The Paris Agreement
Six Unitarian-Universalist observers attended the Paris Conference of Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris, November 30 to December 12, 2015. The six were: Peggy Clarke, Minister, First Unitarian Society, Hastings on Hudson, NY; Jan and Lynn Dash, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Monmouth County, NJ; David Tucker, Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Durham, NC; Doris Marlin, All Souls Church in Washington, DC; and William McPherson, University Unitarian Church in Seattle, WA. We were credentialed as representatives of the UU Association UN Office. Others, including Carlo Voli and Aly Tharp, UU members, were in Paris to participate in climate actions, but were not admitted to the conference center. In the following report, information from observation and some news sources is combined to review the negotiations for the agreement and some of its implications for future action on climate change.
Le Bourget, the airport where Charles Lindbergh landed at the end of his historic flight in 1927, was the first airport in France. Today it hosts a number of private corporate jets but no commercial flights. The hangars not used by corporate jets have been reconstructed as meeting halls, and they can hold a large number of people in multiple meetings. That was a good setting for the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which had over 36,000 participants.
The French organized COP21 well. They set up two enormous tents, each the size of a football field, to handle the large crowds of attendees. One was a security tent with more than 20 security lines to facilitate entry, a problem that had plagued earlier COPs such as Copenhagen. Of course, the French were also being extra cautious with security after the Paris massacre with police and soldiers evident everywhere around the conference site. A second tent held all of the “civil society” groups that tend to flock around COPs. This tended to drain off some of the actions that might be disruptive at the main conference buildings.
The French had also, in cooperation with the UNFCCC secretariat, planned the conference schedule in a way to insure success. Having heads of state and heads of government appear at the beginning, rather than the end, helped get some of the rhetoric and posturing out of the way early. The conference was also designed some years in advance to be the end stage of the “Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” (mercifully shortened to the acronym ADP). ADP did in fact end its work on December 5, in time to compile a text for the negotiations beginning on December 7 with the oversight of government ministers, both foreign ministers and environmental ministers. ADP was the “working level” group that actually came up with the text after five grueling sessions. Its final session was in fact the first week of COP21, when work sessions were held in parallel with the high-level speeches. The text was whittled down from 54 pages to a final agreed text of 11 pages and some of the disputes over wording were settled with "bridging proposals," that is, links between similar wording by different parties.
The French adopted some interesting tactics for the second week of negotiations. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius set up a "Paris Committee" with five subcommittees to handle the main issues such as mitigation pledges and finance. Each was chaired by two foreign ministers, one from developed countries and the other from developing countries. They thrashed out the text for each area and brought it back to the plenaries for final decisions.
Negotiations in Paris began early, on Sunday November 29, 2015, a day ahead of the opening of COP21. The Sunday negotiations were the final meeting of the ADP, the group that had met throughout 2015 in Geneva and Bonn. At the ADP session, delegates reviewed the text that came out of the previous four ADP sessions. No decisions were made, but the review was an essential step in preparing for the decisions that would be made by the higher-level delegations.
In their discussion of the text, the delegates tended to link issues such as INDCs, CBDRs and Finance. Negotiations are reviewed below based on these linkages. Where appropriate, statements by heads of state in the first week are reviewed in the context of the negotiations on these issues. During the final week, negotiations got down to wordsmithing the text that was introduced after the first week, and agreed on December 12, 2015.
INDCs and CBDR
Negotiations began with discussions of INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions). At the outset developing nations invoked the principle of CBDR (common but differentiated responsibilities). India indicated that developing countries were likely to have different INDCs than developed countries: “Justice demands that, with what little carbon we can still safely burn, developing countries are allowed to grow. The life styles of a few [developed countries] must not crowd out opportunities for the many still on the first steps of the development ladder.”
President Xi Jinping of China echoed this sentiment: “Addressing climate change should not deny the legitimate needs of developing nations to reduce poverty and improve their people’s living standards.” President Dilma Rouseff of Brazil emphasized CBDR as the cornerstone of the Paris agreement. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany proposed a binding review mechanism with a five-year cycle to begin in 2020 to ensure credibility and increased ambition of the INDC pledges. This would stiffen the concept of five-year reviews by making it binding, a suggestion that may arouse opposition from some member parties. President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation also proposed that the agreement be legally binding, a nonstarter for the U.S.
