The UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will hold its 21st meeting in Paris starting next Monday (the 30th of November 2015). Delegates will hope to establish, as a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, a global strategy for limiting anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and dealing with the impacts of climate change. I will be watching the developments with anxious interest; I further hope to learn a little about the mechanisms by which agreements are reached, and gain a more nuanced understanding of the political obstacles and how to resolve them.

For now though, I’d like to get a broad picture of the history and objectives of the conference (neglecting for the most part questions of science and justice) so that as information floods in over the next two weeks, I’ll have a better contextual understanding of its significance.

1. Background to GHG Emissions Reductions

The widely-cited objective of political negotiations on climate change is to limit the rise of average long-term global temperatures to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Where that number comes from, whether it is universally accepted (e.g. from the perspective of global justice or fundamental science), and the relationship between average and regional temperatures, are all interesting questions which I won’t address – let’s just assume that 2°C is a good target to aim for. The current (2012) global temperature is 0.85(±0.20)°C above the pre-industrial baseline; to some, this justifies a languid engagement with GHG abatement. But we must remember that even if all GHG emissions stopped today, temperatures would continue to rise for some time because of lags in the equilibration of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. Moreover, the rate of emissions is generally accelerating, as economies grow and poorer countries begin to industrialise. Climate scientists repeatedly warn us, with urgency that is hard to overstate, that the time to act on this was yesterday.

Translating this 2°C into a slightly more tangible quantity, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that cumulative anthropogenic emissions mustn’t exceed one trillion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. By 2011, over half of this budget had been spent. Extrapolating from current trends, we will have passed the threshold before 2050. The burden for leadership and action falls on industrially developed countries, who are responsible for the overwhelming majority of annual and historical emissions. Again according to the IPCC, these countries should reduce emissions by 80-95% by 2050 compared to 1990.

2. Past Climate Agreements

Past deals brokered by the UN have met with varying success. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 (and its extension in 2012) represented a milestone in international climate treaties, as ratifying states were bound into a legal agreement to reduce GHG emissions. Targets were modest (a 5% average reduction compared with 1990 levels by 2012), and only industrialised countries were involved (so the concerns and realities faced by poorer nations were not heard). Furthermore, the USA never ratified the treaty; the large and growing economies of China and India were (controversially) exempt; and divisive politics and economic interests in Australia and Canada left their commitments in tatters. Nevertheless, it was an important first step towards a more comprehensive and robust deal.

The last major conference was held in Copenhagen in 2009. Though it improved immensely on Kyoto in that it applied to developing as well as industrialised nations, it is no secret that it was in many ways a failure. Those who optimistically branded the conference “Hopenhagen”, encouraged by its emphasis on hard emissions targets and detailed timelines, were mortified to witness a group of delegates, notably those from the United States, China and India, fundamentally reject any global, legally binding agreement on terms that the rest of the world could support. Under those circumstances (see this interactive pie chart to get a sense of each country’s contribution to annual emissions), the best that could be done was to cobble together a gutless and toothless Copenhagen Accord, inviting countries to submit voluntary targets which would not (to my knowledge) be scrutinised in any meaningful way by the international community. Moreover, in the doomed wrangling over emissions targets there was little focus on investment in renewable energy R&D or how we are going to build the capacity to tackle climate change when we finally decide to do so.

Since then (and in part due to the global economic recovery) many leaders, including those of China and the United States, have called for renewed and concerted action on the matter. And the period has not been without promising victories, for instance in the form of voluntary and bilateral pledges (e.g. China and the USA last year). UNFCCC meetings are held every year to build the foundations of a global agreement.

3. Paris Pledges

Which brings us to Paris. Again, the goal here is to hammer out a globally inclusive deal to curb emissions and support those suffering from the adverse effects of climate change (more on that later). Having learned from the failures of Copenhagen, the emphasis has shifted from enforced political solutions – i.e. draconian internationally-imposed cuts, with their unpopular economic upsets – onto more economically-motivated territory. According to the executive summary of LSE’s Hartwell Paper, published in the wake of Copenhagen:

It is now plain that it is not possible to have a ‘climate policy’ that has emissions reductions as the all encompassing goal. … The Paper advocates a radical re-framing … of approach: accepting that decarbonisation will only be achieved successfully as a benefit contingent upon other goals which are politically attractive and relentlessly pragmatic. … [We] emphasise the primacy of accelerating decarbonisation of energy supply, [calling for] substantially increased investment in innovation in non-carbon energy sources in order to diversify energy supply technologies.

So the key for completing the job is for policy makers to focus on supporting adaption, infrastructure, and technological progress rather than on outcome targets or timetables. The content and optimal mix of priorities and initiatives will clearly vary from country to country: it is politically untenable to infringe on the sovereignty of governments with top-down legally-enshrined commitments. That said, we obviously can’t give governments free reign to decide their own GHG mitigation strategies without any international oversight. So we have a conundrum.

Enter the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), a fundamental component in the Paris conference’s toolkit. An INDC is a short (4-5 page) document, to be submitted by every country, detailing its proposed (voluntary) commitments, and explaining not only the strategy to achieve its goals, but also why those goals are fair and ambitious in light of national circumstances. The INDCs will be collectively scrutinised by all attendees of the conference. Then the fun begins, as they all try to ratchet up each others’ contributions to levels that are deemed fair, such that the sum of all efforts approaches the 2°C figure.

