Paris climate talks

Paris Climate Agreement Q&A

Paris Climate Agreement Q&A

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More than 190 nations meeting in Paris in December 2015 reached a landmark agreement to strengthen the global climate effort. The Paris Agreement commits countries to undertake “nationally determined contributions” and establishes mechanisms to hold them accountable and to strengthen ambition in the years ahead.

C2ES offers a summary of the key outcomes in Paris and other resources related to the climate talks. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions.

What’s the status of the Paris Agreement?

The Paris Agreement formally entered into force on November 4, 2016. Other countries have continued to become parties to the Paris Agreement as they complete their domestic approval procedures.  As of June 2017, 148 parties have ratified the Paris Agreement. Countries are now negotiating more detailed rules to implement the agreement, to be adopted in late 2018.

On June 1, 2017, President Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the agreement. In response, other governments strongly reaffirmed their commitment to the agreement.

What were the main outcomes of the Paris conference?

The Paris conference was the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), known as COP 21. The conference concluded a round of negotiations launched in Durban, South Africa, in 2011 with the aim of producing a new legal agreement among national governments to strengthen the global response to climate change. A record 150 heads of state and government attended the opening day of the conference.

The Paris package had three main components: the Paris Agreement, an international treaty setting common goals, commitments and expectations; the intended “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) submitted by more than 180 countries; and the thousands of contributions offered by companies, states, cities and civil society organizations.

How does the Paris Agreement relate to the UNFCCC?

The UNFCCC, adopted in 1992, is a treaty among governments that provides a foundation for the global climate effort. Enjoying near-universal membership, the convention was ratified by the United States with the advice and consent of the Senate. The convention set a long-term objective (avoiding “dangerous human interference with the climate system”), established principles to guide the global effort, and committed all countries to “mitigate” climate change by reducing or avoiding greenhouse gas emissions. The Paris Agreement defines how countries will implement their UNFCCC commitments after 2020.

What are nationally determined contributions?

In 2013, at COP 19 in Warsaw, parties were encouraged to submit their “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) to the Paris Agreement well in advance of COP 21. These INDCs represent each country’s self-defined mitigation goals for the period beginning in 2020. To date, 190 countries accounting for almost 99 percent of global emissions have submitted INDCs to the UNFCCC secretariat.

Developed countries have offered absolute economy-wide emissions targets (the United States, for instance, has pledged to reduce its emissions 26-28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025).

Developing countries have offered a range of approaches, including absolute economy-wide targets, reductions in emissions intensity (emissions per unit of GDP), reductions from projected “business-as-usual” emissions, and reductions in per-capita emissions. C2ES has produced a summary of countries’ INDCs.

Final NDCs are submitted by each party upon its formal ratification or acceptance of the agreement, and are recorded in a UNFCCC registry.

What obligations do countries have under the agreement to reduce their emissions?

The Paris Agreement establishes a set of binding procedural commitments. Parties commit to “prepare, communicate and maintain” successive NDCs; to “pursue domestic mitigation measures” aimed at achieving their NDCs; and to regularly report on their emissions and on progress in implementing their NDCs. The agreement also sets the expectation that each party’s successive NDC will “represent a progression” beyond its previous one and “reflect its highest possible ambition.”  The achievement by a party of its NDCs is not a legally binding obligation.

Does the agreement meet the goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius?

In agreements adopted in Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancún in 2010, governments set a goal of keeping global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The Paris Agreement reaffirms the 2-degree goal, while urging efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The agreement also sets two other long-term mitigation goals: first, a peaking of emissions as soon as possible (recognizing that it will take longer for developing countries); then, a goal of net greenhouse gas neutrality (“a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks”) in the second half of the century.

Analyses of the INDCs submitted by countries conclude that, while they move us closer to the 2-

degree goal, they are not ambitious enough to achieve it. An analysis by the Climate Action Tracker, a consortium of research institutions, concluded that the INDCs, if fully implemented, could result in warming of 2.7 degrees Celsius, which would be 0.9 degrees lower than without them.

How will the Paris Agreement get countries to increase their ambition?

The Paris Agreement provides a durable framework guiding the global effort for decades to come. The aim is to create a continuous cycle that keeps the pressure on countries to raise their ambition over time. To promote rising ambition, the agreement establishes two linked processes, each on a five-year cycle. The first process is a “global stocktake” to assess collective progress toward meeting the agreement’s long-term goals. Parties will then submit new NDCs, “informed by the outcomes of the global stocktake.”

Because the Paris Agreement is to apply post-2020, the first formal stocktake under the agreement will not take place until 2023. But under a decision accompanying the agreement, parties will jumpstart the five-year cycle with a “facilitative dialogue” on collective progress in 2018, and the submission by 2020 of NDCs running through 2030.

How will parties be held accountable?

Accountability will be achieved primarily through an “enhanced transparency framework.” All countries are required to submit emissions inventories and the “information necessary to track progress made in implementing and achieving” their NDCs. These reports will be subject to an independent review by technical experts and a “facilitative, multilateral consideration of progress” by fellow governments.

Unlike the current transparency system under the UNFCCC, which sets different requirements for developed and developing countries, the new transparency framework will apply to all countries but provide “built-in flexibility” to accommodate varying national capacities. The aim is for all parties to work toward the same standards of accountability as their capacities strengthen over time.

In addition, the agreement establishes a new mechanism to “facilitate implementation and promote compliance.” This “non-adversarial” committee of experts will seek to help countries falling behind on their commitments get back on track. There are no penalties for noncompliance.

How does the agreement address climate adaptation?

Adaptation—steps to cope with the impacts of climate change—receives much greater emphasis under the Paris Agreement than previously under the UNFCCC. Just as parties will submit mitigation contributions, the agreement requires all parties, “as appropriate,” to plan and implement adaptation efforts and encourages all parties to report on their adaptation efforts and/or needs. The agreement also includes a review of adaptation progress, and the adequacy and effectiveness of adaptation support, in the global stocktake to be undertaken every five years.