As expected, some parties such as the small-island states called for keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, instead of the 2°C limit agreed in Cancun. The Maldives, which has taken the lead in pushing for the lower limit, called for the agreement to set medium- and long-term emission reduction pathways at levels less than 1.5°C of warming.
One issue that arose during the negotiations was the gap between INDCs proposed by approximately 180 member parties, and the level of emission reductions required to attain the 2C target. ADP Co-Chair Daniel Reifsnyder suggested mentioning the gap resulting from the aggregate effect of INDCs communicated by parties as of October 2015. He proposed inserting figures to illustrate the gap and including language from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on lowest-cost emission pathways. If adopted, this proposal could create dissent, as member parties might be reluctant to show how they have fallen short. Member parties seemed to favor “taking note” of the gaps rather than incorporating any text into the agreement.
Some parties continued to press for 1.5°C limits. Tuvalu, one of the small island states affected by sea-level rise, suggested that the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) analyze the INDCs and compare them to the level of emissions reductions required for the 1.5°C limit. Saudi Arabia and parties questioned the value of such analysis, beyond the already-available information from IPCC reports.
One party, Nicaragua, indicated some hostility to the way that the agreement handled the question of INDC commitments. Nicaragua called for a “carbon budget,” which would allocate emissions based on a worldwide limit and criteria of “fairness” in allotting carbon distribution by country. This concept did not have much traction from most of the parties, however.
In the end, the agreement included the 1.5°C limit as an aspiration: “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels…” Some countries, such as Maldives speaking for small island states, emphasized that 1.5°C is essential for the survival of low-lying states.
Finance and CBDR
Finance became an early issue in the negotiations, just as it had been throughout the intersessional meetings. “The cost of action is not $100 billion,” said Prakash Javadekar, the Indian environment minister. “It is trillions; $100 billion is just a reparation.” Talk of “reparations” is likely to set the teeth of some delegates on edge, as this arouses all of the problems of CBDR discussed earlier. President Obama in his speech to delegates did acknowledge the burden on developed countries: “We know the truth that many nations have contributed little to climate change but will be the first to feel its most destructive effects.”
A recurring issue on financial responsibility surfaced in Paris. The EU and the US agreed that developed countries should meet their financial obligations, and that others in a position to do so should contribute. This was a reference to emerging economies such as China that are in a position to contribute to the Green Climate Fund, which is intended to help less developed countries mitigate emissions and adapt to climate change. The EU emphasized that its commitment to mobilize climate finance would continue after 2020 and the $100 billion commitment could be scaled up with an expansion of the donor base. Contributions by all countries in a position to help are a key to the success of the agreement.
In the end, the agreement did mention finance in the text of the agreement but kept the $100 billion figure in the accompanying COP decision. (The COP decisions are not part of the text, so they are not as binding on signatories.) Compare text from the COP decision to the text in the agreement:
COP Decision: in accordance with Article 9, paragraph 3, of the Agreement, developed countries intend to continue their existing collective mobilization goal through 2025 in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation; prior to 2025 the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement shall set a new collective quantified goal from a floor of USD 100 billion per year, taking into account the needs and priorities of developing countries.
Agreement (Article 9, paragraph 3): Developed country Parties shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention.
Finance provisions of the agreement are administered through the Green Climate Fund. The GCF is already in operation and has a number of features:
• The initial mobilization is $10.2 billion;
• Commitments are allocated for a 50-50 balance between mitigation and adaptation;
• More than 50% of adaptation funding goes to most vulnerable countries including small island states;
• Direct private sector engagement is through the Private Sector Facility (a funding mechanism for channeling non-governmental finance);
• Risk-bearing capacity allows for innovation and leverage in additional funding;
• A variety of financial instruments are available including concessional loans, debt equity, and grants.
