In the three years after much hyped Paris Agreement, global commitment to protect the planet seems to be unravelling as several nations backtrack or miss their commitments.
On December 12, 2015, leaders of over 150 nations, gathered in Paris, announced that they had reached a consensus on taking time-bound and adequate action to ensure that global warming is reined in. But, as they patted each other on the back and champagne flowed freely, the details of exactly how and what had been agreed upon remained unclear, besides a commitment to holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.
The problem with the Paris Agreement is that it is full of good intentions, adjectives, and goals, without any enforceable clauses for not meeting the intentions and hence it lacks the necessary teeth which is mandatory in any multilateral agreement to ensure enforcement. Neither does it have a clear path as to how those goals would or could be achieved and what would happen if they were not met as these nittygritties, even if very crucial for the success of the agreement, had been left for a rule book that was meant to be finalised later, to be presented at Cop24, the conference in December 2018 at Katowice in Poland.
The agreement’s lofty goals included:
• Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production
• Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low GHG emissions and climate-resilient development
• Developed country Parties shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the convention
These were some of the objectives laid down in a document of about 27 pages, with little or nothing to indicate concretely how any of the objectives would be met and who would do what and how to enforce reduction in carbon emissions of any country. Yet, at the concluding press conference in Paris, this document full of promises and aspirations was presented as a major achievement, as few had expected the countries to reach any agreement on a common text during the Paris negotiations, which had to be extended by a day, as has become the norm with UNrelated negotiations.
Hence, it is no surprise that three years later, as the countries get ready to meet again to evaluate their progress in finalising the rule book as well as continuing their efforts to curb GHG emissions, there is utter chaos not only on the rules to govern the implementation of Paris Agreement, but also on the crucial question of developed economies contributing an additional USD 100 billion a year from the year 2020 to help developing nations meet their climate obligations as well as mitigate the impact of climate change.
In the months following the Paris Agreement, the first hurdle in its way came from the usual black sheep of global ecological accords – the United States of America, which did not even sign the Kyoto Protocol. However, against form, the then President Barak Obama was at the forefront of negotiations in Paris and leading the developed nations by example to not only curb their emissions but also increase the kitty of a global fund for helping the developing countries in meeting their targets. The rather unusually proactive role played by the US in Paris was a welcome change for a nation that had so far to be dragged screaming into climate change negotiations.
However, Obama’s work was been promptly demolished by his successor, Donald Trump, who had been virulent against any climate change actions during his election campaign, and within days of winning had said that he would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, something that he repeated earlier this year again, even though the US can not formally withdraw from the agreement until 2020. Yet, the damage was done as it marked a major backtracking by one of the world’s biggest emitters of GHGs and could seriously undermine the efficacy of Paris Agreement, even if other nations did not follow suit. Trump cited “the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country” in his speech. Trump has also rolled back numerous, if not all, the initiatives of Obama administration aimed at ecological conservation.
Soon enough, the US’s reticence towards Paris was joined in by Australia, where Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull also announced that his government would abandon the emission reduction targets meant to help the country meet its obligations under the Paris deal, following a revolt by the rebel Liberal Party members, led by Tony Abott, the former prime minister who ironically had signed the agreement in Paris.
Though most global leaders criticised Trump’s decision and vowed to continue on the path towards saving the planet, progress on the ground has been little. As Katowice meeting approaches, it is increasingly becoming clear that there continues to be extreme divergence in the positions of many nations, not only between developed and developing economies, but also groupings like small island nations, which are extremely threatened by global warming as well as large fossil fuel producers like the Arab nations.
This became evident at a preparatory meeting in Bangkok in September that failed to make any progress in preparing the final text that could be considered and adopted at the Katowice meeting.
Money, money, money
The two most important items on the agenda at Bangkok conference related to finance for climate change and establishing a rule book to monitor signatories’ progress towards their commitments. On the question of finance, whereby the developed world had agreed to provide an additional sum of USD 100 billion per year by the year 2020 and which would be used by the developing world for gaining access to green technologies, in order to curb their own emissions, as well as adaptation and mitigation of the impact of climate change, which is increasingly being felt all over.
But at the Bangkok meeting, the US, Japan, and Australia attempted to dilute that commitment and proposed removing specific rules for how countries should account for climate finance contributions. The trio wanted that even a commercial loan, with no special advantage for the borrower, would count as part of the financial obligation of the developed world. This could reduce actual additional funding of USD 100 billion by nearly a quarter, some experts said at the meeting.
Harjeet Singh, climate policy manager for ActionAid International, said, ‘‘Developed countries led by the United States and including countries such as Australia, Japan and even the European Union refused to clearly show how much money they are going to provide and how that is going to be counted.’’
“Developed countries are responsible for the vast majority of historic emissions, and many became remarkably wealthy burning fossil fuels,” said Amjad Abdulla, the head of a negotiating bloc of small island states at Bangkok.
Developed countries also refused to discuss long-range targets for how much money might be provided beyond 2025. According to estimates, over USD 1.5 trillion may be needed by the developing nations to meet their climate change obligations as well as assistance in coping with the impact of natural disasters that seem to occur frequently all over the world.
At Bangkok, it became clear that the developed countries didn’t want to even start those discussions, creating a lot of uncertainty about the future. ‘‘The Paris Agreement cannot be implemented without climate finance,’’ Gebru Jember Endalew of Ethiopia, the chair of a group of 48 Least Developed Countries (LDCs), said in a statement after the Bangkok talks ended. ‘‘The failure of rich countries to deliver adequate resources has severe ramifications for people and communities in the LDCs and around the world that are already bearing the brunt of climate change on a daily basis,’’ he added.
