At Paris, something for everyone

The Agreement is about restricting temperature rise to 2 °C, but current pledges to reduce emissions may increase average global temperature by about 3 °C.

December 15, 2015 12:08 am | Updated September 02, 2016 05:56 pm IST

“India played a significant role in the process, especially in safeguarding differentiation between rich and developing countries.” Picture shows U.S. Ambassador to India Richard R. Verma (centre) with others, hailing the U.S.-India cooperation in the Paris Agreement, in New Delhi. Photo: AP

“India played a significant role in the process, especially in safeguarding differentiation between rich and developing countries.” Picture shows U.S. Ambassador to India Richard R. Verma (centre) with others, hailing the U.S.-India cooperation in the Paris Agreement, in New Delhi. Photo: AP

Representatives from 195 countries at the Conference of the Parties (COP-21) meeting in Paris have soldiered on in marathon sessions, working for close to two weeks, and prepared an >international agreement that lays the foundation for future action by all countries to contain and respond to the planetary threat of climate change. The >Paris Agreement is widely recognised as launching one of the most significant transformations in human interaction, technology and landscape.

Sudhir Chella Rajan & Sujatha Byravan

The preparation of the text of the pact, itself an iterative process with bracketed words in interim drafts indicating language that still needed agreement, resulted in three versions of the document with each new one edging closer towards the last. Every country was required to approve the final text and the deal would have crashed even if a single Party disagreed. The final text seems to contain something for everyone, though not nearly enough to satisfy anyone fully.

Contentious issues The main issues of contention have been differentiation, financial support, mitigation action and loss and damage.

These terms have been interpreted in the following way: maintaining the difference between rich and developing countries through the expression of Article 3 of the Convention, common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR); providing support for developing countries through finance, technology and capacity-building so they can reduce emissions and adapt to climate change impacts; determining whether all major emitters, rich and developing countries, should announce a date when their greenhouse gas emissions would peak; and supporting poor countries that experience loss and damage as a result of warming and deciding whether the language of ‘liability and compensation’ should be preserved.

One issue that was previously contentious and was mostly resolved in an interim draft concerns the average temperature rise that would be agreed upon as the target for the Convention. The demand of many vulnerable countries is that greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced to restrict warming to under >1.5 degrees Celsius . Article 2 of the Paris Agreement says that it is the objective of the Convention to limit increase in global average temperatures to “well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees C, recognising that this would significantly reduce risks and impacts of climate change”. Various estimates, however, indicate that current pledges and policies in the nationally determined contributions to reduce emissions are likely to increase the average global temperature by about 3 degrees Celsius as opposed to a business-as-usual rise of about 5 degrees by the end of the century.

The final text is divided into two main parts: the Agreement itself, which is seen as a durable set of overall commitments, and the Decision, which has many sections covering commitments across several themes and the institutional arrangements needed for implementation. Since both parts of the text have been signed in Paris, it is understood that the whole document will have legal force, although there is some expectation that elements of the Decision could be changed especially during the five-year reviews that are built in.

On the overall question of whether the Agreement maintains differentiation between developed and developing countries, several experts seem to provide a qualified answer in the affirmative. Many elements of differentiation are embedded in various parts of the agreement even if the language in the preamble itself is not as strong as was hoped for by many developing countries.

The language on differentiation (CBDR) has been expanded to include the term “in the light of different national circumstances”, which is likely to indicate that a previously strict firewall between developed and developing countries has been broken down. Also lost in the maelstrom is explicit acknowledgement of the historical responsibility of developed countries.

Nevertheless, the text also contains several provisions specifically indicating developed country obligations. For instance, Article 9 of the Agreement is quite explicit in calling for financial support from developed countries that is significantly derived from public funds, which “should represent a progression beyond previous efforts”. It is expected that this will result in at least $100 billion per year to address needs and priorities of developing countries for mitigation and adaptation. Furthermore, developed countries are required to provide transparent information on support to developing countries and biennially communicate their plans for mobilisation of additional finance.

On mitigation action, developed countries are required to take the lead in setting absolute emission reduction targets, but developing countries are “encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets in the light of different national circumstances”. Under “enhanced transparency framework”, all countries are required to provide updates on their nationally determined contributions every five years starting in 2020. There is no mention of a peaking year for developing countries, apart from the explicit recognition that it may take them much longer to start reducing their emissions in absolute terms.

The text calls for a comprehensive periodic review or “global stocktake” of the implementation of the Paris Agreement, covering all areas in a “facilitative manner” and “in the light of equity and the best available science”. Several commentators feel that this provision is important for reviewing progress in emissions reductions, technology transfer and finance, while also opening up the possibility for monitoring differentiation.

The importance of loss and damage has been recognised clearly in the text but there is also a clear demarcation in the Decision (though not in the Agreement) that this cannot be tied to liability and compensation. Without liability and compensation there will be no scope for victims of climate change to file legal claims, which implies that there is no guarantee that losses and damage associated with severe weather events directly as a consequence of climate change will receive monetary or non-monetary relief from entities that are identified as defendants.

Implications for India Going forward , >India will have to make considerable efforts to implement the new contours of the Agreement, especially the progressive review of goals, monitoring frameworks, and the revised wording of CBDR to consider national circumstances in the Paris Agreement. In particular, the way in which India’s “national circumstances” will be interpreted for >financial flows , technology transfer, or capacity-building are not clear since India is a large country with high GDP and millions live in poverty. There are also harsh implications in terms of vulnerability and adaptation because of the severe impacts of climate change that we could expect if global average temperatures rise by 2 degrees or more.

Then, there is the issue of the >sharing of remaining carbon space . If adequate mechanisms to ensure equitable sharing of the remaining development space are not introduced during the reviews, there could well be a race to the bottom where developed countries continue to swallow up the remaining carbon budget. In such circumstances, India would have to prepare itself to lift millions out of poverty while also claiming its rightful share of development space.

India will also need to be concerned about providing human services in a sustainable manner to its vast underserved population. But most of all it will require a domestic social and economic transformation of a scale and scope that has never been attempted before. While this is a challenge, it is also a tremendous opportunity for the country to demonstrate an alternative model of sustainable development: one in which development is delinked from total dependence on fossil fuels. If it succeeds, India could set an example for other developing countries.

(Sujatha Byravan is principal research scientist at the Center for Study of Science, Technology & Policy (CSTEP), Bengaluru. Sudhir Chella Rajan is coordinator, Indo-German Centre for Sustainability and teaches at IIT, Madras.)

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