What does the Paris outcome do to support the efforts of developing countries?

Developed countries committed under the UNFCCC to support mitigation and adaptation efforts in developing countries. As part of the Copenhagen and Cancún agreements, developed countries committed to mobilize $100 billion a year in public and private finance for developing countries by 2020.

The Paris Agreement reaffirms developed countries’ UNFCCC obligations; the COP decision accompanying the agreement extends the $100 billion-a-year goal through 2025, and calls for a new goal beyond that “from a floor of” $100 billion a year. The agreement also broadens the donor base beyond developed countries by encouraging other countries to provide support “voluntarily.” China, for instance, recently pledged $3 billion to help other developing countries.

Many national governments offered new financial pledges in Paris. Collectively, developed countries pledged $19 billion to help developing countries, including an announcement by Secretary of State John Kerry that, by 2020, the United States will double its support for adaptation efforts to $800 million a year. In another sign that developing countries are now also providing support, Vietnam pledged $1 million to the new Green Climate Fund (GCF). And for the first time, subnational governments also offered pledges, including 1 million euros from the city of Paris for the GCF, and CAD 6 million from Quebec for the UNFCCC Least Developed Countries Fund. As of April 2017, $10.3 billion has been pledged to the Green Climate Fund from 43 governments.

Does the Paris Agreement address carbon markets?

Many countries indicated in their INDCs that they intend to use some form of international emissions trading to implementing their contributions. To ensure the environmental integrity of such transactions, the agreement requires parties to follow accounting practices avoiding the double counting of “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes.” In addition, the agreement establishes a new mechanism contributing to mitigation and supporting sustainable development, which, depending on its design, could generate or certify tradable emission units.

How did the Paris conference engage stakeholders such as states, cities and business?

Although only national governments participate directly in the negotiations, COP 21 provided many opportunities to showcase the contributions of “non-state actors” to the global climate effort. The strong display of commitments by cities, subnational governments and businesses at the New York Climate Summit in September 2014 led to the establishment at COP 20 of the Lima-Paris Action Agenda and the online NAZCA portal, where non-state actors can register their commitments. By the time of Paris, the portal listed nearly 11,000 commitments from 2,250 cities, 22,025 companies, and hundreds of states/regions, investors and civil society organizations. The unprecedented showing of action and support from all levels of society was widely credited as an important factor in Paris’ success. Governments and stakeholder groups are working to strengthen non-state contributions to the UNFCCC.

A C2ES brief outlines recent steps to strengthen the visibility of non-state action in the UNFCCC and options for more closely linking the two.

Is the agreement legally binding?

Yes. The agreement is considered a “treaty” under international law, but only certain provisions are legally binding. The issue of which provisions to make binding was a central concern for many countries, in particular the United States, which wanted an agreement the president could accept without seeking congressional approval. Meeting that test precluded binding emission targets and new binding financial commitments. The agreement, however, includes binding procedural commitments – such as the requirements to maintain successive NDCs and to report on progress in implementing them.

Did Congress have any say over the agreement?

Under U.S. law, a president may under certain circumstances approve U.S. participation in an international agreement without submitting it to Congress. Important considerations include whether the new agreement is implementing a prior agreement such as the UNFCCC that was ratified with the advice and consent of the Senate, and whether it is consistent with, and can be implemented on the basis of, existing U.S. law. Because the agreement does not include binding emission targets, or binding financial commitments beyond those contained in the UNFCCC, and can be implemented on the basis of existing law, President Obama chose to approve it by executive action.

A C2ES legal analysis examines issues surrounding U.S. acceptance of the Paris Agreement.

Can the president withdraw the United States from the agreement?

Under U.S. law, U.S. participation in an international agreement can be terminated by a president, acting on executive authority, or by an act of Congress, regardless of how the United States joined the agreement. The Paris Agreement specifies that a party may not withdraw from the agreement within the first three years following its entry into force.

On June 1, 2017, President Trump announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the agreement, but also indicated a willingness to renegotiate the agreement or negotiate a new one. Other countries, reaffirming their strong support for the Paris Agreement, said they are not open to a new negotiation.

Can a party adjust its nationally determined contribution?

The Paris Agreement says that a party “may at any time adjust its existing nationally determined contribution with a view to enhancing its level of ambition.” While this does not appear to legally preclude a party from reducing the ambition of its NDC, such a step would be seen by most countries as deviating from the spirit of the Paris Agreement. An adjustment of the U.S. NDC could be seen as a way to ‘renegotiate’ the agreement.

What happens next?

As other countries continue to complete domestic procedures to formally accept the Paris Agreement, all parties are also expected to continue moving forward with the domestic policies needed to implement their nationally determined contributions. At the same time, governments are negotiating the details of how the Paris Agreement will be implemented – for instance, accounting rules and accountability procedures. These decisions are likely to be finalized in late 2018.

COP 22, which took place in Marrakech, Morocco, in November 2016, marked the first meeting of the Paris Agreement’s governing body, known as the CMA. This initial session of the CMA is currently suspended to allow parties more time to complete the decisions needed to fully implement the agreement. The next major UNFCCC conference is COP 23, which will take place in Bonn, Germany, in November 2017.

What's ahead for carbon markets after COP 21

The following was published in the February 2016 edition of Biores, a publication of the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development.

By Anthony Mansell, International Fellow, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES)

The new climate deal includes several provisions relevant to market-based emissions reductions efforts. 

At a UN conference in Paris, France in December countries agreed to a new framework for international cooperation on climate change. The “Paris Agreement” ties together nationally determined contributions (NDCs) with international rules and procedures to ensure transparency and promote rising ambition. Paris also provided a future for international market mechanisms as a tool for countries to fulfil their NDCs.

