Monday, December 7, 2015

A Look Back, as Week Two of COP21 Begins

Over the weekend, the draft text for a Paris Agreement was released. This is the document that high-level ministers from countries around the world will focus on during week two of COP21. They will negotiate the details and unresolved issues, and hopefully, they will come to consensus on an international accord. All sorts of individual experts and members of non-governmental organizations have been analyzing the details of this draft since Saturday. You may see media coverage and reactions from the legal community, politicians, and civil society over the next week. But for anyone reading this blog, some perhaps for the first time, it might be useful to look back to see what brought the world to this pivotal moment and to understand the overarching goals of the COP meetings.

The UNFCCC negotiations process is full of acronyms and jargon, starting with its name. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is essentially a treaty – one of three that was signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Each year, there is a Convention of the Parties, or COP session, where delegates from different countries around the world meet to hold consultations, to negotiate, and to attempt to come up with solutions to both the causes and impacts of global climate disruption. This year, COP21 represents 21 years of negotiations post-Rio – longer than many of my students have been alive.

The main goal of the multilateral UNFCCC agreement, which now has 196 Parties or signatories, is to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Yet solutions to this challenge have been evasive. Despite extensive scientific evidence that demonstrates how rising levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases (GHG) destabilize the climate and research tools that allow us to model the impacts that will result from such destabilization, mitigating the problem (i.e. reducing GHG emissions) is not a simple task.

The world has long been reliant on fossil fuels to drive technology, development, and the global economy. Carbon dioxide, the GHG that is a product of combusting these fossil fuels, is one of the main contributors to climate change and thus, you often hear reference to a low-carbon future or decarbonization. (There are differences, but they aren’t necessary to explain in this post.) Different countries have different national processes for ratifying international agreements, Several billion people around the world still either live in extreme poverty or have a significantly lower quality of life than most in the United States can even image. And according to the provisions in the Framework Convention of 1992, consensus of all Parties must be reached. Thus, economics, politics, vast inequality gaps, and the need to change human behavior in order to address climate change all present significant barriers. Try to imagine a committee meeting where 196 individuals were in attendance and, before leaving, all in attendance had to agree on a long list of items about priorities and actions they would be committed to for the next several decades. Again, not an easy task.

Despite these complexities, some progress has been made over the decades. The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997 and entered into force in 2005. Under this agreement, 37 industrialized nations and the European Community committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – to an average of five percent against 1990 levels. The U.S. Senate never ratified this agreement, so our country was noticeably absent from the agreement, despite our long being one of the largest contributors to GHG emissions. During the second commitment period under this Protocol (2013 – 2020), Parties pledged to reduce GHG emissions by at least 18 percent below 1990. Again, the United States did not agree to this and several other nations who had been Parties to the original Kyoto Protocol (all large GHG emitters) backed out (1).

For a number of reasons, 2015 has been viewed as the year that a strong agreement aimed at resolving climate change would finally be reached. At COP17 in Durban, South Africa (2011), the Durban Platform -- a new platform of negotiations under the Convention was launched

to deliver a new and universal greenhouse gas reduction protocol, legal instrument or other   outcome with legal force by 2015 for the period beyond 2020 (2).

In other words, this was the year the world was to replace the Kyoto Protocol with a new legally binding agreement that included all Parties to the UNFCCC, not just the developed nations. So at COP21, you see much reference to the ADP working group – which stands for “Advancing the Durban Platform.” A few years ago in Warsaw (COP19), a plan for allowing countries to find different paths to mitigation was set forth providing flexibility for finding ways to reduce carbon emissions. The Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs were to be submitted by each Party in advance of COP21, and by the opening of the conference, 181 countries had done so. Add this to the commitments announced by two of the largest GHG emitters, the U.S. and China, in November 2014, and it seemed as though there were at last major breakthroughs.

The year of 2015 was also when the United Nations finalized the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals that are aimed at addressing the large inequalities around the world. Compared to the Millennium Development Goals, the new SDGs have a stronger focus on environmental issues, including climate change, so the links between addressing the needs of developing countries and addressing the disparate impacts of environmental problems are now more clearly defined.

Finally, the newest science clearly indicates that the window for reducing carbon emissions in order to keep the planet from experiencing more than a 2 degree Celsius increase in temperature may be closing. There is much controversy about this target, since models show that even that amount of global temperature increase will have devastating impacts, particularly on small island nations and coastal areas due to sea level rise and on already rapidly declining biodiversity. The INDCs that have been submitted to date will not even get us to this 2° target. And even if against all odds, an ambitious legally binding agreement is reached at COP21 in 2015, it won’t go into effect until 2020 and the reduction of GHG emissions will occur over an even longer timeframe. These pollutants have residence times in the atmosphere measured in years, so even if we were to stop all GHG emissions tomorrow, the problem doesn’t immediately go away. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the planet has already warmed by 0.8°C, and all indications are that 2015 will be the warmest year on record, possibly pushing that overall global warming to 1°.

Yes, much is at stake here in Paris. The world faces many complex problems including terrorism, food insecurity, poverty, an ever-growing inequality between the haves and have-nots, economic uncertainties, and many forms of environmental disintegration. But, in the eyes of many, no problem is more important and urgent than addressing the one of climate change. That is why 150 heads of state gave impassioned speeches on the opening day of COP21. And that is why so many people here are calling this an issue of human rights.

Please wish the world leaders luck going forward this week. They are going to need it, along with courage and strong political will.

Moravian College students discussing the status of negotiations at COP21

1. See
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