Six Questions About the December Paris Climate Negotiations: What Can We Expect?

paris-415476_6401. Where do the Paris Negotiations fit into the lengthy international effort to combat climate change?
In Paris this December, the nations of the world will assemble in a conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, sometimes called the The Rio Convention. Much is expected and much is at stake: Can the participating countries – and that includes pretty much every nation – seriously advance the world’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to a level that avoids a catastrophic change in our climate?
This will be the 21st meeting of the parties to the UNFCCC, which was negotiated in June 1992 at Rio de Janeiro by the leaders of some 172 nations, most represented by their heads of state. The U.S. was represented by President George H. W. Bush. The Rio Convention was the first time the nations of the world formally called climate change a global problem, and it set an objective of “stabilizing GHG concentrations at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”
As steps toward that goal, the convention required all nations to produce annual reports of GHG emissions and prodded industrialized countries – but not others — to adopt measures that would reduce GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. The US ratified the UNFCCC in October of 1992, the first industrialized country to do so.
Beginning in 1995, the parties to the Rio Convention have met annually to turn its general aims into specific, workable obligations and programs. The 1997 conference produced the Kyoto Protocol, which made the general Rio obligations more specific. It committed industrialized countries to reduce their GHG emissions by specified, negotiated amounts. Thus, the industrialized countries and the European Community agreed that during Kyoto’s first commitment period (2008-2012) they would on average reduce emissions by 5% compared to 1990 levels. In contrast, the developing countries, including China, which in the aggregate were very large emitters, were not required to undertake specific emissions reductions.
The Kyoto Protocol had a serious flaw: It did not secure specific reductions commitments from the two largest GHG emitters – China and the U.S. China was not obligated to do so under the terms of the Protocol, and the U.S never ratified the Protocol, both because of general Congressional, political opposition to this sort of international commitment, and more specifically, because China and other developing countries were not similarly obligated.
Another characteristic of Kyoto became clear over time. There would be no real consequences if a party failed to meet the obligations it undertook, as was the case with Canada. The parties to Rio have continued to meet annually, refining and elaborating the agreement’s various obligations. In these meetings, several issues recur and will do so in some form in Paris:

  • To what extent are the obligations legally binding, and to what extent are they simply expressions of shared intent?
  • Is the agreement equitable? How should it reflect the different levels of responsibility among countries at different levels of development, recognizing that richer countries such as the U.S. and many European states not only have the financial capacity to finance GHG reduction programs, but also that they are historically responsible for most of the GHG concentrations now in our atmosphere?
  • At the same time, how should the agreement reflect the dynamic nature of economic development? The Rio Convention enshrined a sharp distinction between “developed” and “developing” countries by listing the former in an appendix. Over twenty years on, China is the world’s largest emitter and by some measures its largest economy.
  • Will the richer countries step up and provide adequate help to those in need, and to what extent can these countries satisfy the financial obligations they undertake by mobilizing business and other private funds?

2. How will Paris differ from earlier climate conferences?

The basic change would seem to stem from an increasing recognition and acceptance of a reality: generally countries’ willingness and ability to make GHG reductions are driven more by political realities than by specific international reduction commitments. The very concept of INDCs reflects this change.

Thus, the Kyoto Protocol model, where some parties agree to bind themselves to multilaterally negotiated GHG reduction goals, will not be the dominant model Paris will build on.

Rather, at its center Paris will be a “bottom-up” agreement where countries individually say what they propose to do, by submitting “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs), which are GHG reduction targets that countries voluntarily adopt for themselves. (The U.S. and the EU were among the first to submit INDCs.) The “top-down” model will continue to govern some procedural elements (e.g. the requirement to report on progress in implementing INDCs).
3. What are some of the new issues for negotiation at Paris?

Though at Paris there won’t be negotiations about the voluntary targets or INDCs that each country will submit, there will be attempts to raise the GHG reduction ambition of the parties. For there is wide agreement that the sum of the INDCs committed at Paris will not nearly achieve the level of GHG reductions needed to keep our globe’s warming to 2 degrees centigrade. An optimistic estimate is that the Paris commitments would get us half way to that goal. So, the aim of Paris must be to negotiate an agreement that maximizes GHG reductions over time.
This requires adding some negotiating issues that are new, such as:
1) Developing an enhanced system of transparency that permits the world to know that countries are actually achieving the reductions they committed to. What rules and mechanisms can achieve this? And how can the system simultaneously hold all countries to a high standard of transparency while acknowledging the differences in institutional capacity that currently exist? It’s simply a fact that the U.S. has much greater ability to monitor and enforce compliance with pollution laws than India.
2) Finding ways – such as a review process at regular intervals — by which future meetings can raise the ambitions of the INDCs submitted at Paris.
4. What are some ongoing issues that will be negotiated at Paris?
1) The equity of the agreement

How to reflect, in the obligations assumed by both rich and poorer countries, the fact that a relatively small group of rich countries are responsible for much of the present GHG concentrations in the atmosphere. The issue will arise principally in discussions of finance.
2) The legal nature of the agreement

