for an agreement which would include, among other things: a permanent framework for implementation, gradually laying the ground for ambitious targets, ensuring that support reaches those countries that most need it, emphasizing that the US would pledge to create new initiatives to secure the planet against risk, and assisting vulnerable populations to rebuild more sustainably following climate-related disasters—Congress (with a Republican majority) voted to abolish the Obama administration’s new measures to combat carbon dioxide emissions, which for the first time ever sought to impose limits on the operation of certain US power stations. Though Obama had previously warmed that he might use his power of veto to pass the measures, others were reminded of previous incidents from the past, such as Congress’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, or Obama’s fervent pledges and speeches in Copenhagen in 2009 that produced no tangible results.

Chinese puzzles

Having been crowned the greatest polluter on earth, and having seen its currency added to the IMF’s basket of reserve currencies, China began by making updated pledges regarding the reduction of harmful emissions. Data taken from numerous reports show that China is the world leader in both reliance on coal power, in the production of harmful emissions, and in the production of renewable energy. This mass of contradictions shows that even as it is placing itself at the heart of the global markets and competing internationally, it is also at the heart of one of the most serious global issues: climate change. Speaking on behalf of his country, as well as Brazil, South Africa, and India, the Chinese delegate insisted that the Paris agreement must include “responsibilities that are held in common, but which are differentiated according to the capacity of each country.” He also called for, “working openly, transparently, comprehensively, and with the backing of all parties.” Referring to the period leading up to 2020 he affirmed the importance of developed nations abiding by their obligations and laying out a clear roadmap for achieving the target of collecting 100 billion US dollars annually for the Green Climate Fund.

German clarity and Russian gambling

Perhaps the clearest and most straightforward contribution came from German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who stated that, “current national contributions are established voluntarily and are not sufficiently ambitious to meet the two-degree target, itself an inadequate target for small island nations,” and called for a binding review mechanism with a five-yearly cycle starting from 2020 to guarantee credibility and increase the level of ambition. She also called for “removing carbon from economies and for a profound transformation in all sectors of industry. Developed nations must seize the initiative to fund this technological ‘renaissance’, given its responsibility for past emissions.”

Russia’s Vladimir Putin was still betting on being able “to find a balance between economic development and care for the environment,” and mentioned that Russia is prepared to share energy efficiency solutions. He called for a new climate agreement based on the principles of the UNFCCC, and that it should be legally binding and include all developing nations.

President of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto, confirmed that his was the first developing country to have met its national contributions, and reminded delegates that they were taking a decision to do with the kind of life they wanted for the remainder of the twenty-first century. Juan Carlos Varela, president of Panama, suggested creating an international centre to help form a public-private network to combat deforestation, encourage sustainable woodland management, and limit carbon emissions.

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi stated that the agreement must be founded on the principle of shared but proportionate responsibilities, and include a pledge that the average global temperature would rise no higher than 1.5 degrees, as well as a global target for climate change adjustment.  

Umbrellas and reports

Speaking on behalf of the Umbrella Group nations, the Australian delegate said that Parus must produce an agreement that will systematically update targets and goals. He also spoke about the role played by civil society and the labour market, in particular the hundreds of initiatives produced in the framework of the Lima-Paris Action Agenda. Angola’s representative, speaking on behalf of the least developed nations, stated that the target of not exceeding a two degree rise in temperature was not enough, and should be lowered to 1.5 degrees.

The Korean delegate, speaking on behalf of the Environmental Integrity Group called for an agreement that covered all areas and included a flexible approach to proportionality and difference, laid out universally applicable rules, and a mechanism for updating targets over time.

Parties were also informed of the annual report of the technical review of data submitted by Annexe One parties in the framework of the agreement concerning biennial reports and national communications, and a report on the implementation of national working plans by Annexe One parties as stipulated in article 1-7 of the protocol, based on data provided in their national communications.

Island states

The representative of the Maldives, speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, stated that the agreement should clarify certain issues including a medium and long-term scenario for emission reductions capable of keeping global temperature rises to below 1.5 degrees. The Guatemalan representative, speaking on behalf of the Independent League of Latin American and Caribbean Countries pledged to put all their efforts behind reaching a legally binding, fair, and ambitious agreement. President of the Marshall Islands, Christopher Loeak, confirmed that current contributions are insufficient to limit the rise on temperature to 1.5 degrees, stating that countries must redefine their targets every five years. Peter Christian, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, called on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to declare a global state of emergency over climate change.

Local organizations and authorities

The representative of organizations concerned with women and gender urged nations to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees and to avoid certain concepts such as “negative carbon emissions”, “carbon neutral” or “carbon offsetting”. The representative of NGOs working with trade and industry highlighted the role of labour in creating a platform for mobilising and benefitting from the private sector’s efforts with regards to innovation, investment and creating access to energy. The delegate from the Climate Action Network speaking on behalf of environmental NGOs said that, “We are a long way from where we should be,” and called for setting up five-yearly reviews, and that funding should be conditional on the degree to which each country meets its obligations and NDCs. The representative for NGOs working with farmers, shed light on the role played by agriculture, pointing out that 87 of the NDCs include agriculture-related targets.

