An Update Since Paris

The Paris Agreement, which entered into force in November 2016, is considered a monumental accomplishment. It represents a step towards addressing climate change at an international level. Beyond the significant political message that it sends, it contains several commitments that require practical action. One outcome is the development of Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs, which are pledges made by each country. The NDCs specify targets that each country shall strive for in order to reach the collective goal of staying below a 1.5/2-degree Celsius temperature increase, compared to pre-industrial levels. Another key outcome of the Paris Agreement is the promise from developed countries to contribute USD 100 billion to support developing countries in reaching the conditional parts of their NDCs.

A lot and a little has happened since Paris: Brexit; the upset presidential election in the United States, resulting in its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement; and rising concern over growing nationalist sentiments across the Western world, among other major changes in the global political economy. Within this context, progress in global climate negotiations is like turning around a tanker – it takes time. Although it has been almost three years since COP21, it has not yet been two years since the Paris Agreement entered into force and it won’t be implemented until 2020.

The five years from 2015 to 2020 have been blocked out to complete two important tasks. The first task is to create a rulebook for how to implement the Paris Agreement. The second task is for countries to review their NDCs and increase their ambition; currently, the action promised through the NDCs will not be enough to reach the 1.5/2-degree goal.

Globally determined rules for Nationally Determined Contributions

Putting together the rulebook, which has been ongoing since COP22 in Marrakech, has been discussed during the meetings of the Subsidiary Bodies, or the SBs. Less well-known than the Conference of the Parties, or the COPs, the SBs are more technical, letting Ministers stay at home and save their energy for the upcoming political shows of COPs.

The 48th meeting, otherwise known as SB48, took place over two weeks from 30 April to 10 May in Bonn, Germany. The meeting location was the headquarters of the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC), which facilitates climate negotiations.

Not enough has been accomplished in developing the rulebook. Before it can be presented at COP24 in Katowice, negotiators will likely meet again in Bangkok in August or September to sort out the final details. Another concern relates to whether or not the rules for implementation of the Paris Agreement fairly represent the interests of all signatories. Countries must provide their own funding to send negotiators, which puts lower-income countries at a disadvantage when they cannot justify sending delegations to advocate their country’s position. A further challenge that is inherent to the consensus model of negotiations under the UNFCCC is that many days are spent deliberating over specific language; the aim is to ensure that everyone is agreeable to exact words. This requirement not only slows the process, but often weakens the agreed upon text to the lowest common denominator, which ultimately may not say much of substance.

While the rulebook to guide NDC implementation is not final, it is difficult to judge its effectiveness. More concrete assessments will be possible once it has been shared at COP24 in Katowice, Poland in December 2018.

NDCs are not a one-man show

As documents outlining mitigation and adaptation targets, the NDCs range from last-minute, one-page documents submitted under the deadline to detailed reports identifying specific carbon reductions backed up by country-level emission data. As countries begin to examine their first NDCs as part of the ongoing process to increase ambition (a process called the Talanoa Dialogue), it is becoming clear that no single country can follow through on their commitments alone.

This interdependence is rooted in several factors. On a basic level, many countries do not have the funds to pay for the actions necessary to reduce their emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. When countries do have funds—through their own national sources, official development assistance, investment, and financial assistance from multilateral development banks—they might lack the capacity, technical assistance, and/or technology.

As 2020 approaches—the time when NDCs should be reviewed and implementation should begin—countries are realizing what it means to take serious action against climate change. Countries can be as ambitious as they want, but the harsh reality is that implementing the existing NDCs will be a challenge; it will be even more of a challenge to implement more ambitious NDCs; and it will be extremely challenging to reach the 1.5/2-degree goal that is stated in the Paris Agreement. Reaching these goals won’t be possible unless countries, international organizations, and the private sector find the generosity to share financing, technology, information, knowledge, and human capacity.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on May 17, 2018.

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