In run-ups to Paris, there has emerged consensus that the goal is an agreement that will take effect in 2020 “with legal force” and that is “applicable to all.” Each of these words is loaded with meaning – not always the same meaning understood by all the parties. Other than “with legal force,” there is no consensus on what form the agreement will take, or precisely which elements will be legally binding.
Most countries are prepared to make their commitments in a legally binding form, like a treaty. The U.S. has real problems with agreements that are “treaties” under our system, particularly with those that impose significant financial or legal obligations.
Our constitutional requirement to ratify a treaty is high – 67 votes in the U.S. Senate. Many far less controversial agreements – such as the Law of The Sea Convention – have failed to get Senate ratification.
The majority of U.S international agreements, however, are not treaties. Some are congressional-presidential agreement, which are approved by simple majorities in both houses of Congress, some an executive agreement, which needs simply to be approved by the President.
If Paris were to establish legally binding emission limits on the U.S., or new legally binding financial commitments, the agreement would have to be in the form of a treaty. However, to the extent the agreement is (a) procedurally oriented, (b) consistent with existing law, and (c) aimed at implementing or elaborating the UNFCCC convention, the Paris outcome could presumably be dealt with as an executive agreement.
Thus the U.S. might accept binding procedural commitment (e.g. a requirement periodically to provide revised INDCs) but not binding emission targets.

5. How to finance energy and climate projects in developing countries?
From the very first days of the Rio Convention, it has been understood that richer countries need to provide a large share of the funds needed by the developing world to participate in the global effort to reduce GHG emissions. Rio explicitly states that the extent to which the developing countries will implement the Rio convention depends on financial commitments from the industrialized countries.
Failure to get meaningful agreement on the financing question poses probably the greatest danger to a successful Paris. Not surprisingly, the character and magnitude of rich countries’ commitments will be a major issue at Paris.
At Copenhagen, in 2009, the U.S. and other advanced economies agreed collectively to mobilize, by 2020, $100 billion per year, from public and private sources. At Cancun in 2010, they also agreed to a “fast start” goal of $10 billion a year from public sources between 2010 and 2012.
The “fast start” goal has essentially been met, but there is no agreement whatsoever on how we are doing in meeting the $100-billion-per-year obligation. A UNFCCC Standing Committee on Finance last year said the amounts ranged between $40 and $175 billion, of which public funds were between $35 and $50 billion, and private funds between $5 and $125 billion.
The estimates differ mostly because there is no agreement on just what expenditures count. There is no agreement either on the level of public funds or on the private sector funds that have been leveraged by governments.
A recurring problem is the desire of many developing countries, in climate negotiations, to focus exclusively on public funds, such as traditional foreign aid moneys and to keep climate finance separate from the UN’s development assistance efforts.
Paris needs also to tackle a more specific financing issue. All the INDCs that advanced economies have submitted to date involve actions the countries intend to take within their own borders. However, several developing countries and emerging economies have said that while they will make a certain level of emission reductions on their own, they would be willing to make additional reductions if developed countries would finance them. In fact, many of the least expensive reductions are to be found in the developing world. So far, the industrialized countries submissions have not stepped up to this challenge.
Getting a handle on total climate financing flows is also complicated by the large number of funding mechanisms. There are, of course, official development assistance, private flows, and aid from multilateral development banks.
But under the UNFCCC there have been established numerous other sources: The Global Environment Fund, an Adaptation Fund, a Least Developed Country Fund, and the most recent and largest, the Green Climate Fund, which received pledges of $10 billion earlier this year.
6. What about China, which continues to build coal-fired power plants? Can it be a constructive player at Paris?
China is at times a difficult negotiating partner, but today its commitment to reduce GHG emissions is quite strong and clear. In last year’s meeting between the Chinese President and President Obama, China made two commitments with huge implications: that (a) its GHG emissions will peak by 2030, and (b) by 2030 non-fossil fuels will provide more than 20% of China’s energy.
The latter requires bringing on line something like 800-1,000 megawatts of nuclear, solar, wind and other non-fossil fuel energy every week for 15 years. That is the equivalent of one power plant a week.
Over the 15-year period that adds up to more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to the total current electricity generation capacity in the U.S.

Current estimates are that as soon as 2020 China should have 100 GW of solar, triple today’s capacity and 200 GW of wind, double today’s.

China’s record of meeting the plans it sets for itself is pretty good. It has taken several important steps to help it achieve its climate goals:


  • It is working to establish a national greenhouse gas emission trading program in the next two years, having established pilot programs in five cities and two provinces.
  • It is eliminating old and inefficient factories. In the past 4 years it has closed cement plants with 570 million ton capacity and steel plants with 75 million ton capacity.
  • It is limiting and reducing coal use. It appears that coal will peak around 2020. New coal installations to power China’s robust economy are falling. Installations were 90 GW in 2006, and 34 GW in 2014.
  • Three regions – Beijing/Hebei, Yangtse River Delta, and Pearl River Delta – have a ban on new coal plants, and targets for absolute reductions in coal consumption.
  • There is a conscious move to shift the economy to a less energy intensive service sector. The 12th 5-Year Plan proposes to grow the service sector from 47% of GDP in 2015 to 52% in 2020.
  • Recent amendments to China’s laws provide for meaningful daily fines for violation of environmental laws, and include an official’s environmental record in his annual performance assessment.

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