The COP 21 conference: the necessity of compromise

By Aurélien Saussay

On Tuesday, 6 October 2015, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) released a preliminary version of the draft agreement that will form the basis for negotiations at the Paris Conference in December. Six years after the Copenhagen agreement, widely described as a failure, the French Secretariat is making every effort to ensure the success of COP 21 – at the cost of a certain number of compromises. Although the text’s ambitiousness has been cut down, the strategy of taking “small steps” is what can make an agreement possible.

The project has renounced a binding approach, where each country’s contributions were negotiated simultaneously, and replaced that with a call for voluntary contributions, where each country makes its commitments separately. This step was essential: the Kyoto Protocol, though ambitious, was never ratified by the United States, the world’s principal emitter of carbon at the time – and it was the attempt to build a successor on that same model which resulted in the lack of agreement at Copenhagen.

The countries’ commitments, called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), fall into three broad categories: a reduction in emissions from the level of a given base year – generally used by the developed countries; a reduction in the intensity of emissions relative to GDP (the amount of GHGs emitted per unit of GDP produced); and finally, the relative reduction in emissions compared to a baseline scenario, called “business-as-usual”, which represents the projected trajectory of emissions in the absence of specific measures.

Most emerging countries have chosen to express their targets in terms of intensity (China and India in particular) or relative to a baseline trajectory (Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia). This type of definition has the advantage of not penalizing their economic development – at the price, of course, of uncertainty about the level of the target: if economic growth exceeds the projections used, the target could be met even while the reduction in emissions achieved would be lower than expected. Moreover, part of the target is often indexed on the availability of financing and of technology transfers from developed countries – once again, a perfectly legitimate condition. Due to the contribution that having a plurality of targets makes to a fair distribution of efforts between developed, long-standing emitters and countries that have been developing recently, this represents an essential source of compromise.

With regards to the level of emissions targets set for 2030, while some are trivial – note the case of Australia, which is proposing to increase its emissions over 1990 levels – many involve accelerating existing efforts. To meet its commitments, Europe must reduce its emissions twice as rapidly from 2020 to 2030 as it does in the previous decade, and the United States one-and-a-half times; China will need to reduce its carbon intensity three times faster than it has in the last five years, and India two-and-a-half times faster.

As a guide, if the INDCs made public to date were fully realized, then according to the research consortium Climate Action Tracker [1], global temperatures would rise 2.7 °C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. This simple calculation must, however, be qualified, since the plan is for commitments to be revised every five years, and they can only be tightened. This system of iterative negotiations should make it possible to move steadily closer to the goal of 2°C that is still being upheld officially.

To be effective, it is necessary to check on whether these commitments are actually met, which requires independent monitoring. In this respect, while guidelines have been highlighted in the current version of the draft agreement, the final negotiations will need to clarify the mechanisms actually used. In the absence of an effective verification procedure, successive revaluations of commitments could turn into a global game of liar’s poker, and ultimately undermine the fight against climate change.

Moreover, the existence of relatively ambitious commitments should certainly not delay the implementation of the necessary adaptation measures, which are at present the subject of a single article in the provisional draft, with no reference to the funding that will be devoted to this. This is one of the project’s main weaknesses, as the question of funding is barely mentioned – the Green Climate Fund, which was to be endowed with 100 billion dollars by 2010, has received only 10.2 billion to date.

In turning the page on Copenhagen, the draft agreement for Paris could constitute a real step forward for climate protection. It is the result of a change in method and a series of compromises which, though scaling down ambitions, are absolutely necessary to the very existence of an agreement. Demanding greater requirements for the proposal’s targets could lead to the failure of the negotiations, which would be far more damaging. In its current version, the draft agreement provides a robust foundation for the future coordination of efforts against climate change.

[1] The Consortium of the following research organizations: Climate Analytics, Ecofys, NewClimate Institute, and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.