The core issues in the Paris climate talks

Leaders at the February 2015 UNFCCC conference in Geneva. Photo courtesy UNFCCC.

The final year of U.N. talks aimed at producing a new global climate agreement kicked off this week in Geneva. As negotiators wrestle with the working draft of the new agreement, it’s clear that all the core issues remain very much in play.

The talks, under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), were launched in 2011 in Durban, South Africa, and are to conclude this December in Paris. The aim is a post-2020 agreement “with legal force” and “applicable to all.”

The more immediate goal in Geneva is to produce a “draft negotiating text,” which technically must be in circulation at least six months before Paris. But the text emerging from Geneva will be very far from a finished product. The starting point this week was a 39-page collection of parties’ proposals forwarded from COP 20 in December in Lima. By mid-week, the working draft had grown to nearly 90 pages.

The unwieldy text reflects the wide disparities remaining on all the core issues in shaping the Paris agreement.

Countries will soon begin submitting their “intended nationally determined contributions” to the agreement. That these INDCs (focused primarily on constraining greenhouse gas emissions) will be “nationally determined” suggests that the agreement will have a strong “bottom-up” character. Much of what’s at issue is whether and how to blend in “top-down” elements to create a hybrid agreement that delivers both broad participation and stronger ambition.   

Here are some of the core issues for the year:

Differentiation – Developed countries want to do away with the stark differentiation seen in the Kyoto Protocol, which set binding emissions targets for developed countries only. But most developing countries are resisting the proposed alternative: accepting a de facto self-differentiation as countries tailor their contributions to their own circumstances.

Finance – More than $10 billion was pledged recently to support mitigation and adaptation in developing countries through the newly established Green Climate Fund. Developing countries are trying to hold developed countries to their commitment to mobilize $100 billion a year in public and private finance by 2020, and want assurances of increased flows in the years beyond. Developed nations want to broaden the circle of donor countries, so the onus is not entirely on them.

Adaptation – Developing countries argue that the UNFCCC historically has been too mitigation-centric and adaptation has gotten short shrift. Many fought unsuccessfully in Lima to include adaptation in the scope of INDCs (countries can address it if they choose to), and are now pushing other ways to devote more attention and resources to the issue.  

Legal character ­– Beyond a stipulation that the agreement will have “legal force,” there’s no consensus on precisely what form it will take – or, more importantly, which particular elements will be legally binding. While the United States, for instance, might be prepared for binding procedural commitments (such as commitments to make a nationally determined contribution, and report on its implementation), it opposes binding emission targets.

Transparency – Existing UNFCCC requirements for the reporting and review of countries’ efforts are bifurcated: a more rigorous system for developed countries than for developing. Developed countries are pushing for a common framework covering all parties.

Ambition ­– The initial round of national contributions will not reduce global emissions enough to meet the goal of limiting warming to 2°C.  Some parties are pushing, and others resisting, a mechanism to bring parties back to the table at regular intervals to up their contributions.

Despite the slow pace in the negotiating room, there are encouraging signs from capitals that Paris could in fact deliver a meaningful agreement.

The joint announcement last year by the United States and China of their respective post-2020 targets showed that both want a deal. Add in the European Union, which also has announced its target, and that accounts for more than half the world’s emissions. India, meanwhile, has begun devoting more attention to climate change, with the new prime minister telling his diplomats this week to “shed old mindsets” and help the country position itself as a leader.    

Ten months out, it’s dangerous to venture predictions. But if the political will among the major economies keeps strengthening, Paris could prove our best chance since the UNFCCC’s launch more than 20 years ago for a balanced, durable agreement that – while it won’t solve climate change – will help put us on track.

Why Lima was so tough

It was clear heading into the U.N. climate change conference in Lima that countries would punt all the toughest issues until next year in Paris, when a grand new global deal is due. All they really needed in Lima were a few procedural decisions setting the stage.

