Ministers focus on tough climate issues, warnings escalate

12 November 2015

Ministers from over 60 countries converged on Paris, France at the invitation of Laurent Fabius, the country’s foreign minister, for three days of informal talks from 8-10 November on exploring potential compromises to issues that have proved tough to navigate in efforts to date to hammer out a new, multilateral climate regime by this December.  

The gathering reportedly resulted in some general agreement on several issues related to ambition, a periodic review of countries’ mitigation commitments, and financing climate action in poorer parts of the world.

In addition, the fraught concept of fairness around mitigation action, known in UN speak as the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” (CBDR), was also touched on.

Governments have agreed to sign off on this new deal during an annual UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting due to be held in just under three weeks in the French capital. The “Paris agreement” would replace the existing UNFCCC Kyoto Protocol when it expires at the end of the decade and should be capable of curbing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the years ahead in order to keep the planet below a two degree Celsius rise from pre-industrial levels.

“Faced with the seriousness of these threats, which shake geopolitical, economic, and social balances and threaten populations, we have an obligation to succeed,” said Fabius, who will chair next month’s pivotal Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC. 

“By holding the pre-COP, we have made an important step forward ahead of the Paris Conference,” he continued, nonetheless adding that more work remained ahead.

Scientists have warned that, if left unchecked, excessive warming could result in a series of natural disasters with serious economic consequences.

A recent report released by the World Bank, moreover, has cautioned that many poor regions are already at high-risk from climate-related shocks such as crop failures from reduced rainfall, spikes in food prices, and so on. Without rapid climate-smart development, an additional 100 million people could be pushed into poverty by 2030, the bank predicts.

This warning was swiftly followed by news from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) that the amount of GHGs in the atmosphere reached record concentrations in 2014, while UK climate scientists found that average temperatures were already 1.02 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, pushing the planet’s systems into “unchartered territory.”

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has also recently released a report modelling the potential economic consequences of climate change, suggesting that a temperature rise above four degrees Celsius could cut global GDP by 2-10 percent by the end of the century, with Africa and Asia facing the brunt of these impacts.

Navigating new arrangements

Among the areas where most consensus appears to have emerged from the informal Paris meet is around the need to regularly review mitigation efforts in the context of the new arrangements envisaged by the new UNFCCC deal. In addition, ministers reportedly agreed that all countries should regularly present mitigation commitments and that there should be no “backtracking” over time, so future ambition should build on existing climate pledges.

UNFCCC parties have agreed that the new regime will be composed of self-defined national climate action plans. To date nearly 160 nations have filed a so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), with most outlining climate efforts from 2020-2030, although a few have also showcased longer-term goals.

A recent UNFCCC review of the pledges’ aggregate mitigation contribution found that while these will help emissions growth to slow through to 2030, the world’s total emissions would nevertheless remain 11-22 percent higher by that time compared to 2010 levels.

The report also warned that due to the level of ambition envisaged by the current INDCs, substantially higher annual emissions reductions will be needed after 2025 and 2030 in order to keep within the agreed goal of no more than a two degree Celsius temperature rise, and this could come at a higher cost. (See BioRes, 9 November 2015)

A separate UN Environment Programme report released last week charts the “emissions gap” between the levels of abatement pledged by parties by 2030, compared to what is required to keep within the two degree Celsius threshold.

These estimates have lead many climate observers to call both for a global stocktake of INDCs before the end of the decade and for a continuous cycle of review to ensure that the new UNFCCC regime actually delivers on its emissions-cutting mandate. Parties have made several proposals around these areas as demonstrated in a complex draft text for the post-2020 deal set for discussion in Paris from 30 November-11 December. (See BioRes, 28 October 2015)

During this week’s informal meeting, ministers also reportedly discussed the idea of a stocktake in 2017 or 2018 concerning the implementation of existing climate commitments. A recent joint statement by France and China has also backed this suggestion.

