The Paris Climate Change Conference – Road to a Universal Climate Agreement or a Second Kyoto?

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by Constantin Muraru and Valentin Stein

“I do not even like the term negotiate. There is nothing to negotiate with the environment.” – The Island President

This December, high-ranking officials will meet at the Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris for two weeks to discuss a new climate agreement intended to collectively mitigate the cruel consequences of climate change. The top target within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is to reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions so as to avoid a temperature rise of 2°C by 2100. Yet, the current 119 climate pledges submitted by the parties will more likely lead to an average rise of just below 3°C.

There have been various initiatives intended to mitigate the effects of climate change, such as the Berlin Mandate of 1995, the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change of 1997 and the Copenhagen Agreement of 2009. But the Paris Conference is exceptional. It aims to produce a climate agreement that will be legally binding on all United Nations Member States. In addition, a new post-2020 agreement should be concluded this year, as was decided at the Durban Conference, a high-level meeting of the UN General Assembly, held in 2011.

Meanwhile, current emission trends threaten to reach levels that would lead to irreversible temperature rises and apocalyptic natural hazards. Now, just a few weeks before the negotiations are about to take off, the forecast remains uncertain. The reputation of the COP has never been impeccable. This is in part due to the failure of the Kyoto Protocol to meet its objectives, particularly its binding commitments for the Annex I Parties, comprised largely of the world’s most developed nations. The non-binding targets for the developing countries, followed by the withdrawal of Canada and the refusal of the United States to ratify the document, have demonstrated how fragile and ineffective such an agreement can be.

Perhaps one of the greatest controversies arising from a prior COP were the negotiations of the Copenhagen Agreement. Former president of the UN Security Council, Kishore Mahbubani, noted that many of the negotiations took place behind closed doors. As Mahbubani recounts in his recent book The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World, when Barack Obama, President of the United States, interrupted a private discussion led by the Chinese delegation, he yelled at the Prime Minister of China, Wen Jiabao.

The British documentary The Island President, released in 2012, explores the controversial proceedings of the Copenhagen COP by examining the negotiating strategy adopted by the first democratic leader of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed. Nasheed, the former president of a country slowly drowning under the weight of climate change, urged world leaders to make climate change a priority over other conflicts. “What is the point of having a conflict if we’re all going to die anyways?” he argued.

Still, The Island President is not a unique case. Presently, Fiji is dealing with the reemergence of various tropical diseases, intensified by recent climatic changes. In the midst of these issues, Fijian Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, declared that without decisive action, “the Pacific, as we know it, is doomed.” “I won’t be going to Paris wearing the usual friendly, compliant Pacific smile,” he continued. Princess Sarah Zeid of Jordan, ambassador of the UN initiative “Every Woman Every Child,” emphasized that climate change affects women disproportionately. “The greater the gender inequality, the greater the difference,” she said. Statistics reveal that already in the 1990s, climate-related calamities had forced more than 25 million people to leave their countries, while 21 million fled war and persecution. Today, the impacts are becoming increasingly visible. More than half of the world’s population is vulnerable to a rise in sea level, severe drought, wildfires and tropical storms, such as Hurricane Patricia which ravaged Central America and Mexico back in October.

Nonetheless, many policymakers have an optimistic attitude towards the upcoming event at the French capital. This can be largely attributed to a shift in global climate policy following the Warsaw COP in 2013, where the United Nations invited Member States to submit Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) by March 31, 2015. This initiative implies a change from the top-down approach practiced by the Kyoto Protocol, where the target was to achieve legally binding commitments for as many state parties as possible.

Now a voluntary plan is emerging, based upon individual, state-level pledges that contain national mitigation policies. Consequently, many view a hybrid strategy with flexible binding obligations as the perfect compromise. This plan of action offers a certain autonomy in the sense that each state proposes feasible actions while simultaneously taking into account its own national circumstances. In addition, the implementation of a periodic review mechanism would ensure that commitments are respected. For the moment, the plan is to verify whether or not pledges are being kept every five or ten years, but an even shorter review period could certainly represent a major leap forward. Although the INDCs were not mandatory, so far 119 documents have been published, representing 147 parties to the UNFCCC and 86% of global GHG emitters. Since a mandatory structure was never proposed, however, these documents vary in both quality and cohesion.

On November 12, 2014, the United States and China issued a historic Joint Presidential Statement announcing their intention to push forward, with a common vision, the new climate agreement to be concluded at Paris. More recently, on November 2, France and China issued a Joint Presidential Statement in which they described climate change as “one of the greatest challenges facing humanity.” President François Hollande declared that the Joint Statement suggests “a likelihood that the Paris conference will succeed.” Indeed, as history has made abundantly clear, the success of climate negotiations depends primarily upon the engagement of the big polluters. With the United States, China and members of the European Union clamoring to ratify the new protocol, the stage is set for COP21 to become one of the most successful climate talks to date.

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