Many NDCs submitted as part of the Paris process demonstrate an enthusiasm for market approaches. Sixty-five governments say they will use international markets and another 24 will consider using them in the future. Many groups such as the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition (CPLC) urged support in Paris for the use of market mechanisms and a ministerial declaration issued by 18 governments at the close of the conference was designed to send “a clear signal to the global carbon market…that there is an important role for markets in the post-2020 period.”

The Paris Agreement includes provisions that can advance carbon markets in two ways: by ensuring there is no double counting when countries engage in emissions trading, and by establishing a new mechanism to facilitate trading. In both areas, however, the text provides only broad parameters and important details remain to be decided. This article addresses the current state of carbon markets, their history in international climate agreements, and relevant provisions of the Paris deal – including issues still to be negotiated before it comes into effect.

Carbon market context

Carbon pricing is currently in place in 38 jurisdictions, according to the World Bank, encompassing both carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes (ETS). A number of additional policies are scheduled to enter force between now and 2020 including carbon taxes planned for Chile and South Africa. Ontario will develop an ETS similar to neighbouring Québec and US states Washington and Oregon are considering the same. In terms of scale, the most significant will be a new national ETS in 2017 across China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter.

Not all carbon market programmes seek to trade internationally; some focus solely on domestic emission reductions. Nevertheless, bottom-up linkages are already occurring. For example, California and Québec have linked their cap-and-trade programs, making carbon allowances and offsets fungible between programs. There are also ongoing discussions in California about using sector-based offsets that reduce deforestation – known as REDD+ – from Acre, Brazil and Chiapas, Mexico. The EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) and Swiss ETS have agreed a link, pending ratification by each.

In addition, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is to decide by the end of this year on the design of a global market-based mechanism (MBM) to reduce emissions from aviation. The MBM would come into force in 2020, around the same time the Paris Agreement aims to be in place.

History of international market mechanisms

Market-based approaches are not referred to in the founding 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) document, but were integral to the design of its first sub-agreement, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

Under Kyoto, participating developed countries have binding emission limits – “quantified emission limitation and reduction commitments” – inscribed in Annex B of the agreement. They are allocated “assigned amount units” (AAUs) in line with those targets and, to enable least-cost emission reduction, are permitted to trade AAUs and other certified emission units.

Kyoto established three methods for transferring units – either emission allowances or emission reductions – between countries. International Emissions Trading (IET) allows countries that have reduced emissions below their targets to sell excess allowances to countries whose emissions exceed their targets. Joint Implementation (JI) allows Annex B countries to earn emission reduction units (ERUs) through emission reduction or removal projects in other Annex B countries. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) allows Annex B countries to earn certified emission reduction (CERs) credits through emissions-reduction projects in developing countries.

Emissions trading under the Kyoto Protocol relies on international oversight. All transfers are tracked using a registry called the International Transaction Log (ITL). A common accounting standard applies to all countries with emission targets. An executive board must approve the methodology CDM projects propose using. Finally, under the Protocol, only the international transfers it sanctions are considered legitimate to fulfil a country’s emissions-cutting obligations.

The Kyoto model provides important infrastructure for an international carbon market. Common accounting procedures ensure that any transfer meets an internationally agreed level of environmental integrity. An AAU allocated to Switzerland represents a metric tonne of emissions measured using the same standard as an AAU allocated to Norway. Common offset methodologies give a blueprint to replicate in projects across the globe. The CDM has been able to issue 1.4 billion credits – each representing a metric tonne of avoided emissions – and mobilise over US$400 billion in investment using this international rulebook for managing offset projects. Moreover, when countries submit their national GHG inventories, any recorded transfers can be verified by checking the international registry thereby reducing the potential for emissions double counting.

The Kyoto Protocol's market mechanisms have, however, lately encountered shrinking participation. One reason has been a reliance on the EU ETS as a source of demand, where low economic growth and restrictions placed on the types of credits has created a generous oversupply of CDM credits.

The Paris Agreement and carbon markets

The Paris Agreement establishes a fundamentally different framework from Kyoto. Rather than binding emission limits, which readily lend themselves to market approaches, the new climate regime requires all parties to undertake nationally determined contributions of their own choosing. As of writing, 187 countries had put forward NDCs, presenting various 2020-2030 target reduction dates.  These contributions are not legally binding and come in many forms, ranging from absolute economy-wide targets to peaking years, carbon intensity reductions, and so on. A new transparency system will apply to all parties, but will be less prescriptive than the accounting of AAUs that underpinned the Kyoto Protocol.

Fitting market approaches into this new landscape poses a different set of challenges. In a literal sense, the Paris Agreement is silent on markets, in that the term does not feature in the text. This is not unusual, the Kyoto Protocol also did not include the term. Instead, the new agreement houses markets under Article 6, geared towards addressing “voluntary cooperation” between parties in achieving their NDCs.

Article 6 recognises that parties may choose to pursue voluntary cooperation in implementing their NDCs. If these “cooperative approaches” involve the use of “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes,” or ITMOs, robust accounting shall be used to avoid double counting. The use of ITMOs are voluntary and authorised by participating parties.

The same article also establishes a mechanism to contribute to GHG mitigation and support sustainable development. The new mechanism will be under the authority of meeting of parties to the Paris Agreement. It has four listed aims including to promote greenhouse gas mitigation while fostering sustainable development; incentivise and facilitate participation by public and private entities who are authorised by a party; contribute to reduction of emissions level in host country, which can also be used by another party to fulfil its NDC; and deliver an overall reduction in global emissions. In addition, emission reductions occurring from the new mechanism must not be double counted. A share of proceeds will be used to cover administrative expenses and assist developing countries to meet the costs of adaptation, which is similar to the share of proceeds under the CDM, a portion of which was channelled to the Adaptation Fund. Article 6.8 and 6.9 contain a framework for promoting “integrated, holistic and balanced non-market approaches.”  

