Morocco must breathe life into the Paris Agreement

Marrakesh railway station
Teaser Image Caption
Marrakesh railway station

The UN climate summit in Marrakech from 7 to 18 November, is the crucial next step for operationalizing the Paris AgreementMany controversial issues such as damages caused by climate change and financing for the poorest countries are on the agenda.

With regard to international climate protection, the global community currently seems determined to make up for the lost time of the past decades. The COP 21 in Paris marked the first time that all countries agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.[1] Even the 1.5°C limit, which many had already abandoned, was revived and enshrined in the climate agreement. And less than a year after the summit, enough countries have ratified the agreement to meet the necessary quorum for it to take effect on November 4, 2016.[2] The U.S. elections and the fear that a potential Trump presidency could lead to a renunciation of the Paris Agreement helped spur the parties on. Thanks to this brisk pace, the climate agreement can now take effect a few days before the next UN climate summit in Morocco – years earlier than expected.

It has been a long time since we have seen as much action in the international climate arena as in the run-up to Morocco. Yet, not all of it is going in the right direction, and much is merely hot air. In early October, for example, the international community agreed that carbon dioxide emissions from the aviation industry should not increase beyond their 2020 levels. Previously, aviation had been exempted from climate protection measures. The agreement is completely inadequate, however: It only becomes mandatory as of 2027 – which is much too late. Furthermore, emissions are to be reduced mainly by offsetting through investments in climate protection projects, and not primarily by limiting the use of fossil fuels. It is also not yet clear which emission reduction certificates the aviation industry will be eligible to use for their offsets.

There was also some movement with regard to the climate-damaging hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) that have replaced the ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). In Kigali, Rwanda, in mid-October, the international community agreed to gradually limit its use of HFCs. This could prevent the emission of 70 billion tons of CO2 equivalent – and thus reduce global warming by half a degree centigrade by the end of the century. This is a genuine breakthrough – but one that nevertheless prompts the question of why it was only achieved now and not much sooner.

How serious is the world regarding climate protection?

The overall circumstances for the climate conference in Morocco are thus generally favorable. But on closer inspection, it becomes apparent that the Paris Agreementis fragile. An agreement that mainly consists of a colorful array of self-determined national commitments stands and falls with their implementation! What is more, many points have not yet been finalized – the pledged climate finance, for example. However, developing countries are making financial assistance a condition for ambitious climate protection measures with clear distinctions between what they can implement alone and what will require outside help. Morocco, for example, has made its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent by 2030 dependent on $35 billion in foreign investment (in addition to $10 billion in domestic efforts) in projects such as its ambitious solar and wind energy programs. As everything is interdependently intertwined, the Paris Agreement resembles a carefully constructed house of cards that could quickly collapse at any moment.

Moreover, Paris was able to shine as brightly as it did because numerous controversial issues were postponed to the conferences in Morocco and thereafter. COP 21 only established the main points; the countries will have to thrash out what they mean and how they will be implemented in Morocco and at the following conferences. Many highly political conflicts are thus being deferred to committees of technical experts. It remains to be seen how serious the world really is about climate protection.

No money for loss and damage

Loss and damage is likely to become one of the most sensitive issues in Morocco. The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage related to climate change was established at COP19 in Warsaw in 2013. As it is due to expire, the delegations in Marrakesh must now set up a new five-year plan. It is primarily concerned with the exchange of information between industrialized and developing countries, capacity building for affected communities and technology transfer and support. However, when it comes to compensation for the poorest countries, the industrialized countries have to this day refused to even discuss the topic.

Progress could at least be made with regard to climate risk insurance. The industrialized countries have established the “InsuResilience” initiative, which aims to provide protection against climate risks to an additional 400 million vulnerable people by 2020. Loss and damage, however, encompasses a further sensitive issue: climate migration. The Geneva Refugee Convention does not recognize climate change impacts as an official reason to migrate and seek refuge. The working group that has just begun to address this issue under the UNFCCC will thus be navigating challenging terrain.

