From 30th November until 11th December, 196 countries will come together in Paris to sign a new global agreement on climate change. This year will mark the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties, and the eleventh session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (1997). The main goal of the convention is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit the global temperature increase to two degrees above pre-industrial levels.
In the intervening years following on from the first treaty, signed at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, there have been notable changes in the understanding and response to climate change impacts. This rising knowledge has not only prompted extensive responses from the government, but also business and civil society.
According to ‘The European Commission’s Climate Change Report 2014’ nine out of ten Europeans now think climate change is a serious problem. In further response to this, whilst businesses are seeking opportunities in low carbon goods and services, many countries have gone so far as to develop comprehensive legislation on the climate. For example the United Kingdom’s 2008 Climate Change Act and Nigeria’s National Climate Change Policy and Response Strategy.
As Christiana Figueres (executive secretary, UN Framework convention on climate change 2014) put it: “We are the first generation to understand the consequences of a high carbon economy on the planet, on future prosperity and, in particular, on the most vulnerable around the world.” Thus, it is all the more important that we “be the generation that stands up and takes responsibility conveyed by that knowledge.”
Whilst the previous 2009 Copenhagen negotiations have many times been quoted as “fraught and chaotic”, this year brings with it a promising shift in emphasis. In contrast to previous years’ focus on “top-down” targets which drove national action, in the lead up to the Paris Conference individual countries are being invited to come forward with their own ambitions and plans for carbon reduction. The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon challenged nations to “bring to the summit bold pledges. Innovate, scale up, co-operate and deliver concrete action that will close the emissions gap and put us on track for an ambitious legal agreement.”
Although some may question why a unified agreement is so important if the focus is on the “individual”, it is essential in ensuring that countries’ pledged contributions add up to sufficient and adequate global action. In the words of the Green Alliance group: “A good agreement will provide an enabling framework, allowing individual countries to do more than they could alone.”
Countries are aiming to put the Paris agreement in force from 2020 onwards. However, it is also important that a package of pre-2020 action is also found. For, as again put by Green Alliance: “limiting climate change in the long term depends on cumulative emissions so, if less is done now, greater effort will be needed in the future. Failure to act now will make it harder to limit temperature rises to less than two degrees, much less one and a half degrees, above pre-industrial levels.”
In a further bid to avoid the confusion of the disordered Copenhagen Conference, previous discussions (such as those in Durban 2011 and Warsaw 2013) have set a “clear timetable”. Despite the huge number of issues to be negotiated discussions should now be more ordered, with the institutional framework being much more developed than it was previously.
It is also worth noting that a shift in position from the two most influential countries – the United States and China – has resulted in both countries signing an agreement to work together on carbon reduction in crucial sectors. For, as was put in a joint statement by the US and China in April 2013: “Both sides recognise that, given the latest scientific understanding of accelerating climate change and the urgent need to intensify global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, forceful, nationally appropriate action by the United States and China – including large scale co-operative action – is more critical than ever.” Thus, we can expect that the two powerful nations may be more open to negotiation at the conference.
However, the United States were recently warned by the EU that any agreement on a global climate deal will be enshrined by law and legally binding. This was in response to the US Secretary of State John Kerry announcing that it would “definitely” not be a treaty. A spokeswoman for the EU’s Climate commissioner, Miguel Arias Cañete, told the media:
“The Paris agreement must be an international legally binding agreement.”
Although “the title of the agreement is yet to be decided… it will not affect its legally binding form.” Whilst the French Foreign minister has suggested that Kerry was “confused” about the point, saying that it was “obvious” that any agreement in Paris would contain lawful elements in order to achieve commitment and credibility. This raises the question as to what sanctions could be imposed against developed countries that flout their obligations. At the moment this seems unclear.