So what comes next? When the CDM, JI, and IET were established under the Kyoto Protocols, the details were not finalised until the Marrakech Accords four years later. Similarly, the COP21 outcome sets a work plan for negotiators to deliberate and decide how the Paris system will work, to be addressed in upcoming UNFCCC meetings.

Cooperative approaches accounting

The existing UNFCCC accounting system is bifurcated between developed and developing economies. Under the Convention, GHG inventories are required each year for industrialised countries, while these are included in national communications submitted every four years for developing nations.

The Paris Agreement establishes an “enhanced transparency framework for action and support,” with built-in flexibility to take into account national capacities. Under this framework each party must submit a national greenhouse gas inventory. An accompanying decision elaborates that all countries – except least developed countries and small island developing states – shall provide these inventories at least biennially.

On markets the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technologic Advice (SBSTA) will develop and recommend guidance on how to apply “robust accounting” for cooperative approaches, for adoption at the first session of governing body of the Paris Agreement, known as the CMA . Countries will need to be “consistent” with this guidance, but not necessarily follow it strictly. How to determine if a country’s accounting is consistent is not clarified in the Paris agreement, though it will likely be reviewed as part of the new transparency system.

Pending decisions will provide greater clarity on a number of issues. On ITMOs, it will be useful to define the scope of what can be considered a “mitigation outcome” transferred between countries. Under Kyoto, AAUs serve as a unit of account for transferring obligations, but also define the scope of accepted international transfers. In other words, only transfers involving AAUs are accepted when submitting national GHG accounts. Parties will also need to consider whether other forms of co-operation – such as Japan’s Joint Crediting Mechanism (JCM), which is similar to the CDM, or the bilateral linking of two ETSs –would be considered ITMOs. Transfers involving one or more countries without absolute economy-wide targets could complicate the methodology needed to avoid double counting.

On the accounting system, the CMA could take an active role in facilitating transfers, including through a central registry similar to the ITL. Alternatively, in a more decentralised system, it may require that parties maintain their own accounting – such as double-entry bookkeeping – and rely on the transparency arrangements to provide oversight. The provision referencing ITMOs also requires parties to “promote sustainable development and ensure environmental integrity.” The SBSTA guidelines will need to define these terms and how countries will meet them when undertaking transfers.

Paris “mechanism”

Another accompanying COP decision recommends that the CMA adopt “rules, modalities, and procedures” for the new mechanism at its first session. The parameters for these are: voluntary participation authorised by each party involved; real, measurable, and long-term benefits related to the mitigation of climate change; specific scope of activities; reductions in emissions that are additional to any that would otherwise occur; verification and certification of emission reductions resulting from mitigation activities by designated operational entities; experience gained with and lessons learned from existing mechanisms and approach adopted under the Convention.

This leaves much to be hammered out by governments. A key area to address will be the type of system. The new mechanism may continue to credit at a project level. A Brazilian proposal in Paris envisioned a mechanism similar in scale to the CDM, referred to as an “enhanced CDM,” or “CDM+.” Conversely, in prior discussions for a “new market mechanism” (NMM), both the EU and the Environmental Integrity Group negotiating group have proposed a scaled-up or sector-based crediting mechanism.

The future of the Kyoto flexibility mechanisms is also unclear, in particular whether the new mechanism will succeed the CDM and JI, or will sit alongside either of these. The Paris Agreement does not mention the CDM or JI, but notes that the new mechanism should draw on the experience gained from existing mechanisms. Similarly, it is unclear whether units generated under the Kyoto mechanisms will be eligible for compliance after 2020 and if so, whether they will need to be converted to an alternative credit type to conform with credits issues under the new mechanism.

Negotiators may also decide to transfer project methodologies over from the CDM to apply to the new mechanism, discard some of these existing approaches, or move away from project level crediting altogether as noted above. They may also consider other methodologies used outside the UNFCCC. Finally, the Paris Agreement frames sustainable development on a par with GHG mitigation, so parties may require measured sustainable development outcomes to be eligible for crediting.

Parties will need to decide on governance arrangements for the new mechanism. The CDM is managed by an Executive Board of ten government officials, comprising one member from each of the five UN regional groups, two other members from parties included in Annex I, two other members from non-Annex I parties, and one representative of the small island developing states. Similarly, JI has a supervisory committee (JISC) to oversee the verification of projects. The new mechanism could incorporate governance from either of these existing platforms.Guidance on rules and procedures will also need to be clarified. The CDM and JI have existing procedures for developing projects that are ultimately credited. Countries could transfer these rules to the new mechanism or adopt new procedures.

Given the breadth of views across governments on the role of market mechanisms, reaching conclusions on these issues will be challenging. The slow progress since 2011 in the UNFCCC toward a “framework for various approaches” (FVA) and NMM demonstrated the difficulties in gaining consensus on the subject. Nevertheless the importance afforded to international markets by many countries in their NDCs implies there is a strong impetus to find a workable system for international transfers.

Efforts beyond UNFCCC

It is possible that initiatives undertaken outside the UNFCCC will inform efforts within. The Carbon Market Platform established under the G7, for example, is a strategic political dialogue that can complement the UNFCCC in developing guidance on accounting for international transfers. The system that ICAO builds could seek consistency with the Paris Agreement. For example, it would be beneficial if credits used for compliance in the UNFCCC and ICAO are fungible, to prevent project developers choosing between separate customers. It remains to be decided what types of international credits will be used for compliance in the ICAO MBM, but this should take into account the emergence of the new mechanism. In addition, the accounting system used by ICAO should at least be consistent with that used under the Paris system, insofar as this would avoid the double counting of units used for compliance in both ICAO and the UNFCCC.