In the words of the World Resources Institute’s “What is an INDC?”:

The process for INDCs pairs national policy-setting — in which countries determine their contributions in the context of their national priorities, circumstances and capabilities — with a global framework that drives collective action toward a low-carbon, climate-resilient future.

The INDCs can create a constructive feedback loop between national and international decision-making on climate change.

Since they are short and written in a ‘manner that facilitates the clarity, transparency and understanding’, anyone can read (and understand!) the INDC documents (find your mother country’s here). For the record, hop Schweiz, Switzerland was the earliest to submit, and envisages comparatively ambitious cuts to domestic emissions: 50% below 1990 levels by 2030 (cf. the EU’s 40% in the same time frame).

As I’ve been saying, though, the story is more nuanced than just some percentage cut in emissions: according to Climate Action Tracker (which I intend to explore more thoroughly) Switzerland will have to introduce a good deal of new legislation and policies to achieve its goal, which (absurdly?) gives it the same rating as the USA which boasts much lower targets but a clearer roadmap for achieving them. Then again, Switzerland’s emissions are already impressively low because it generates less than 2% of its electricity from fossil fuels – the red segment of the enormous pie chart) below

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A few brief comments to round off this section:

  • For interpreting intended percentage cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, attention to the baseline year is crucial. For instance, whereas many countries compare with 1990, the USA (in its proud tradition of exceptionalism) uses 2005. Between 1990 and 2005, the USA’s CO2e emissions rose by 15%, meaning that its pledge of 26-28% cuts should actually be read as 22.5-24.5% when comparing with, say, Switzerland’s 50% or the EU’s 40%.
  • A nice thing about the USA’s INDC is that it explicitly specifies programmes and governmental legislation that it hopes to leverage in pursuing its commitments. This lends some more credibility to the proposals.
  • Of course it is hard to quantify the effects of state investments, policies and legislation which aim to stimulate growth in the green sector. The Paris conference’s move away from exclusive dependence on hard metrics is risky and ambiguities / miscalculations are inevitable. Connecting the ends and the means is not straightforward.
  • The GHG burden from land use changes (e.g. deforestation) and agriculture (e.g. outgassing from fertiliser and livestock) is a huge deal; but getting quantitve data about it is tricky and seems to be neglected in many INDCs. This can undermine the credibility of ambitious-looking proposals. Countries with significant forests and/or industrial agriculture sectors must find ways of monitoring the whole story of land use.
    • I wonder, for example, how the catastrophic forest fire in Indonesia will be evaluated in terms of its climate cost and future mitigation strategies.

4. Beyond Current Commitments

The INDCs are attractive because they devolve power to the individual countries; and often they invoke existing policies, or ones which are in the pipeline.

However, even if every country were to assiduously follow its INDC strategy and achieve what it promises, the 2°C target would be doomed. See the chart below from the World Resources Institute.

The next two weeks of negotiation will hopefully see delegates ratcheting up each other’s commitments. Crucial to this process, and to the assessment of future progress, will be a commitment to transparency and independent review. The beauty of the INDC format is that everyone starts with at least some cards on the table, which is conducive to an atmosphere of confidence and openness (yes, I realise this is politics: you know what I mean).

There are already reasons to believe that there will be patches of willingness to expand on the current INDC. The Canadian central government, for instance, has traditionally been deeply reactionary on climate matters – withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, investing heavily in Albertan tar sands, etc. The recent general election put the Liberals in power, and Prime Minister Trudeau has already made encouraging moves in the direction of environmental stewardship and infrastructure investments. It looks like his party, as well as the provincial governments, intend to engage with the conference in good faith.

So far, I haven’t even touched upon arrangements for developing countries, whose current emissions are low and so tend to get overlooked in the grand conspectus. However, many of them need support to build robust efficient infrastructure both for industry and power distribution, and for adaption to the devastating effects of weather extremes and coastline erosion. It bears repeating that it is those who have benefited least from the burning of fossil fuels who stand to lose the most, in the form of failed harvests and forced displacement. The UNFCCC’s Green Climate Fund (GCF) was created in 2010 to address precisely these kinds of issues; but to date it has been promised only a fraction of the finances it needs, and only half of what was promised has been delivered (here is a nice break-down of this by country). Moreover, there are indications that some of the money it has seen might have come partly from existing foreign aid budgets. This lack of political prioritisation, along with questions about transparency in the decision-making process, suspicion over the role of private interests, and lack of clarity as to what projects are eligible to be financed, have begun to stall a key engine of trust-brokerage between rich and poor nations. Let’s hope that the GCF receives sufficient attention at the conference, and its promise is renewed.

5. Closing Remark

There’s so much to learn about the underlying political processes that will move into earnest action on Monday. I think it’s worth stressing once more the apparent change of tactics. Yes, some will decry the UNFCCC’s abandonment of a prescriptive, universal, and enforced legal agreement à la Kyoto. But there is evidence that insisting on such an approach would be ineffectual at best. The priority should therefore be to establish a robust and transparent framework for reporting goals and their achievement, for allowing nations to draw up their own mitigation programmes and be accountable for them, and for using collective pressures to encourage all governments to strengthen their commitments.