Morocco is expected to give adaptation – and its funding – new impetus

The outlook for adaptation is also not very promising at present. In mid-October, the industrialized countries presented a roadmap outlining how they intend to provide the pledged $100 billion for climate protection in developing countries as of 2020. In and off itself, the initiative is to be welcomed. However, it has one major weakness: while the roadmap promises to double the funding available for adaptation, this is from a very low base as currently fully four fifths of the $100 billion are earmarked for mitigating emissions and only one fifth for adaptation,  i.e. protecting crops, prevention and response to  natural disasters and safeguarding water supplies..

The Paris Agreement called for a “balance” – ideally a 50-50 split (which has not been established in terms of agreed policy, however). The industrialized countries will benefit if developing countries go further in curbing their own CO2 emissions – they will then have to do less themselves. However, industrialized countries must not shirk their responsibilities toward countries that are most heavily affected by climate change already but have contributed the least to it. This also applies to the objective of industrialized countries to generate a third of the pledged $100 billion by leveraging resources from the private sector.

The Moroccan government has already announced its intention to make the impact of climate change on agriculture and other sectors and adapting to its consequences a main focus of COP 22. Agricultural production in Africa is expected to triple by the middle of the century, while at the same time climate change drives water shortages, desertification and erosion. The problem of food security is set to worsen. An action plan that will initially identify exactly where help is needed is slated adoption in Morocco. Other initiatives related to adaptation are also planned.

With regard to climate finance for adaptation, further financial support must be forthcoming in Morocco for the constantly cash-strapped Adaptation Fund, which operates alongside the Green Climate Fund (GCF). Other than that, major financial pledges are not expected at the summit. Often, however, the problem is less a lack of money, but that many countries simply do not have a way of accessing it directly. That has become apparent over the period of just under a year in which the GCF – currently the largest multilateral climate fund with $10 billion – has been approving project and program proposals.

The GCF must offer developing countries direct access, a greater voice and more country ownership, rather than distributing funds primarily through existing multilateral implementers such as development banks. Some countries require administrative assistance from abroad. Germany intends to announce a new initiative in Morocco on how to help developing countries adapt to climate change and promote renewable energy and energy efficiency.

North-south cooperation must be put to the test

Overall, cooperation between industrialized and developing countries is in need of a review. For too long, industrialized countries were able to buy their way out of their obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with “climate projects” in developing countries, without actually reducing the volume of carbon dioxide released, since many of the so-called Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects would have been realized anyway. In some cases, they were used to promote carbon-intensive industries – or even coal-fired power plants – and were often marked by human rights violations and environmental damage. Furthermore, the investments tended not to benefit the countries that need them most urgently (those in sub-Saharan Africa, for example) but emerging economies such as China and India.

The Sustainable Development Mechanism (SDM) established in the Paris Agreement is meant to reflect the learning from these mistakes. In Morocco, negotiators intend to start on the design of the mechanism, which currently only exists as a headline on paper. This market mechanism must now ensure that the projects actually reduce CO2 emissions beyond what the climate plans of the respective countries already promise. Transparency, accountability, respect for human rights, additionality and public participation are all elements that must be made mandatory.

It is worth considering, however, that if we took all of the lessons from carbon offsetting and CDM projects in recent years seriously, we would quickly come to the conclusion that we do not actually need the SDM. The CO2 budget for the 1.5°C limit does not allow for offsets – i.e. buying the right to continue to pollute elsewhere – in any form. The upcoming technical debates pertaining to the trading in “mitigation outcomes” thus invite parallels to the Marrakesh Accords of 2001, when the terms of the Kyoto Protocol established the direction of international climate protection.

To some extent, we are still struggling with the consequences of the accounting rules and instruments that were set then. The “flexible mechanisms” (i.e. CDM, as well as Joint Implementation – a form of CDM between industrialized countries) were born there, and with them the idea of trading in pollution offsets. To this day, such mechanisms give the unwilling an excuse to do nothing. After all, why should we abandon coal today when we can use creative accounting to improve our carbon footprints and still rake in profits?