Unfinished business

Paris reaffirmed carbon markets as an instrument for meeting climate goals. Outside of the agreement itself, groups such as the CPLC are building strong momentum for market approaches as a key component to meeting the mitigation targets set by NDCs. COP21 did not, however, finalise a new system of international carbon markets or cooperative approaches. Accounting for ITMOs and other forms of voluntary cooperation require elaboration and guidance. The role of the new mechanism remains to be negotiated. And if these talks become stalled, as was the case for the FVA/NMM deliberations, interested countries may pursue bottom-up linkages elsewhere rather than continue to search for solutions within the UN climate talks. The pace and extent of progress under the UNFCCC will determine how central a role multilateral platforms will play on these issues in the future and the prospects of a truly global carbon market.

Paris Climate Conference - COP 21

In a landmark agreement that charts a fundamentally new course in the two-decade-old global climate effort, governments meeting in Paris adopted a pragmatic deal that holds countries accountable and builds ambition over time.

The Paris Agreement

C2ES Resources

C2ES Events in Paris

December 3
Press Briefing with Bob Perciasepe and Elliot Diringer.
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December 4
The American Business Act on Climate Pledge
Leaders from the White House, C2ES and American corporations discuss how U.S. businesses are leading the way in climate action and investment.
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C2ES Blog Posts

Outcomes of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris

OUTCOMES OF THE U.N. CLIMATE CHANGE CONFERENCE IN PARIS
21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
(COP 21)

November 30-December 12, 2015

Download the summary (PDF)

Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reached a landmark agreement on December 12 in Paris, charting a fundamentally new course in the two-decade-old global climate effort.

Culminating a four-year negotiating round, the new treaty ends the strict differentiation between developed and developing countries that characterized earlier efforts, replacing it with a common framework that commits all countries to put forward their best efforts and to strengthen them in the years ahead. This includes, for the first time, requirements that all parties report regularly on their emissions and implementation efforts, and undergo international review.

The agreement and a companion decision by parties were the key outcomes of the conference, known as the 21st session of the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, or COP 21.  Together, the Paris Agreement and the accompanying COP decision:

  • Reaffirm the goal of limiting global temperature increase well below 2 degrees Celsius, while urging efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees;
  • Establish binding commitments by all parties to make “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs), and to pursue domestic measures aimed at achieving them;
  • Commit all countries to report regularly on their emissions and “progress made in implementing and achieving” their NDCs, and to undergo international review;
  • Commit all countries to submit new NDCs every five years, with the clear expectation that they will “represent a progression” beyond previous ones;
  • Reaffirm the binding obligations of developed countries under the UNFCCC to support the efforts of developing countries, while for the first time encouraging voluntary contributions by developing countries too;
  • Extend the current goal of mobilizing $100 billion a year in support by 2020 through 2025, with a new, higher goal to be set for the period after 2025;
  • Extend a mechanism to address “loss and damage” resulting from climate change, which explicitly will not “involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation;”
  • Require parties engaging in international emissions trading to avoid “double counting;” and
  • Call for a new mechanism, similar to the Clean Development Mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol, enabling emission reductions in one country to be counted toward another country’s NDC.

The strong momentum toward an agreement that built over the preceding months was dramatically underscored on the opening day of the summit by the presence of 150 presidents and prime ministers, the largest ever single-day gathering of heads of state.   Impetus came also from a vast array of “non-state actors,” including governors, mayors and CEOs, and the launch in Paris of major initiatives like the Breakthrough Energy Coalition announced by Bill Gates and other billionaires.

Negotiations on many issues were hard-fought and, in typical COP fashion, progress through most of the conference was painstakingly slow.  But thanks to deft diplomacy by the French presidency, the summit was remarkably free of the kind of procedural showdowns that have marred previous COPs.  And though the conference ran 24 hours past the official deadline, as the final deal was gaveled through, one party after another declared that history had been made.

As French President Francois Hollande summed it up: “In Paris, there have been many revolutions over the centuries. Today it is the most beautiful and the most peaceful revolution that has just been accomplished – a revolution for climate change.”

Key steps remain.  Many operational details of the new framework were left to be decided by future COPs.  And the agreement will take effect only once enough countries have formally ratified it.

Following are background on the negotiations and further details of key outcomes:   

Context: The Evolving Climate Regime

The Paris Agreement marks the latest step in the evolution of the UN climate change regime, which originated in 1992 with the adoption of the Framework Convention.  The UNFCCC established a long-term objective, general principles, common and differentiated commitments, and a basic governance structure, including an annual COP.

In the years since, the regime has evolved in different directions.  The 1997 Kyoto Protocol took a more “top-down” but highly differentiated approach, establishing negotiated, binding emissions targets for developed countries, and no new commitments for developing countries.  Because the United States did not join, and some countries that did set no targets beyond 2012, the protocol now covers less than 15 percent of global emissions.

With the 2009 Copenhagen Accord and 2010 Cancún Agreements, parties established a parallel “bottom-up” framework, with countries undertaking national pledges for 2020 that represent political rather than legal commitments.  This approach attracted much wider participation, including, for the first time, specific mitigation pledges by developing countries.  However, countries’ pledges fell far short of the reductions needed to meet the goal set in Copenhagen and Cancún of keeping average warming below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The negotiations toward a Paris agreement were launched with the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action adopted at COP 17 in 2011.  The Durban Platform called for “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties,” to apply from 2020, but provided no further substantive guidance. 

COP 19 in Warsaw called on parties to submit “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) well before the Paris conference, signaling an important bottom-up feature of the emerging agreement.  Heading into Paris, more than 180 countries producing more than 90 percent of global emissions had submitted INDCs, a much broader response than many had anticipated.

The Paris Agreement

In broad structure, the Paris Agreement reflects a “hybrid” approach blending bottom-up flexibility, to achieve broad participation, with top-down rules, to promote accountability and ambition.