In addition to the new dynamics for international cooperation on climate action wrought by the INDCs, the new deal will be universal, a significant departure from the Kyoto Protocol that only mandate emissions cuts from a list of specific developed countries.

This arrangement has, however, raised concerns from some camps that the UNFCCC’s cornerstone CBDR principle is threatened. A number of climate watchers have said that navigating  discussions and agreeing on an understanding of the CBDR principle within the new regime is a critical part of the talks.

The informal ministerial this week reportedly garnered “increasingly wide-ranging support” for a “single system, with flexibilities depending on capabilities.” According to some analysts, this implies that the new regime will not see an explicit distinction between “developed” and “developing” countries, but it will accommodate to the constraints facing some poorer nations in acting on climate change.

Climate finance

According to a French summary of the informal ministerial, positive signals were provided that new financial commitments would be unveiled in Paris, designed to achieve a goal of scaling up climate aid to US$100 billion per year by 2020.

Some poor nations, however, are seeking commitments in Paris that would raise this annual sum from the end of the decade onwards. Some other developed nations, meanwhile, would like to see richer emerging countries contribute to the climate finance pot.

“While post-2020 finance has to be predictable and scaled up from US$100billion onwards, we do not want to see a change in the very paradigm in which finance has been talked about in the Convention,” said India's environment minister Prakash Javadekar at the close of the pre-COP.

“The commitment to provide finance by developed countries is based on their historical responsibilities and not only on their economic capacities,” he continued, referring to the level of emissions accounted for by the world’s older industrialised nations. 

Many stakeholders have said that landing consensus on climate finance arrangements will be the key area to address at the climate negotiations next month.

In a potential positive lift to those talks, the UN’s Green Climate Fund (GCF) on Friday 6 November announced the approval of some US$168 million in finance to kick start eight projects worth over US$624 million in developing nations, focused on a range of mitigation and adaptation activities.

The multilateral green fund was set up in 2010 in a bid to help facilitate low carbon economic transitions in developing countries and help boost adaptation to climate impacts. The fund then had to go through several procedural steps in order to become operational.

Moreover, while developed nations last year came forward with over US$10 billion worth of commitments for the GCF’s coffers, some of these commitments have proved slow to materialise leading several developing nations to worry that about levels of support in the future.

A meeting of the EU’s finance ministers on Tuesday adopted conclusions on climate finance ahead of the December meeting, pledging to scale up flows to US$100 billion from a wide variety of sources, public and private, bilateral and multilateral and highlighting the bloc’s contribution of US$14.5 billion in green funds last year.

The EU ministers also supported work on an international agreed framework for measuring and reporting on climate finance flows – which remains another sensitive issues in the UNFCCC talks – and highlighted the importance of putting in place domestic enabling environments to help capitalise on international funds. The conclusions support carbon pricing in this context as well as phasing out environmentally and economically harmful subsidies.  

Some observers ahead of Tuesday’s meeting had expected EU finance ministers to commit to additional or more ambitious finance action.

Next steps

Building a new post-2020 climate architecture demands a balancing act between political signals provided by ministers and complex bargaining on technical issues between negotiators.

Capitals will now likely aim to translate any new areas of political consensus achieved during the latest informal ministerial into negotiating mandates to for the talks. Although progress appears to have been made, several sources confirmed that delegates will still have their work cut out for them in December, with many brackets to whittle down in the current draft text.

Fabius reportedly told ministers that he expected a revised draft text to be “on his desk” half way through the conference – Saturday 5 December – in order to move towards a successful outcome.

Whether this will indeed be achieved, particularly in these multilateral negotiations renowned for delivering well-after closing time, remains to be seen.

ICTSD reporting; “France eyes growing consensus ahead of Paris climate summit,” CLIMATE HOME, 10 November 2015; “Global warming 1.02C above pre-industrial levels,” THE FINANCIAL TIMES, 9 November 2015; “India makes strong pitch for climate finance ahead of Paris climate summit,” THE TIMES OF INDIA, 10 November 2015. 

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