BioRes Paris Interim Update | World leaders buoy start of difficult UN climate talks

3 December 2015

Over 150 heads of state and government voiced support for a global effort to tackle climate change during the opening of a pivotal UN climate conference in Paris, France, on Monday 30 November, providing a significant wave of political momentum for talks designed to hammer out a new emissions-cutting regime.

The day also saw several billion-dollar pledges unveiled through both public and private initiatives designed to shift the world towards a low carbon economy.  

An explosion of support from a broad range of stakeholders accompanied the leaders’ event on Monday, with widespread reporting dominating news channels and social media outlets, pre-empted by the participation of thousands in so-called climate marches in cities around the world from London to Johannesburg.

Negotiators from nearly 200 nations have now buckled down to the extremely complex task of crafting a document of over 50 pages – containing a maze of brackets and options on every aspect of multilateral climate governance – into a streamlined deal to be gavelled at the close of the Twenty-first Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP21) in just over a week’s time.

Set to come into effect at the end of the decade, the new deal will require all nations to cut climate-warming emissions, and over 180 nations have already published a national climate action plan in preparation for the conference. This represents a significant break from the current Kyoto Protocol that sets emissions-reductions targets for a list of developed countries only. (See BioRes, 30 November 2015)

Reports from Paris on negotiations in the Ad-Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) – the body charged with developing the new deal – indicate that an initial target date for securing an updated version of the draft regime text reflecting areas of convergence in time for Thursday will be missed, though a moderately revised version was released early this morning that was a few pages shorter than the previous 54-page text.

A new “deadline” for an updated draft text is now set for Saturday, due to limited progress faced with the persistence of well-established divisions on key issues.

What they said

“You have the opportunity, in fact the responsibility to finalise an agreement that enables the achievement of national climate change goals, that delivers the necessary support for the developing world, and that catalyses continuously increasing ambition and action by all,” UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres told the largest-ever gathering of world leaders, safely cocooned in a heavily-guarded specially-built venue on an airfield just to the north of Paris.

“Nearly 200 nations have assembled here this week – a declaration that for all the challenges we face, the growing threat of climate change could define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other,” said US President Barack Obama on the occasion, while echoing many other interventions in offering condolences to the French nation for the violent terrorist attacks that shocked Paris in mid-November, leaving 130 dead and many more injured.

“What should give us hope that this is a turning point, that this is the moment we finally determined we would save our planet, is the fact that our nations share a sense of urgency about this challenge and a growing realisation that it is within our power to do something about it,” Obama continued.

Calling for concerted climate action, French President François Hollande drew links between the terror threats facing his nation and the consequences of climate change, stressing that efforts to build a more sustainable future should be on par with those to eradicate terror.

China’s President Xi Jinping said that, although addressing climate change was a shared mission for mankind, any eventual deal should allow nations to develop their own solutions to the climate challenge.

“Let us join hands to contribute to the establishment of an equitable and effective global mechanism on climate change, work for the global sustainable development at a high level and bring about new international relations featuring win-win cooperation,” the Chinese leader said.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recalled his nation’s pledge to add some 175 Gigawatts of renewable energy generation by 2022 to the grid among other actions, but also stressed the importance of more industrialised nations making cuts.

“The principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities must remain the bedrock of our collective enterprise across all areas – mitigation, adaptation, and means for implementation. Anything else would be morally wrong,” Modi added, referring to a principle embedded in the 1992 founding UNFCCC text which recognises that countries have different responsibilities and capacity for responding to climate change.

Among the sticking points on the application of this principle nearly two decades later is the extent to which emission cuts led by older industrialised nations should be supported by efforts from fast-growing emerging economies and poorer nations.

Speeches from Canada and Australia were closely watched by stakeholders for signals in policy shifts following recent changes in leadership in both nations.

“Canada is back, my good friends. And we’re here to help,” freshly-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Monday, after the previous government pulled the nation out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2011 and stalled progress on future arrangements. Ottawa said that it would also revise its national climate contribution to the new deal and expressed support for carbon markets.

Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull, meanwhile, declared that he would overturn his predecessors’ opposition to the Kyoto Protocol and ratify its second commitment period that runs from 2013-2020. Australia, however, later snubbed an invitation to a call for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and was absent from an event held by many of the world’s other major economies underlining support for carbon pricing.

While the atmosphere was largely positive on the first day focusing on the importance of international cooperation on climate change, observers in Paris say that many of the practical details still need to be hashed out, with key stumbling blocks such as financing climate action and the division of emissions-cutting responsibility over time rearing up as among the more difficult issues as in past talks. 

Monday also allowed for several bilateral meetings between key world leaders. The results of these exchanges, however, remain to be seen over the next week.