Legal Character

The Paris Agreement is a treaty under international law, but only certain provisions are legally binding. 

The issue of which provisions to make binding (expressed as “shall,” as opposed to “should”) was a central concern for many countries, in particular the United States, which wanted an agreement the president could accept without seeking congressional approval.  Meeting that test precluded binding emission targets and new binding financial commitments.  (For more on this issue, see “Legal Options for U.S. Acceptance of a New Climate Change Agreement.”)

A final step in Paris was negotiating a “technical correction” substituting “should” for "shall" in a provision calling on developed countries to undertake absolute economy-wide emissions targets.

Differentiation

A crosscutting issue was how to reflect the UNFCCC’s principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”  On the whole, the Paris Agreement represents a fundamental shift away from the categorical binary approach of the Kyoto Protocol toward more nuanced forms of differentiation, reflected differently in different provisions.

The agreement includes references to developed and developing countries, stating in several places that the former should take the lead.  But it notably makes no mention of the Annex I (developed) and non-Annex I (developing) categories contained in the UNFCCC.

Many provisions establish common commitments while allowing flexibility to accommodate different national capacities and circumstances – either through self-differentiation, as implicit in the concept of nationally determined contributions, or through more detailed operational rules still to be developed.

Long-Term Goal

The agreement reaffirms the goal of keeping average warming below 2 degrees Celsius, while also urging parties to “pursue efforts” to limit it to 1.5 degrees, a top priority for developing countries highly vulnerable to climate impacts.

Mitigation

The Paris Agreement articulates two long-term emission goals: first, a peaking of emissions as soon as possible (with a recognition that it will take longer for developing countries); then, a goal of net greenhouse gas neutrality (expressed as “a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks”) in the second half of this century.  The latter was an alternative to terms like “decarbonization” and “climate neutrality” pushed by some parties.

With respect to countries’ individual mitigation efforts, the agreement prescribes a set of binding procedural commitments: to “prepare, communicate and maintain” an NDC; to provide information necessary for clarity and transparency; and to communicate a new NDC every five years.  It also sets the expectation that each successive NDC will “represent a progression” beyond the previous one and reflect a party’s “highest possible ambition.”

The agreement commits parties to “pursue domestic measures with the aim of achieving the objectives” of its NDC, but does not make the implementation or achievement of NDCs a binding obligation.  It also encourages, but does not require, countries to develop and communicate long-term low emission development strategies.

The core mitigation commitments are common to all parties, but there is some differentiation in the expectations set: developed countries “should” undertake absolute economy-wide reduction targets, while developing countries “are encouraged” to move toward economy-wide targets over time.  In addition, developing countries are to receive support to implement their commitments.

NDCs will be recorded in a public registry maintained by the UNFCCC secretariat, rather than in an annex to the agreement, as some countries had proposed. 

Carbon Markets

While avoiding any direct reference to the use of market-based approaches – a concession to a handful of countries that oppose them – the agreement recognizes that parties may use “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” to implement their NDCs.

It requires that parties engaging in such transfers ensure the “avoidance of double counting,” consistent with accounting guidelines for NDCs to be developed.  The agreement also establishes a new mechanism to succeed the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, which generates tradable emission offsets.  Rules for the new mechanism are to be adopted at the first meeting of parties after the agreement takes force.

Stocktake/Successive NDCs

To promote rising ambition, the agreement establishes two linked processes, each on a five-year cycle.

The first process is a “global stocktake” to assess collective progress toward meeting the agreement’s long-term goals.  The first stocktake will take place in 2023.  The second process is the submission by parties of new NDCs, “informed by the outcomes of the global stocktake.” 

Because these processes technically begin only once the agreement takes force, the accompanying decision includes provisions to effectively jumpstart them in the interim. It establishes a “facilitative dialogue” in 2018 to take stock of collective progress.  And, by 2020, countries like the United States whose initial NDCs run through 2025 are “urged” to communicate “new” NDCs, while those whose initial NDCs run through 2030 are “requested” to “communicate or update” theirs.

Transparency

The Paris Agreement rests heavily on transparency as a means of holding countries accountable.  In another move beyond bifurcation, it establishes a new transparency system with common binding commitments for all parties and “built-in flexibility” to accommodate varying national capacities. 

All countries are required to submit emissions inventories and the “information necessary to track progress made in implementing and achieving” their NDCs. The COP decision says that, with the exception of least developed and small island countries, these reports are to be submitted at least every two years.  In addition, developed countries “shall” report on support provided; developing countries “should” report on support received; and all “should” report on their adaptation efforts.

Information reported by countries on mitigation and support will undergo “expert technical review,” and each party must participate in “a facilitative, multilateral consideration of progress” in implementing and achieving its NDC (a form of peer review).

Developing countries are promised capacity-building support to help them meet the new transparency requirements.  The COP decision says they will be given flexibility in the scope, frequency and detail of their reporting, and in the scope of review.  Details of the new transparency system are to be negotiated by 2018 and formally adopted once the agreement enters into force.

Implementation/Compliance

The agreement establishes a new mechanism to “facilitate implementation” and “promote compliance.” The mechanism – a committee of experts – is to be “facilitative” in nature and operate in a “non-adversarial and non-punitive” manner.  It will report annually to the COP.  Details are to be decided at the first meeting of parties after the agreement takes force.

Finance

As at past COPs, finance was a contentious issue in Paris, with poorer developing countries seeking stronger assurances that support will be scaled up, and developed countries pushing for wealthier developing countries to contribute as well.

Both succeeded to some degree.  The agreement commits developed countries to provide finance for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries (“in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention,” a stipulation sought by the United States so the agreement would not create new binding financial commitments requiring congressional approval).  “Other” parties are “encouraged” to provide such support “voluntarily.”