The 1.5°C limit is not a gateway for geoengineering

It should already become apparent at the climate summit in Morocco that the architecture of the Paris Agreement is very different than that of the Kyoto Protocol. The agreement does not set one-time climate goals and does not call on countries to meet them, but stipulates that they review their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) every five years. Initially, an NDC registry will be established at COP 22 that provides an overview of all NDCs, showing the assumptions on which they are based and the gaps they contain. The challenge will be to ensure the comparability of climate protection goals and planned measures. At present, they are still founded on very different base years and methods of measuring CO2reduction.

In the next step, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is slated to publish a special report in autumn 2018 presenting the effects that global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels would have and which options remain for staying within this limit. The findings will also serve as input for a facilitative dialog on the review of NDCs.

In principle, establishing the 1.5°C limit is a milestone, as it represents a question of survival for many small island states. Meanwhile, many climate scientists believe that we will have exceeded our emissions budget for staying under the 1.5°C threshold in as little as five years. The scenarios contained in the IPCC’s fifth assessment report are therefore based on the concept of negative emissions (which to a large extent also applies to the 2°C goal). In other words, the planet will be allowed to warm by more than 1.5 or 2°C, provided we have created enough carbon sinks by the end of the century to make it back under the threshold. Carbon sinks are seen mainly in technological terms – for example in the form of bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS)

This, however, would require vast acreage (at least one and a half times the land area of India!) to cultivate the needed energy crops, which is likely to lead to an increase in food prices and land grabbing. A further way of creating carbon sinks would be worldwide, large-scale reforestation, which would also compete with land cultivation for food – and be an ecological disaster, as it would primarily be realized as monoculture plantations.

If the idea that we can afford a temporary exceeding of temperature targets were to prevail, it could open the floodgates for all other forms of geoengineering such as giant sunshades or imitating natural volcanoes. This would have barely manageable consequences for the planet and confront us with fundamental issues of democracy: who controls the global climate?

These questions are only indirectly on the agenda in Marrakesh (in the negotiations on “pre-2020 ambition”, for example), but very much on the minds of climate activists and will therefore also influence the implementation of the Paris Agreement. The debate over purely technological solutions for staying below the 1.5°C threshold is fraught with risk, as it distracts from what is actually necessary over the next five to ten years: a true and radical transformation of our economies in conjunction with a quick exit from coal and changes to our lifestyles.

Worldwide, only ten percent of the population is responsible for nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions. Why don’t our climate policies target precisely those high emitters, holding them accountable and forcing them to rethink? To put it bluntly, a radical transformation of our economy and lifestyles that would allow us to remain within planetary boundaries – and even below the 1.5°C threshold – while not technically impossible, is politically unwanted! Climate policy must therefore become more political in the best possible sense of the world and pose the question of power in order to be effective.

Transformation requires participation

Against this background, we should also consider further work on the subject of gender equality. In Marrakesh, it will be necessary to clarify how to proceed on gender issues when the existing work program expires. The climate conference in Doha in 2012 had called on the parties to staff the committees under the UNFCCC, as well as the national delegations, with women and men in a more balanced manner. The delegations in particular, but also the technology and finance expert bodies remain dominated by men. In the future, gender mainstreaming should not be treated as a separate work program, but integrated into all sectors of the climate negotiations and provided with core UNFCCC Secretariat financial resources to ensure continuous funding of such efforts.

In conclusion, we must not perceive the first climate conference after Paris to be one focused on technical issues only. Instead, we should use it as an opportunity to send a signal: We need to do more than just minor adjustments. We need a major transformation now. And that will not happen without tough confrontations with those whose interests oppose such a transformation.

The Heinrich Boell Foundation together with BUND and Misereor recently published the brochure A change of course - How to build a fair future in a 1.5° world.

This text was created in cooperation with KlimaJournalisten UG, Berlin/Germany.


[1] The exact wording from the Preamble of the Paris Agreement: “Emphasizing with serious concern the urgent need to address the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels.”

[2] At least 55 countries that are responsible for 55 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.