In the end, the Paris Agreement leaves open the question of how parties will divide up the $100 billion obligation, and how developing countries will use the funds. Developed country parties are concerned about the accountability of the funds and want as much as possible to be used for mitigation, not adaptation. Developing country parties are facing immediate crises of adaptation, and want the flexibility of using the funds for crises as they arise.
President Francois Hollande and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon accompanied Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, the COP21 president, for the final plenary on December 12. Fabius declared the text agreed and everyone at the COP celebrated with applause and hugs.
Fabius commended facilitators of sessions on transparency, ambition and compromise; they had managed to overcome differences in order to complete the text. He said it is a balanced text with principles of differentiated, fair, dynamic and legally binding, provisions; and the text acknowledges climate justice. It affirms the objective of keeping increasing temperatures below 2°C and strives to limit them to 1.5°C. The agreement has made it the business of all parties to keeping their commitments by subjecting them to review every 5 years; and increased role of cooperation of parties on funding adaptation and loss and damage.
Fabius acknowledged that the negotiations were difficult. Each party put forth proposals and set red lines; but not everyone was able to attain all they wanted. He said that negotiations succeeded because parties tended to focus on green lines, not red lines and all can go home with head held high. He quoted Nelson Mandela: “it always seems impossible until it is done.”
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon spoke next. He thanked Fabius and Hollande for guiding negotiations. He said that the agreement will send the world on the path to low-carbon future. He thanked delegations who brought us so far and were able to finish the job, while the whole world was watching. He said that their various national interests are served by acting in common interest. He said he had talked with all leaders about completing this agreement and they have responded with positive support. He called on parties to provide financial support for developing countries and embark on low emissions pathway, and asked developing countries to continue on low carbon development.
Finally, French President Francois Hollande spoke. He said that the international community has proved that it can act. He noted that hard work has been done, day and night, and we now have a universal agreement that is differentiated and legally binding. He commended delegations for overcoming gridlock on international cooperation. The agreement text is ambitious and realistic, and reconciles responsibility of richest countries while includes differentiation for developing countries. He said the Paris Agreement is the first universal climate agreement in history. The Paris Agreement cannot satisfy all imperatives and claims, but we will not be judged on the text but on the whole approach and its implications for the future. An agreement among 196 delegations is unprecedented. He said that we can be sure there will be opposition, but with this agreement you have the opportunity to change the world.
Many delegations spoke in a similar vein. Among the delegation heads, Secretary of State John Kerry said that delegations had provided critical multilateral stewardship and the agreement is a victory for all citizens of world, victory for the planet and for future generations. He noted that of 196 delegations, 186 parties had submitted emission reduction plans, which represents remarkable global commitment. There are things everybody doesn't like, but the agreement will prepare us for changes coming, including a transition to a clean energy economy and a way to prevent the worst effects of climate change. He said that we are sending a signal to the markets, where the genius of the American spirit of innovation will provide solutions. He expressed, gratitude to France, on behalf of President Obama, for setting an example to world. He said that many may not like it but the Paris Agreement is in the interests of earth. We will leave legacy for children and grandchildren better than we would otherwise.
Virtually all delegations lauded the success of the Paris Agreement, except for the delegation from Nicaragua, as noted earlier.
Did Paris Succeed?
But did Paris succeed? Some climate activists do not think so.
Friends of the Earth International, in a statement released on December 12, 2015, said “The climate deal to be agreed today is a sham. Rich countries have moved the goal posts so far that we are left with a sham of a denial.” Naomi Klein said, “The deal unveiled [December 12], to much fanfare and self-congratulation from politicians, echoed by an overly deferential press, will not be enough to keep us safe. In fact, it will be extraordinarily dangerous. We know, from doing the math and adding up the targets that the major economies have brought to Paris, that those targets lead us to a very dangerous future. They lead us to a future between 3 and 4 degrees Celsius warming.”
While some opposed the agreement as too weak, others considered it too strong.
