After the chronic misunderstandings in Copenhagen in 2009, UN climate negotiators were forced to reschedule the timetable for a new climate treaty, aiming to reach agreement at the Paris climate conference in 2015, six years later than originally intended.
From the early stages of the process, it was clear that the new agreement would differ fundamentally from its predecessor. The Kyoto Protocol had adopted a global target for emissions reductions based on the recommendations of scientists, dividing them up on an equitable basis between the richer countries. The negotiated outcome was legally binding.
This approach has totally unravelled. In its place has emerged a “pledge and review” system in which every country will offer its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). These are independent targets for cutting emissions up to 2030, according to each country’s circumstances and inclination. Even the poorest countries are required to participate by articulating their plans for performing better than “business as usual.” These pledges are not legally binding.
Despite years of fraught and unpromising negotiations, the modified approach has been rewarded through the conclusion of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 and its subsequent ratification within the remarkably short period of less than a year.
However, divorcing pledges from science has had the predictable result in that they are inadequate to deliver the Agreement’s headline goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature well below 2 degrees”. The contribution from aviation and shipping remains lethargic, the latter in particular out of touch with the urgency of the science and the spirit of the Paris Agreement.
An analysis of INDCs by the World Resources Institute projects a global average temperature increase of 2.7-3.7 degrees. The UN Environment Programme’s 2017 Emissions Gap report concludes that national pledges will generate only a third of the necessary reductions over the period to 2030.
Advocates of the pledge and review system point to the significance of regular reviews, at which the laggards in performance might be shamed into improvement by those countries setting the pace in reducing emissions. The first review of INDCs is due in 2020.
Important principles laid down in the over-arching UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are restated in the Paris Climate Agreement, including the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. However, the world’s poorest countries were disappointed that the Paris Climate Agreement fails to provide a clear roadmap for the climate finance promised at Copenhagen in 2009.
The more positive feature of the Agreement for those countries is the resolve “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C …. recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.” The UN has commissioned the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to identify potential emission pathways to meet the lower target, its report due in 2018. However, many scientists doubt whether this goal remains possible.
Such doubts will be reinforced by a major setback for the Paris Climate Agreement – the Trump administration’s announcement that the US will withdraw. This decision, together with the obsessive dismantling of energy and environmental policies of the Obama administration, creates real uncertainty as to projections for the world’s two largest emitters, US and China. A vital milestone in securing the Paris Agreement was the preparatory bilateral negotiations in which those countries agreed to equalise their respective emissions on a per capita basis.
more Climate Justice briefings (updated March 2018)
Climate Justice and Right to Development
Loss and Damage
Source material and useful links