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The Paris Agreement remains the subject of intense disagreements between developed and developing countries.

“Same same, lah”, a popular response across Southeast Asia when asked how things are going. But it could also be used to describe the state of climate negotiations, barely three months before the start of the 24th annual Conference of Parties (COP 24) which will be held in Katowice, Poland in December.

by @RLS-Klima

Almost three years since governments around the world heralded the 2015 adoption of the Paris Agreement (PA) as a landmark treaty to address climate change and its growing impacts, how to actually implement it remains the subject of intense disagreements between developed and developing countries. 

Last year, COP 23 agreed to focus on developing a Paris Agreement Work Programme (PAWP), a “rulebook” to implement the Paris Agreement that would guide countries in meeting their submitted pledges in terms of lowering greenhouse gas emissions, ensuring support for communities already feeling the worst impacts of climate change, and steering the world into an era of renewed international cooperation for people and the planet. This was not done, and so negotiations have continued on, with an intersession (SB48) in Bonn in May 2018 followed by an additional urgent session (SB48.2) in Bangkok in early September.

At the opening of SB48.2, the president of Fiji stated that “we are not ready for COP24”, and urged the participating parties to resolve bottlenecks and produce the outcomes needed in time for Katowice. The Bangkok talks closed with “uneven progress” made on the guidelines. With the deadline looming on the horizon, another “informal” round of negotiations is set to be held parallel to the UN General Assembly in New York, and joint reflection papers by the different subsidiary bodies identifying ways forward are to be published by mid-October.

In a year when many nations from the Global North have experienced extreme heat waves that they are ill-prepared to handle, it is even more concerning that countries like the United States, Canada, and Australia – with a complicit European Union in the background – continue to block measures that would move climate action forward. Developing countries continue to oppose attempts to renegotiate the PA, particularly in regard to the distinctions made between developed and developing countries. 

A Path to Multiple Common Timeframes?

All countries that have signed and ratified the PA are expected to come up with national plans of action, so-called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), ensuring that these include concrete measures on mitigation, adaptation, and means of implementation (finance, technology and capacity-building). The discussions so far have been largely mitigation-centric, with developed countries insisting that there be common timeframes to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions. Developing countries, on the other hand, point out that their particular economic and technological circumstances warrant some flexibility, and they should not be pressured to cut emissions in the same way developed countries ought to be. Herein lies a possible danger should this option be included: namely, developing nations insisting on multiple timeframes could eventually be pressured by rich nations like the US and Canada to agree to a common timeframe for ten-year instead of five-year NDCs (an option presented by China via the LMDC). A ten-year plan could result in laggard mitigation efforts, as it does not communicate the urgency of raising ambitions, especially for developed nations. Essentially, developed nations could find a way to delay the radical emissions cuts mandated in the PA.

The Thorny Issue in the Negotiations

The provision of resources is crucial to enable climate action. Finance has always been a thorny issue in the negotiations, with the fault lines becoming ever clearer between Global North and Global South. SB 48.2 debates on finance were about to start a process to set up a new global goal on finance before 2025, as the 100 billion dollar pledge made in Copenhagen in 2009 that is yet to be achieved represents a very low estimate with regard to the money needed for adaptation and mitigation. The ongoing questions concern how to track how much was pledged and how much was actually given and received, and the all-important question of what constitutes climate finance – where parties have made submissions that now range from grants, loans, equities, and insurance. 

Despite being a pillar of the PA, this additional session featured hardly any discussion on climate-induced loss and damage.

Old Wine in New Bottles?

It seemed that at least one agreement in the room, the Carbon Market Mechanism (CDM) introduced with the Kyoto Protocol, has not been as successful as planned. The question now is how to shape the new market-based mechanism. The introduction of the new instrument, known as the Sustainable Development Mechanism (SDM), under the Paris Agreement was designed to initially avoid previous failures. However, discussions remained stuck in the same old questions of how to avoid double counting and higher GHG emissions, how to report and when, and what will happen with the existing and upcoming certificates under the CDM (since those will run at least until 2021). Moreover, it remains unclear how sustainable development can be ensured, since some of the parties see it as a definition on national level. The progress on the non-market based mechanism was even less successful in Bangkok, with a lot of lingering uncertainty and unclear points, despite demands to make the process less complex.

To say that the progress achieved in climate negotiations is “uneven” is a very diplomatic way of framing the current impasse. Many issues are yet to be resolved, including: 

  • What will become of the Talanoa Dialogue process, where the president of Fiji convened parties and other actors to have an open and frank conversation on where we are, where we want to go and how we get there in terms of climate action;
  • The modalities of the Global Stocktake and Transparency Framework, the five-year review of climate plans vis-à -vis targets set and pledges made;
  • The practicability of having the key PA principles – human rights, food security, just transition, public participation, gender, intergenerational equity, ecosystem integrity and biodiversity, rights of indigenous peoples and local communities – guide the implementation at the national level; and
  • Whether this is a party-led and driven process, implying that civil society inputs are of little value (though businesses and corporations are now being looked towards as an integral part of the “solutions” to climate change)

With three months to go until COP24 in Katowice, there is growing concern that negotiators may either fast-track the discussions in order to emerge with an outcome, or continue to stall the negotiations, which means further delaying the national roll-out of the PA.  Either way, this does not bode well for the future given the urgency of the challenges posed by human-induced climate change. Progressive and decisive climate leadership is desperately needed to move these talks forward. Without radical emissions cuts and substantial climate finance needed to cool down a burning planet, the goals of the Paris Agreement will remain an abstract idea — a catastrophic scenario for both the planet as well as the people living on it.