What is the state of international climate talks?

The 2015 negotiations in Paris under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) delivered a historic global, legally-binding agreement targeting the objective of keeping global warming to well below low 2 °C and to pursue a limit of 1.5 °C. More than 180 countries set national emissions targets, with new mechanisms for transparency and stock-taking to encourage increasing ambition of climate action over time. The conference also made progress in the areas of climate finance, capacity-building, and mobilizing funding for technological development.

The Paris agreement builds on the overall framework for international action on climate change established by the UNFCCC in 1992 and its Kyoto Protocol of 1997, that set legally binding targets for emissions of greenhouse gases for developed countries for the period of 2008-2012. Subsequent attempts to negotiate a post-Kyoto agreement hit some roadblocks, with the widely anticipated Copenhagen conference in 2009 failing to reach a consensus on and merely ‘taking note of’ a  package of actions for the period to 2020 which was outlined in the Copenhagen Accord.

Subsequent negotiations began setting the stage for Paris. A year later the UNFCCC negotiators in Cancun formally agreed the package on action prior to 2020 that built on the Copenhagen Accord.  This contained national emissions reductions pledges up to 2020 both by developed and many developing countries, the creation of the Green Climate Fund, and a commitment to limiting warming to 2° C (with a review of reviewing these goals in 2013-2015). The following year in Durban it was agreed that negotiations should deliver a legally-binding, post-Kyoto framework by the end of 2015.

Given the importance of delivering an ambitious agreement and challenges on the road to it, all eyes were on Paris for the launch of COP21 in December 2015. Thanks in part to deft management  by the French hosts and the efforts by the High Ambition Coalition, the negotiators settled on an accord that made progress on key issues and was seen as more inclusive and representative of the members of the negotiating body, including smaller developing countries.

Both developed and developing countries agreed to emissions targets, called nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which are decided independently at a country level. In contrast to previous arrangements under the Kyoto Protocol, NDCs are applicable to a much larger number of countries – representing 95% of total emissions – while giving flexibility in determining their ‘fair contribution’ in light of ‘different national circumstances,’.  About 100 NDCs from developing countries also include national adaptation goals and identify financing needs and means of implementation.

In order to credibly monitor NDC  targets, countries committed to using a legally-binding public reporting framework, with a ‘global stocktake’ every five years to review the collective progress on mitigation, adaptation, and funding. This was designed so as to increase accountability and put pressure to ratchet up emissions reductions in the future.

Paris was notable for having more inclusive representation of developing country viewpoints, with an emphasis on increasing resilience and reinforcing the mechanism to address  ‘loss and damage’ from climate change. It also saw the establishment of a new Paris Committee for Capacity Building.

On the technology side, the launch of several initiatives – i.e., Mission Innovation, the International Solar Alliance, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, and the Decarbonisation Portfolio Coalition – highlights attempts to begin mobilizing significant amounts of finance for the low-energy transition. Mission Innovation recently announced the goal of collectively doubling plans for investment in clean energy R&D from US $15 billion per year to US $30 billion per year over the next five years. That several of these initiatives involve both state and non-state action underlines how Paris worked to incorporate multiple levels of climate governance, with commitments at a national level (via the NDCs) complemented by subnational (e.g. the Paris Pledge for Action) and private sector pledges (e.g. Portfolio Decarbonization Coalition).

Though significant progress was made in Paris, there are still considerable challenges ahead in the implementation. Some of the biggest concerns are about the credibility of the current commitments, particularly when it comes to translating the NDCs into national regulation or legislation; and how to bridge the mitigation gap between the level of pledges and the emissions levels consistent with limiting warming to ‘well below’ 2 degrees, which will require a significant ratcheting up of ambition. The combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches, along with both state and non-state actors, increases participation and potentially mobilizes a larger pool of resources, but also increases the complexity of implementation and monitoring.

Climate finance and capacity building also face significant challenges in both mobilizing investment and preparing credible and appropriate projects for that financing. With pledges for the Green Climate Fund barely meeting the initial $10 billion goal, mobilizing $100 billion annually by 2025 will require a considerable ramp-up in financing commitments, and careful consideration of how to fairly and effectively distribute funding.

The Paris Agreement opened for signature on 22 April 2016, and 178 countries have already signed. The agreement will officially enter into force when at least 55 parties, representing at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions, have ratified the agreement. Negotiations will continue at the next UNFCCC conference in Marrakech in November 2016, which will focus on the more technical details of operationalizing the Paris Agreement and preparing for its entry into force.



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