The campaign of Governor John Kasich of Ohio released a statement: “While the governor believes that climate change is real and that human activity contributes to it, he has serious concerns with an agreement that the Obama administration deliberately crafted to avoid having to submit it to the Senate for approval. That’s an obvious indicator that they expect it to result in significant job loss and inflict further damage to our already sluggish economy.” This is a typical form of the familiar canard that climate action means job losses. It attributes nefarious motives to the Obama administration for crafting the agreement to avoid Senate review. It does not directly address the substance of the agreement itself.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R- KY) described the accord as “nothing more than a long-term planning document. The president is making promises he can’t keep, writing checks he can’t cash and stepping over the middle class to take credit for an agreement that is subject to being shredded in 13 months.” McConnell is of course referring to the possibility that a Republican president would be elected in 2016 and renege on the agreement.
Since both sides find something to criticize, the agreement may be the best compromise possible. As the Malaysian delegate said: “The agreement is balanced – everyone is unhappy.”
Carbon Budget and Climate Justice
“Carbon Budget” has become a contentious issue in the negotiations, as described above. Scientists have estimated the total amount of carbon that can be emitted to limit global warming the 2C as 1000 gigatons. This amount can be calculated as a “budget” for allocation among countries that are parties to the UNFCCC. We have already burned about 515 gigatons. For the remaining 485 gigatons, member parties will have to decide how much is available to each.
The Paris Agreement called for member parties to commit to carbon reductions, but the total amount of carbon emitted under these INDCs was more than would fit within the 485 gigaton carbon budget. As a result, some have said that the Paris agreement has not sufficiently addressed the question of budgeting emissions. UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, referring to the concept of a carbon budget, said “I don’t think it’s possible. Politically it would be very difficult.”
And yet, the morality of climate justice seems to demand a carbon budget. “Today, I see the carbon space occupied by the developed world. We are asking the developed world to vacate the carbon space to accommodate us. That carbon space demand is climate justice,” according to Prakash Javadekar, India’s environment minister. How the developed world can “vacate the carbon space” is a profound question. While INDCs are a promise to leave developing countries with more space for their emissions than business as usual would leave, “vacating” space is a much more difficult issue.
Still, there is an outer limit on how much carbon the atmosphere can absorb before climate change gets beyond control. Until UNFCCC member parties agree on an equitable division of that space, there will be a moral vacuity to the negotiations. The Paris Agreement did not address that issue, but only set temperature limits to guide future discussions of allocations and fairness.
A carbon budget would be a game-changer for UNFCCC negotiations. Instead of voluntary pledges of INDCs, member parties would have to fit their emissions into tight limits and would have to calculate how much each country would be allocated. This, in turn, would mean that they would have to commit to limits far below what they currently envision for their home societies. In terms of the negotiations, there would probably be pandemonium as each delegation maneuvered to get more while looking over their shoulders to see if the home government would accept tighter limits. This possibility has led one expert, Michael A. Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, to say that negotiators “would have all run screaming from the room.” Most governments would fight tooth-and-claw against such encroachments on their sovereignty.
However, without a budget, the total amount of emissions permissible to each country cannot be estimated. If countries cannot calculate the limits for their own emissions, how can they set policy to achieve those limits? More ominously, the idea of a carbon budget raises issues of climate justice. Large industrialized countries such as the U.S. and Europe, and large emerging economies such as China and India, have used up most of the carbon budget already. Smaller, less industrialized countries see their chances for fossil-fueled development fading, as most of the budget is already gone. Bolivia, for example, has complained that the U.S. and other countries are ignoring the limits imposed by such a budget and making it much more difficult for less developed countries to achieve their development goals. They may indeed prevail on the UNFCCC to allocate them higher limits at the expense of developed countries, but only if delegates in future COPs are willing to operate on a foundation of climate justice.
In the faith community, we must keep all of these possibilities in mind as the Paris Agreement is implemented. Our role in society requires us to monitor the actions of all of the players in governments and the private sector. We need to understand the concepts of low-carbon growth and our vocation as advocates in the halls of government and suites of business. We must constantly keep in mind that the world has a whole has limits and we are morally obligated to keep within those limits. As Ban Ki-Moon has said, there is no Planet B.