intenational climate talks

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.

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.

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