Other major issues included whether to set a new finance mobilization goal beyond the $100 billion a year in public and private resources already promised by developed countries, and whether to establish a process to revisit the question every five years.  The COP decision extends the $100 billion-a-year goal through 2025, and beyond that, says only that by 2025 the COP will set a “new collective quantified goal from a floor of” $100 billion a year.

In addition to reporting on finance already provided and received, developed countries commit to submit every two years “indicative quantitative and qualitative information” on future support, including, “as available,” projected levels of public finance; and other countries are encouraged to do so voluntarily.  Finance will also be considered in the global stocktake.

Adaptation

A major priority for many developing countries was strengthening adaptation efforts under the UNFCCC.  The agreement does that by:

  • Establishing a global goal of “enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change;”
  • Requiring all parties, “as appropriate,” to plan and implement adaptation efforts;
  • Encouraging all parties to report on their adaptation efforts and/or needs;
  • Committing enhanced adaptation support for developing countries; and
  • Including a review of adaptation progress, and of the adequacy and effectiveness of adaptation support, in the global stocktake to be undertaken every five years.

Loss and Damage

In a victory for small island countries and other countries highly vulnerable to climate impacts, the agreement includes a free-standing provision extending the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage.

The mechanism, established as an interim body at COP 19, is charged with developing approaches to help vulnerable countries cope with unavoidable impacts, including extreme weather events and slow-onset events such as sea-level rise.  Potential approaches include early warning systems and risk insurance.

At the insistence of developed countries, led by the United States, the accompanying COP decision specifies that the loss and damage provision “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.”

Next Steps

The Paris Agreement will be open for signature on April 22, 2016.  In order to become a party to the agreement, a country must then express it consent to be bound through a formal process of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession (different terms for essentially the same thing).  Each country has its own domestic procedures for deciding whether to join an international agreement.

The agreement establishes a “double trigger” for entry-into-force: it requires approval by at least 55 countries accounting for at least 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.  If states ratify quickly, these conditions could be satisfied pre-2020, allowing the COP to begin meeting as the “meeting of the Parties” to the Paris Agreement, to be known by the acronym CMA. 

In the meantime, pending the agreement’s entry into force, a new Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement will begin meeting to consider issues requiring further rules or guidance. This new ad hoc working group will meet for the first time when the UNFCCC subsidiary bodies convene in Bonn, Germany, on May 16-26, 2016.

COP 22 is set for November 7-18, 2016, in Marrakech, Morocco.

OTHER PARIS OUTCOMES

In the enormous swirl of activity surrounding the formal negotiations, governments and many others offered pledges and launched initiatives advancing climate efforts at all levels.

Many national governments offered new financial pledges.  Collectively, developed countries pledged $19 billion to help developing countries, including an announcement by Secretary of State John Kerry that, by 2020, the United States will double its support for adaptation efforts to $800 million a year.  In another sign that developing countries are now also providing support, Vietnam pledged $1 million to the new Green Climate Fund (GCF).  And for the first time, subnational governments also offered pledges, including 1 million euros from the city of Paris for the GCF, and CAD 6 million from Quebec for the UNFCCC’s Least Developed Countries Fund.

Governments also launched new joint initiatives. India and France led 120 countries in announcing an International Solar Alliance supporting solar energy deployment in developing countries.  More than 20 developed and developing countries launched Mission Innovation, pledging to double public investment in clean energy research and development over five years.

New and strengthened initiatives also came from “non-state actors,” including cities, states and regions, companies and investors.  Microsoft founder Bill Gates and 27 other major investors in 10 countries launched the Breakthrough Energy Coalition to steer more private capital into clean energy deployment.  And at a side summit hosted by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, the Compact of Mayors declared that the collective commitments of more than 360 cities will deliver over half of the world’s potential urban emission reductions by 2020.

All through the year, France encouraged non-state actors to demonstrate their action and support by entering pledges into the NAZCA Portal set up under the Lima-Paris Action Agenda.  By the time of Paris, the portal listed nearly 11,000 commitments from 2,250 cities, 150 regions, 2,025 companies, 424 investors, and 235 civil society organizations.

The unprecedented showing of action and support from all levels of society was widely credited as an important factor in Paris’ success.

How we helped on the road to Paris

A host of factors converged to produce a landmark climate agreement in Paris.

The most important was unprecedented political will, reflecting the deepening awareness worldwide of the real and rising risks posed by climate change, and of the economic rewards of a clean-energy transition.

Another was the impressive diplomatic force and finesse of the French, who masterfully managed a process prone to division and disorder, earning precious trust from parties that paid off in the end.

The Toward 2015 Dialogue was instrumental in helping nations build consensus in the runup to the Paris Agreement.

But in the run-up to Paris, one of the reasons I was confident of a good outcome was the growing convergence I’d seen in informal discussions among negotiators and ministers on the broad contours of a deal.

That emerging consensus was clearest to me in nearly 100 hours of intense closed-door discussions we held with senior negotiators from two dozen developed and developing countries.

With generous support from a number of governments, C2ES organized Toward 2015, a series of eight sessions in Germany, Switzerland and the United States that gave negotiators a chance to talk informally and to collectively envision the “landing zones” for Paris. The talks were off-the-record, but the thinking that emerged was captured in a report in July from the dialogue co-chairs, former South African environment minister Valli Moosa and former lead Norwegian negotiator Harald Dovland.

Looking back now at Valli and Harald’s report, I am surprised and gratified to see how closely it forecast the final outcome here in Paris. From broad structure to fine details, it was very much on the mark. 

The report, for instance, said the agreement should: 

Taking the lead at the climate talks

 Business leaders dicuss ways they are innovating and investing to meet their climate challenges at a C2ES event during COP 21 in Paris. (Photo courtesy of UNFCCC via Flickr).

A clear message coming out of Paris is that, now more than ever, businesses, states and cities are taking the lead on climate.

