The core issues in the Paris climate talks

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.