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The ongoing climate summit is likely to lead to a little-effective Paris accord, while governments gear up to fight another day

Eiffel Tower dressed up for COP21 (Image by Mark Dixon)

Eiffel Tower dressed up for COP21 (Image by Mark Dixon)

Representatives of over 190 governments gathered for the annual climate summit are unanimous on one point – there will be a Paris accord. The discord starts with the details.

In essence, the accord will be a summation of the pledges made by almost all countries throughout 2015 – the so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) to combat climate change. As in the Kyoto Protocol – the first agreement between countries to mandate emissions reductions, the INDCs are likely to go in the appendix. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, they will not be legally binding.

Laurent Fabius, French foreign minister and President of this year’s conference, would like the accord to be agreed by Wednesday December 9, so that lawyers have a chance to look at it and translators can complete their work by the December 11, the scheduled close of this year’s United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference. Mention of that hope brings a disbelieving sneer to the face of almost every negotiator. UN climate talks are notorious for running over into the following day, and before the conference began, commentators said they were bracing for a finish on Sunday 13 December. In fact, sleeping bags have already made their way into delegation offices for the last leg of negotiations.

There is not even any agreement on the biggest points of discord. For poor nations led by India, it is about the money rich nations have paid and have promised to pay for the carbon pollution they have been causing since the start of the Industrial Age. For rich nations, it is about the extent to which emerging economies such as China and India – increasingly India rather than China – are going to rein in their growing greenhouse gas emissions.

Ratchet up 

So at the converted Le Bourget airport of Paris, one hears talk of the need to “increase ambition” from both sides – one for emission control and the other for money. The rhetoric is less confrontational than Copenhagen following the French government’s gathering of key environment ministers before the conference, and then trying to give it a political push by having heads of government open rather than close this year’s conference.

But busy French diplomacy, so far, hasn’t managed to bridge the gap in the bipolar world of UN climate talks.

Other points of unresolved discord stem from these basic differences. The national pledges being made under the Paris accord are supposed to be effective from 2020 to 2030. Rich nations want these pledges to be reviewed in 2018, to see if they are good enough. Prakash Javadekar, India’s Environment Minister, has just repeated in Paris his earlier opposition. He wants a review in 2025.

In turn, poor nations want the US$100 billion a year promised by rich nations to be subject to review here and now. Few of them trust the recent OECD study that said over US$62 billion has been paid already. They point out that the UNFCCC’s Green Climate Fund (GCF) has only received US$10.3 billion in pledges and less in its account. Rich nations say emerging economies should also pay into the GCF. Javadekar responds, “Okay, but they should first walk the talk.”

Least developed countries (LDC), the Africa Group, the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) and countries in the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) are getting increasingly anxious about the fallout of this continuing bickering between rich and emerging countries. With good reason, they fear this will lead to a Paris accord with a common programme that will be too minimal to be effective. It looks increasingly likely that the accord will be a generalised statement of intent, with important details being kicked forward to future conferences.

That has already happened to the issue of loss and damage from climate change impacts – which range from reduced farm output to more frequent and severe floods, storms and droughts, from rising seas to more uncertain rainfall. Afraid of law suits, rich nations led by the US have got the words compensation and liability thrown out of the Paris accord draft; in effect, it only talks of insurance now. Climate activists and LDCs are unlikely to give up – but they seem to have agreed to park the issue for at least another year.

Climate justice slips away

Developing countries have long been worried that the Paris accord is not paying enough attention to adaptation, while their governments have to adapt to climate effects that are already biting hard. There is little resolution of this, and the UN’s Adaptation Fund remains empty.

General statements about the importance of adaptation are likely, but little more that can move global investments towards adaptation projects. The same is the probable fate of the Indian government’s favourite phrase – climate justice. A rich country NGO representative described it as “the oldest ghost haunting these negotiations”. No one disputes the principle of climate justice. But in the absence of a formula that can make it work, India is unable to push rich nations beyond generalised rhetoric.

India in the firing line

This is a summit where China is being praised by rich country think tanks, NGOs and negotiators for coming up with a plan to control its greenhouse gas emissions, while India is in their firing line for its insistence that it has to use coal to provide electricity to over 350 million citizens outside the grid.

Almost as a corollary, much of the talk in Le Bourget’s corridors is about the Paris accord being weakened because of India’s “lack of ambition”. Reacting to this, Javadekar said, “India is here not to oppose but to propose.”

Jairam Ramesh, who was India’s environment minister during the Copenhagen climate summit and is now an opposition MP, pointed out in Paris last week, “India has not caused the problem; it has 17% of the world’s population and 6% of GHG emissions, less than 2% if you consider historically.”

But he did think India had to be an essential part of the solution. “With current trends, by 2030 it could be world’s second largest emitter and be where the US is today. It must be part of the solution or it will be adding to the problem.”

“India’s position has certainly changed because its vulnerability is clearer day by day – retreat of glaciers, variability of monsoon, loss of forest cover because India’s minerals are located in forests, increase in sea levels and most importantly, impact on public health. Delhi has replace Beijing as the world’s most polluted city,” said Ramesh.

In its INDC, India has pledged that by 2030, it will generate 40% of its electricity through renewable sources. Still, most Indian planners think the country’s coal use will double or triple in the next 30 years to sustain 8% economic growth. Aware of the criticism it would face, India launched an international solar alliance on the opening day of the Paris summit. That has earned praise but has not stopped the carping. That gives Indian negotiators little manoeuvring space.

And that space is going to get tighter with Canada’s new proposal to keep average global temperature rise within 1.5 degrees Celsius instead of two degrees. Negotiators from emerging economies are trying to keep that as an aspirational goal rather than a binding commitment. The matter is still in play.

Legal ties

So is the whole issue of the legal nature of the Paris accord. The European Union and AOSIS are very keen that the accord be binding on all governments, a point hotly contested by the US, which knows it cannot get any such accord through its congress and senate. One possibility is to have a generalised Paris accord without specific commitments and have that as something legally binding, while the real commitments come as an appendix and are voluntary.

Asked to rate such an accord on a scale of 10, Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, told India Climate Dialogue, “If the ambition is high and if we have a mechanism to review it every five years, I would give it anything between five and eight.”

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