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COP21: What to Expect in Paris

27 Nov 2015
By Professor Robyn Eckersley
A large stack from the Sault Paper Mill. Photo Source: Flickr (Billy Wilson) Creative Commons

The upcoming Paris Climate Change Conference is being named a major success even before it’s begun. However, its ultimate triumph is dependent on the ability of states to continue the trajectory of climate ambition after Paris.

For the diplomatic community, treaty negotiations are typically judged to be either successful or very successful. According to this diplomatic register, the Copenhagen climate negotiations (COP15) in 2009 were “merely successful”. In contrast, the Paris climate negotiations (COP21) are expected to be “very successful”. Diplomats have at least five reasons to make this boast.

First, chastened by the criticism following the collapse and derailment of negotiations in Copenhagen, the parties devised a process in 2013 at Warsaw that required them to put their intended national targets and policy measures on the table before rather than after the Paris meeting. More than 160 parties, including all members of the G20, have submitted their so-called “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs). This has reduced uncertainty and provided the negotiators with a ready-made achievement even before the finalisation of the text of the agreement.

Second, unprecedented cooperation between the US and China has helped to prepare and demarcate the landing zone for an agreement in Paris. This was signalled with the Joint Announcement on Climate Change made on 11 November 2014 during President Obama’s official visit to Beijing. It was followed through with the announcement of China’s plan to launch a national emissions trading scheme in 2017.

On top of this, for the very first time, three of the four major economies in the developing world – China, Brazil and South Africa – have agreed to a peaking of their emissions before or by 2030. Hitherto these parties had only been prepared to reduce the rate of growth in their emissions but not reduce them in absolute terms.

Third, these diplomatic efforts have helped to put the US, China and India all on the same page regarding two traditional sticking points: differentiated mitigation responsibilities and the legal form of the new treaty.  The move towards national self-differentiation has taken some of the heat out of the debate over burden sharing between developed and developing countries. And the resort to soft law formulations in relation to certain key commitments has avoided any show down on the legal form of the treaty.  For different reasons, the US, China and India are unwilling to sign a new agreement that would make their “nationally determined contributions” binding under international law. However, they are all prepared to sign a treaty that requires them merely to prepare and implement their nationally determined contributions at the domestic level. This provides the required “legal force” under the terms of the Durban negotiating mandate for the new treaty.

Fourth, the price of renewable energy has plummeted since 2009 and is now approaching grid parity with coal and gas fired electricity. At the same time, the rapid growth of the fossil fuel divestment movement has chipped away at the social licence to operate of the fossil fuel industry, beginning with the coal industry. Together, these twin developments have provided major signals to investors, especially those with fiduciary duties to shareholders, which will reshape the energy landscape.

Finally, French pride should not be under-estimated. The negotiations in Copenhagen were badly handled by the Danish Presidency of the COP in the second week of the negotiations as procedural irregularities and back-room deals angered many parties and contributed to the failure to achieve consensus at the end of the meeting.  In contrast, Laurent Fabius, the French President of COP21, has made “ambition and impartiality” his key themes.

But the story cannot end here. Critics would rightly argue that if we judge the success of the Paris negotiations against Copenhagen, or the expectations of diplomats, then we are applying a very low bar. It is widely acknowledged that if there is no improvement on the collective mitigation ambition of the INDCs submitted thus far, then the world would be on a trajectory towards 3.5 to 4 degrees of global warming. The basic goal of the climate regime is to prevent dangerous climate change, yet these levels of warming are not just dangerous but also potentially catastrophic.

Climate diplomats are keenly aware of this problem and have prepared their spin around a common theme:  Paris should not be seen as the end of the negotiating road but rather a new beginning or milestone in an ongoing, dynamic process of ratcheting up ambition. The ultimate success of Paris will therefore depend on whether the parties are able to design a new framework for ongoing cooperation that will possess the necessary dynamism to drive ambition forward. There is still enough time to achieve the two degree target.

So where is the dynamism? On the plus side, the parties are expected to agree to five yearly review cycles, with no backsliding on national contributions. There is also an expectation that contributions will increase with each cycle of commitment. Yet there is disagreement over whether this should be made obligatory. Also, the parties are seeking a very facilitative and non-punitive approach to the review process by avoiding any sanctions, although they are insisting on transparency of national actions.

Nor is it clear that the post-2020 INDCs submitted thus far will be formally revised prior to the new agreement coming into force in 2020, so we could be stuck with current INDCs through to 2030.  That said, many parties are expected to over-achieve as the price of renewals continues to plummet. However, to accelerate the shift away from fossils fuels we will need to see serious action on the removal of fossil fuel subsidies.

In all, whether the signals from Paris are likely to produce the necessary dynamism to start a race to the top remains unclear but thus far they are not especially promising.

COP21 watchers were also hoping that the G20 meeting held in Antalya, Turkey on 15-16 November would provide a final spur to the negotiations. However, conflicts broke out over some very basic issues, including the so-called two degrees target, the process to review INDCs and differentiation. As a result, the final  contains only bland platitudes.

We can also expect these and other conflicts to persist during the negotiations. It is therefore too early to call what might happen on flashpoint issues like the long-term goal of the agreement, climate finance, loss and damage and adaptation, to name only a few.

While the G20 may have prepared a landing zone for Paris, all parties need to walk away from the meeting with at least some modest wins on the issues that are most important to them. The draft negotiating text is 55 pages long and full of bracketed text, so we must wait and see how this is whittled down into a final shape in the end game of the conference.

Robyn Eckersley is Professor and Chair of the Discipline of Political Science in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. She will be attending COP21 in Paris as an accredited observer. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.