The representative for Indigenous Peoples spoke on a number of topics, including: respecting the rights of indigenous peoples; recognizing traditional customs and practices; offering the possibility of direct access to climate funding.

The representative for Local Governments and Municipal Authorities highlighted the role of these bodies in reducing emissions and achieving adjustment and called for parties to subscribe to limiting the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.

The representative for independent research-based NGOs clarified the mechanism for supporting research and implementing its results in a number of areas, including increasing the energy efficiency, locating and defining weak points, improving combatting the effects of climate change, evaluating the success of efforts, and taking steps to make equitable action a reality.

Stating that “there are no jobs on a dead planet” the representative for NGOs working with organised labour called for strengthening ambitions and supporting a fair transition for workers.

Emissions from air and sea

The representative of the International Civil Aviation Organization referred to efforts being made to improve the efficiency of fuel consumption, to support the use of alternative fuels, and to manage air travel and transport more efficiently. The International Maritime Organization’s representative alluded to an agreement over a three-step approach to collating data, and spoke of cooperation in the fields of technology and capability-building efforts.

On behalf of the G77 and China, the Saudi representative stressed the importance of finding multi-party solutions and supporting action through the ICAO and the IMO, while respecting the principles of the convention and avoiding taking any unilateral measures.

Speaking for a number of developing countries, Argentina’s representative made it clear that any measures taken did not have to constitute a covert restriction on world trade, and urged further technical analysis of the proposed market-based mechanism within the framework of the ICAO. She stated that this mechanism could only be implemented in the framework of a mutual, multi-party agreement, and her call for common but differentiated responsibilities was supported by the Chinese delegate.

On the topic of the IMO, China’s delegate expressed concern over the European system of monitoring carbon emissions from ships within its own waters. Delegates from Japan, Singapore, and the EU, stated that the ICAO and IMO were the most appropriate forums in which to deal with these issues. The Korean representative urged parties to work to achieve an agreement with these organizations.

Delegates and alliances

There were no major changes to long-standing alliances. A number of these groups sent delegates to speak on their behalf at meetings, such as South Africa’s representative who spoke for the G77-China, Australia’s delegate who spoke for the Umbrella Group, and then the delegate for the EU, for the Africa Group, for the Least Developed Nations, for the Alliance of Small Island States, for the Coalition of Rainforest Nations, etc.

This is in addition to delegates representing NGOs working with research, or women and gender, or labor unions, or farmers, or trade and industry, or the delegates of the Climate Action Network who spoke on behalf of environmental NGOs.

Draft agreement

An abridged text for discussion began to be circulated backstage whose ultimate objective was the reduction of world emissions by 80 per cent, with a focus on the world’s primary polluters. In the document’s introduction the parties express their concern over the results reached by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report, which warns that climate change poses a serious and irreversible threat to human societies and planet earth, and that continued emissions of heat-trapping gases will lead to further rises in temperature and changes to all parts of the climactic system, and from there to climate related catastrophe, emphasizing the need to reduce greenhouse gases and adjust to the harmful effects of climate change.

The draft also expressed serious concern over the huge gulf between parties’ pledges to reduce annual global emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and the actual reduction of such emissions, which is currently insufficient to prevent the temperature rising above the two degree limit.

The new draft agreement urges all parties to the Kyoto Protocol to ratify its articles, to execute the Doha Road Map, and to amend the Kyoto Protocol as a matter of urgency. It calls for implementing agreed-on measures in accordance with relevant rulings in the convention, finding new and additional funding for developing countries that is both “systematic and sufficient”, and taking account of the pressing and urgent needs of developing countries (such as the small island states) that are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of climate change, requiring developed countries to abide by their obligations, from emission reduction targets to supplying 100 billion US dollars every year until 2020 in order to meet the needs of developing countries, and create a mechanism to transfer climate technology to developing countries. In return, the draft agreement proposes that developing countries make progress in developing measures to reduce emissions, implement their obligations for the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period, and increase their emission reduction targets.

The new agreement also calls on parties to work together to gradually phase out the productions and consumption of carbon compounds and urges the inclusion of another new legal article, or mutually agreed-on results that have the force of law with regards to the UNFCCC and are to be applied to all parties, entering into effect from 2020.

Science and the review process: Research and monitoring

The Global Climate Observing System mentioned progress that had been achieved in the Implementation Plan and evaluated the efficacy of the global monitoring network. The representative of the World Meteorological Organization raised a number of matters, including that the Global Framework for Climate Services had drawn up an addendum of technical guidelines for national adaption plans, and that the WMO’s conference had approved a policy with regards to climate data for the GFCS. The representative of the Committee on Earth Observations Satellites mentioned that with regards to remote sensing, data from the main climate change database had been added to existing databases, and shed light on the progress made in implementing the strategy for monitoring carbon from space. The representative from the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, speaking to the United Nations’ educational, scientific and cultural bodies, stressed that the process of monitoring the oceans was an integral part of the climate monitoring system and spoke of obstacles to data collection, which were largely the product of short-termist research budgets.