What they pledged

While speeches from key players were quickly scrutinised by a global audience for clues on the talks ahead, the launch of a series of initiatives was warmly welcomed by some observers looking for actions to complement the powerful rhetoric. Projects relating to three areas in particular – removing fossil fuel subsidies, carbon pricing, and clean energy technology innovation – also have significant potential market and economic impacts. 

Joined by a host of think tanks, organisations, and business, a group of 40 nations endorsed a communique repeating previous international pledges for the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies as a way to help limit global average temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

In order to convert this commitment into action, signatories pledge to follow principles of communication and transparency around the merits of subsidy policies and reform timetables, ambition in the scope and timeframe for implementing reforms; and targeted support to ensure reforms are implemented in a way that safeguards the needs of the poorest.

Separately, 19 governments and nearly 90 business leaders on Monday launched a global body designed to help strengthen carbon pricing across the globe, dubbed the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition.

“The goal is to gradually set a sufficiently high carbon price around the world to encourage better behaviour,” said France’s Hollande at the event. “Let’s be very clear, the idea is not to impose it on everyone. It’s not one size fits all. But what we want to promote is the setting or development of instruments that will little-by-little modify the behaviour of the economic players,” he continued.

Also on Monday, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland committed to fund a new World Bank facility, dubbed “The Transformative Carbon Asset Facility” (TCAF), which will build an international carbon market through large-scale economic transformation policies in developing nations.

This might include, for example, helping to boost energy sector reforms and investments. A number of uncertainties remain, however, as to how the programme will work in practice.

The following day, African heads of state announced a continent-wide plan for boosting electrical installed capacity, dubbed the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative, or AREI.

In another interesting move, Hollande and Modi joined together to unveil an “International Solar Alliance” among 120 countries to boost solar energy in developing economies. The group will make a joint effort through policies, projects, programmes, capacity-building measures, and financial instruments to mobilise over US$1 trillion worth of investments to ensure a “massive deployment of affordable solar energy” by 2030.

Another project dubbed “Mission Innovation” with 20 participating countries, including the US, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, India, Japan, and China, committed to accelerating public global clean energy innovation by doubling their current investments in the sector.

The group represents around 80 percent of existing global clean energy research and development (R&D) budgets and the pledge should see available funds hit US$20 billion by the end of the decade.

The effort is complemented by a private sector-led “Breakthrough Energy Coalition,” spearheaded by 28 major investors including technology billionaire Bill Gates, pledging to funnel patient capital to earlier-stage clean energy companies, often dubbed “the valley of death” for the industry.

Buckling down

According to reports from Paris, work on the draft regime has been divvied up into numerous parallel spin-off, “informal informal” and contact group meetings designed to tackle different aspects of the talks ranging from mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage, climate finance, and so on.

Some sources, however, have confirmed that the talks have progressed slowly.

“What we’re finding frustrating is we are not making anywhere near the progress we need to at this point,” said Daniel Reifsnyder of the US, one of the two ADP co-chairs, on Wednesday.

In a press briefing the same day, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius – president of the COP21 talks – along with UNFCCC chief Figueres said that no country would be left behind and that existing differences were a healthy aspect of varying national circumstances. The two officials nevertheless stressed that countries would need to speed up work on bringing everyone on board and move towards agreement.

Fabius added that there were three key drivers behind the talks so far, including a sense of urgency and responsibility to reach a mandate as well as the need to ensure a just outcome.

US Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern on Wednesday also said that there was broad consensus on the need to have several rounds of national climate action contributions over time and that a core part of the agreement would need to build confidence that the so-called “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) will be carried out through a system of inventories, reporting, and review.

“We need one system that covers everybody with all appropriate flexibility for countries who need it, at all development stages and capacity levels, with the kind of capacity building support to be able to do the right type of inventories, reporting,” Stern added, contrasting this with the old “bifurcated system” under the Kyoto Protocol. 

A joint statement from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the International Energy Agency, the International Transport Forum, and the Nuclear Energy Agency on Wednesday indicated that a successful COP21 deal would be defined by its ability to lock in a low carbon future through a mechanism for reviewing INDCs every five years; enhance financial and technical support to help the world’s most vulnerable to climate impacts; provide transparency on climate action; create mutual accountability; and transmit a strong signal to commercial actors, regional governments, cities, and the financial sector.

ICTSD reporting; “Sticking points remain over climate talks in Paris,” THE FINANCIAL TIMES, 1 December 2015; “World leaders open Paris climate change talks,” REUTERS, 30 November 2015; “Governments, companies launch coalition to strengthen global carbon pricing,” CARBON PULSE, 30 November 2015; “New $500 World Bank facility to explore policy-based carbon market,” CARBON PULSE, 30 November 2015; “Slow progress ‘frustrating’ says UN climate official,” CLIMATE HOME, 2 December 2015; “Africa sets off toward a sustainable energy future,” THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION, 2 December 2015.  

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