Executive secretary of the UNFCCC Patricia Espinosa said that climate finance should not be considered as a mere technical issue, but one with a deep human dimension. “When it comes to climate change, finance is about more than money. It’s about helping people impacted by climate change. It’s about reducing their suffering. And, in some cases, it’s about saving lives,” she said.
Incidentally, in the days leading up to the Paris Agreement, India had highlighted the absence of a clear commitment by the rich world of providing financial and technical support to enable the developing countries begin a curb on their emissions. Also, keeping the same principle of ‘polluter pays’ in mind, India had sought very clear commitments for drastic cuts in emissions by the leading economies of the developed world, notably the United States, the European Union, Canada, Australia, Japan, and South Korea.
‘‘We have networked and built pressure on the developed world to provide finance and technology support as per their commitment. They must take up more ambitious emission cutting. If they don’t then change won’t happen. The emissions started in 1850 with the industrial revolution. At that time, its impacts were unknown; but after 1990, the developed world has not behaved responsibly in the last 25 years. Even from 2016 to 2020, how can we have five years action holiday? We want the developed world to take up ambitious targets even during the next five years,’’ India’s then environment and forests minister Prakash Javadekar had told Biz@India in an interview in Paris barely a fortnight before the launch of the Paris meeting.
“They want to avoid the responsibility for providing USD 100 billion each year; mainly through public and additional finance. They are bringing new ideas to the table. First, they are calculating ODA-OECD assistance and other development assistance as climate finance. This is absolute rubbish. It is double counting and it’s unacceptable.
Second, they are saying that many countries that are now rich should too. But who will decide that and how,’’ Javadekar had said, with a surprising foresight. During the Paris negotiations, the then Secretary of State of the US, John Kerry had announced a doubling of the financial commitment of the US to USD 800- 900 million.
“The US not only recognises our role in creating this problem but doing something about it,” Kerry had said, reiterating an earlier statement by President Obama. “The situation demands and this moment demands that we do not leave Paris without an ambitious and durable agreement.”
Three years on, not just the US, but many other developed nations are clearly backtracking from their commitments and promises, with the prospects of very heated debates at Katowice.
Who will bell the cat ?
The other weakness of the Paris Agreement also became fully visible at the Bangkok meeting as countries simply could not agree on even the basics of a procedure to set the rule book for monitoring the implementation of the Paris Agreement. The Bangkok meet was also meant to adopt a completed text of the rule book as well as a draft of the agreement for presentation at the COP24 conference in Katowice. The countries could not even agree on setting technical framework for reporting progress by the individual governments.
In a rush to reach an improbable agreement, the negotiators in Paris had decided to simply take the lofty intentions of various leaders as being the commitments made by the world to curb carbon emissions; but the biggest weakness of this agreement, which lay in the absence of any monitoring mechanism, was evident even in the name of the commitments, called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Hence, even three years on, the UNFCCC has been unable to figure out to convert these intentions into firm commitments and indeed how to police these.
Besides finance and monitoring, disputes have also broken out on several fundamental issues such as phasing out of fossil fuels notably coal and crude oil as well as the future of renewable energy sources, notably the solar power. At a meeting in Fiji and in Saudi Arabia, a leader of the Arab group, brushed aside any discussion on the future of petroleum, blaming instead the industrialised nations for having brought the earth to the brink of a disaster through their unlimited emissions. On the question of finance, the Saudis also sought refuge under its 1990 classification as a developing country, despite its high per capita income and classification by the World Bank (WB) as a rich economy, since UN treaties do not consider WB rankings.
It is not just the petroleum producers, even coal producers and consumers, ranging from India and Australia in the East to the US and Germany in the West, have refused to forsake the highly polluting fuel, believed to be one of the largest causes of emissions. Indeed, according to recent estimates of the International Energy Agency, by early 2020s, India is all set to move ahead of Australia and the US to become the world’s second largest coal producer behind only China and also become the largest importer of coal in the world. India is already the world’s second largest coal consumer, again behind China.
As the host nation, Poland, would have a delicate tight walk on its hands as it tries to chaperone an agreement, since it gets almost 90 pc of its electricity from coal, which remains an important employer as well and counts for about 55 pc of the total energy mix of the country.
The final lap
As has become usual for most multilateral agreements, practically all the key issues following from the Paris Agreement have been left for the last round of negotiations that will take place at Katowice. For the UNFCCC, too, this seems to be the new normal as even before the Cop21 meeting in Paris, there had been no agreement on even a basic draft text of the agreement. The scenario is set to be repeated in Poland.
‘‘It’s now up to the incoming Polish presidency and officials leading negotiations to find ways to bridge the deep differences on these issues and to secure agreement in Katowice on a robust, comprehensive package of rules to implement the Paris Agreement,’’ says Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a U.S.- based activist group.
The UNFCCC’s Espinosa said the world was unlikely to achieve the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement to cap temperature increases at 2°C, or to the more ambitious 1.5°C. “1.5°C is the goal that is needed for many islands and countries that are particularly vulnerable to avoid catastrophic effects. In many cases it means the survival of those countries,” she said, adding, “With the pledges we have on the table now, we are not on track to achieve those goals.”
Negotiators at Katowice would be wise to remember these sombre warnings and not repeat the error of rushing blindly into a useless agreement just to claim success. In December, Poland prepares for a period of long and deep freeze, accompanied by snow storms. Negotiators at Katowice ought to be prepared for a similar climate inside the negotiating rooms.