So why did it take more than 30 hours beyond the conference deadline to deliver something so modest?

The answer is that even a seemingly trivial procedural issue can be freighted with substantive implications, so countries fret over every nuance, lest they let something slip that will come back to haunt them later. In Lima, like so many times before, their biggest worry was how responsibility will be distributed across developed and developing countries.

At the start of the global climate effort, developed countries were comfortable with a stark division assigning most of the responsibility to them. But 20 years later, China is now the world’s largest carbon emitter, and developed countries no longer accept the so-called firewall between the two groupings.

The 2011 Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, which launched the current round of negotiations, said the Paris agreement would be “applicable to all.”  But just what that means was left to be sorted out later, and will likely be the central challenge in Paris.

The handwriting is on the famous firewall – it’s coming down. China’s willingness to stand side by side with the United States last month to jointly announce their post-2020 emissions goals is a tacit acknowledgement of that. The question is what if anything takes its place.

Outlook for Lima: Setting the stage for Paris

Negotiators heading to Lima for the annual U.N. climate summit face a certain paradox. There are encouraging signs of growing momentum toward a new global climate deal late next year in Paris. Yet over the next two weeks in Lima, the negotiators may make only modest progress at best.

There are good reasons to be hopeful.

First, recent events and announcements have strengthened confidence in prospects for Paris. These include the U.N. leaders summit in New York, nearly $10 billion in pledges to the new Green Climate Fund, Europe’s decision on a 2030 emissions goal, and the joint announcement by the U.S. and China of their post-2020 targets.

Second, the negotiations throughout this year have been notably civil and substantive. Wide gulfs remain, but rather than succumbing to procedural fights, parties have been putting forward and constructively debating concrete ideas for the Paris agreement.

Third, behind the scenes, there is a fair degree of convergence among key countries on the broad outlines of a Paris deal. This is reflected in a recent report from the co-chairs of Toward 2015, an informal dialogue among officials from 20+ key countries organized by C2ES.

How Climate Summit can build momentum for a global agreement

The last time so many world leaders gathered on the issue of climate change was nearly five years ago in Copenhagen. The hard lesson of that fractious summit: No one moment, and no one agreement, can deliver “the” answer.  We need to advance step by step, on multiple fronts, from the local to the global. And it will take time.

This reality is an important backdrop for the United Nations Climate Summit being convened in New York next week by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

More than 120 heads of state, including President Obama, are expected, and many will come prepared to announce concrete steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Many businesses and nonprofits, some partnering with governments, will also announce new initiatives.

These tangible outcomes will represent important progress in and of themselves. But the larger value of the summit is in focusing leaders on the profound challenges we face, raising consciousness across societies, and building momentum – in particular, toward the new global climate agreement due late next year in Paris.

The Warsaw outcome: A hint of what's to come

If one is looking for clues from Warsaw as to the future of the U.N. climate change effort, probably the most telling is the phrase “nationally determined.”

Governments have set themselves the goal of a new global climate agreement in 2015. At the annual U.N. climate talks that wrapped up this weekend in Warsaw, they agreed on some of the steps they’ll take to get there.

The decision adopted in Warsaw invites all parties to “initiate or intensify domestic preparations for their intended nationally determined contributions,” and to “communicate them well in advance” of the 2015 meeting, set for December in Paris.  It also establishes a loose timeline: by the first quarter of 2015 for those parties “ready to do so.”

This is primarily a procedural decision, a way to move the process forward. The reason it was so difficult to reach was that parties fought incredibly hard either to inject or to avoid substantive framing that would begin to define the shape of the Paris accord.

By the time they were done cramming clauses into the ungainly sentence at the heart of the decision, the parties had managed essentially to preserve the vague but delicate balance they’d struck in launching this latest round of talks two years ago in Durban. The 2015 agreement will be “applicable to all,” but its legal character, and how developed and developing country obligations will be differentiated, remain undefined.