The conference kicked off with more than 150 heads of state -- the largest group of world leaders ever to stand together – urging action to curb the risks of of climate change – the more frequent and severe heat waves, droughts, downpours and rising sea levels that we’re already experiencing.

But I was struck by just how many state representatives, mayors, and business leaders from the U.S. and around the world were here in Paris, all lending their voice to support taking strong action globally to address climate change.

Soon after I arrived, I was honored to participate in a Climate Summit for Local Leaders at Paris City Hall hosted by Mayor Anne Hidalgo of Paris and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was the first time local leaders had ever gathered in such numbers during a UN climate change conference.

But their actions on climate started long before Paris. More than 400 cities have signed onto the Compact of Mayors – a global coalition of cities committed to measure and reduce their emissions. Former Mayor Bloomberg explained it this way: “Policies at the local level can make a huge difference. Local leaders are doers.”

Takeaways from the Paris climate talks

United Nations area at COP 21 in Paris. (Photo Courtesy of UNFCCC via Flickr).

The Paris climate summit is a tale of lessons learned – lessons both in how to manage an unruly negotiating process that can easily veer out of control, and in how to craft a multilateral approach that gets everyone to do more.

The tale ended thankfully tonight with an agreement that could prove the most significant turning point ever in two decades of climate diplomacy.

The Paris agreement is a pragmatic deal that delivers what’s needed – tools to hold countries accountable and build ambition over time. By giving countries greater confidence that all are doing their fair share, it will make it easier for each to do more.

I’ve engaged closely with the U.N. climate talks since their launch in 1992, and here are some of my takeaways on the ingredients for Paris’ success:

Expectations are a powerful force

Even before the summit started or a single word was agreed, more than 180 countries had offered concrete plans for how they intend to address climate change. This was not because they were obliged to, but simply because there was an expectation set two years ago in Warsaw that they would.

This unprecedented, and largely unanticipated, show of political will created powerful momentum heading into Paris.

The agreement that emerged sets some binding commitments (see below), but much of its force will hinge on the further expectations that it sets: that, going forward, countries will put forward their best efforts, and will strengthen them over time. It creates a succession of political moments, like the one we just experienced, when all can judge whether those expectations are met.

Paris climate talks: This could be the start of something big

As negotiators in Paris put the finishing touches on a new global climate accord, it’s worth reflecting on how much the summit has already accomplished.

One event or agreement by itself can’t completely reverse the climate problem. But like other important moments in history, such as the drive to land on the moon in 1969, Paris can inspire innovations across society.The U.S. space program would not have been possible without technologies that still benefit us today like scratch-resistant lenses, computer microchips, smoke detectors and solar panels. Nearly half a century later, many businesses, cities, states and nations are taking new, bold steps to reduce emissions and move toward a clean energy economy.

Whether it’s paving the way for rapid, wide-scale development of renewables, investing in energy efficiency technology and lower carbon electricity, or building resilience to climate impacts, a huge wave of innovation has already been unleashed.

Consider just some of the announcements made before and during the Paris talks:

  • Leaders of 20 countries announced they’ll seek to double investment in clean energy research and development over five years. Backing up this effort, called Mission Innovation, are more than two dozen investors led by Microsoft founder Bill Gates who have pledged to fund early-stage clean energy technology coming out of Mission Innovation.
  • India and France announced an international solar alliance to dramatically increase the reach of solar energy to more than 100 countries in the tropics.

Paris talks: From the visionary to the nitty-gritty

The leaders have jetted off, and the focus here at COP 21 has shifted from the visionary to the nitty-gritty. Now begins the tough grind of narrowing differences, issue by issue, and finding words everyone can agree on.

The record number of heads of state who converged on Paris injected a true sense of gravity -- both by their mere presence and their words, whether describing the futures they fear, the alternatives they envision, or the urgency they feel.

They also spoke, at least in broad terms, to the stubborn issues their negotiators must now overcome, such as help for poor countries facing climate losses, and how countries will be held accountable for their promises.

On the first full day of formal negotiations, any momentum the leaders provided had yet to translate into breakthroughs.  Delegates reported constructive closed-door conversations on some issues, but there were few visible signs of progress on the text of an agreement.

At this stage, the negotiations are still taking place within the Ad Hoc Group on the Durban Platform (ADP), which was launched four years ago to produce a draft agreement.  An ADP contact group is taking up some issues in the open, but most of the work is taking place in smaller, closed “spinoff groups” and in bilateral discussions.

According to the conference schedule, the ADP is supposed to wrap up its work by Saturday.  It will then hand off a text, whatever shape it’s in, to the Conference of the Parties, and to the French presidency, which will orchestrate the final week.

The French face a real challenge under the best of circumstances: crafting a diplomatic process that allows the private give-and-take among a core of key players needed to strike a deal, while at the same time being transparent enough to maintain the confidence of all 196 parties.

That job will be immensely harder if parties don’t start showing flexibility and make real progress over the next four days.  Certainly many tough issues remain, but there’s enough convergence on the broad contours of a deal that putting it on paper shouldn’t be impossible.

If it comes to it, the French can no doubt count on help from high places.  The leaders may be gone, but they’ll be watching.  And they’re just a phone call away.

Before and beyond Paris: Climate action at all levels

Negotiators from more than 190 nations have the opportunity to work out an important and perhaps transformative international climate agreement in December in Paris.

But the work at the negotiating table has been preceded by countless steps taken by communities, states, companies and individuals across the globe to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are altering our climate. And long after the Paris talks have concluded, these actors will be crucial to building sustainable solutions to our climate and energy challenges.

Some of the world’s largest cities have been working to lower emissions by purchasing green power, introducing electric vehicle programs and policies, turning waste into compost and fuel, and improving the energy efficiency of buildings. Other cities have developed multi-tiered climate commitments through the Compact of Mayors. And many communities are assessing their vulnerabilities to the impacts of climate change that we’re already experiencing and will worsen.

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