Paris Agreement on Climate Change

On 12 December 2015, the Paris Agreement was adopted as an agreement within the UNFCCC framework. On 22 April 2016 {Earth Day}, 175 countries around the world have signed this agreement at the UN headquarters in New York, United States. India was also one of the 175 countries that signed it. The agreement has come into effect on November 4, 2016.  The Paris Agreement will replace Kyoto Protocol after its second commitment period ends on 31 January 2020.

Objectives of Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement sets an over-arching target of keeping the emissions in control so that either the rise in global temperature remains below 2°C by the turn of 21st century or as low as 1.5°C. To achieve this goal, the countries will need to peak their emissions and then bring them down. The other purposes of Paris Agreement are as follows:

  • Increasing ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of the climate change and foster climate change resilience
  • Making finance flows consistent with the pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.

Emission Reduction Action

Under the Paris Agreement, developed countries will have to take emission reduction targets and actions but unlike the Kyoto Protocol – where such targets were mandatory; they shall be able to determine the nature and quantum of these targets nationally. Thus, each individual country is to contribute individually in the form of so called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). As of now, the first set of such actions has been provided by more than 180 countries in the form of “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). When the Paris Agreement becomes operation in 2020, these targets will be called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

Climate Finance

Similar to Kyoto Protocol, the developed countries will need to provide finance to the developing countries for emission reduction actions as well as adaptation. The amount set by Paris Agreement is at least USD 100 billion per year from 2020 onward. However, as of now, there is no consensus on what exactly makes climate finance. The countries will have to demarcate the details of these. Further, the Paris Agreement also provides that the developing countries can also voluntarily fund other developing countries.

Climate Change Adaptation

One of the objectives of the Paris Agreement is to increase the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of the climate change and foster climate change resilience. The developing countries shall be able to seek funds from developed world in this direction.

Review Mechanism

The Paris Agreement provides that every five year, there shall be an assessment of how the emission reduction actions of all the countries are able to succeed towards achieving the goal of keeping global temperatures under control. Every fifth year, the assessment will also be made on kind and volume of funds.

Technology Mechanism

Paris agreement has set up a technology mechanism, which would help the countries to cooperate in developing and deploying clean technologies. However, this would face some issues of intellectual property rights of existing clean technologies.

Market mechanism

Countries are open to become part of existing global market-based mechanisms to reduce the emissions. The agreement would allow a global carbon-trade which shall provide the countries chance to take credit for emission reduction by making payments for the same in the countries where reduction is cheaper to achieve. The difference between Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement in this context is that earlier / currently, such trade exsists in limited regions and countries and Paris agreement might have a chance to make it a global market place.

Transparency

As per the Paris Agreement, a uniform system will be built for the countries to report what they have been doing towards the fight against climate change. It will also track the achievements of the countries towards Nationally Determined Contributions. However, there are no punitive actions for non-compliance of such reporting.

Loss and Damage

Prior to the Paris Agreement, a Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts (called Loss and Damage Mechanism) was adopted at Warsaw in COP-19 in 2013. Objective of this L&D mechanism is to address the loss and damage associated with the impacts of the climate change, including the extreme events such as hurricanes, heat waves etc and slow onset events such as desertification, ocean acidification etc. This mechanism provides technical assistance in case of loss and damage. Under the Paris Agreement, this L&D would continue. However, the practical issue is that there is little money. Countries also do NOT have right to file for compensation or liability.

Key Issues on Paris Agreement

There are three key issues looming large over the Paris Agreement viz. maintaining the difference between developing and developed countries; issue of climate finance and loss & damage; and mitigation.

Maintaining the difference between developing and developed countries

The world is divided into two factions or rich and poor / developed and developing countries over climate change negotiations. An important principle in this context called common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR) was enshrined in the Principle 7 of the Rio Declaration. This principle implies that the interest of all countries towards sustainable environment are common, but due to the historical reasons, the developed countries have done more damage to the climate and thus, the responsibility towards climate change is “differentiated”. It implies that while all countries should take sustainable development actions, the developed countries have to take the leading role in environmental protection, as they have contributed the most to environmental problems. Also they should support developing countries with finance and technology in their sustainable development efforts. India has always held that the eradication of poverty should be the overarching goal of sustainable development. India together with other developing countries has played an instrumental role in establishing CBDR as a principle. In the Paris agreement, definition of CBDR has been expanded and it now includes the phrase “in the light of different national circumstances”. It appears to have diluted the notion of hitherto “historical responsibility” of the developed countries. How this is going to break the wall between developed and developing countries, is yet to be seen.

Issue of Climate Finance and Loss & Damage

The Paris Agreement maintains that the developed countries would keep providing support to the developing countries through the finance, technology and capacity building to the tune of at least USD 100 billion per year from 2020 onward. Further, the developed countries are required to provide transparent information also on support to developing countries and biennially communicate their plans for mobilisation of additional finance. The onus to mobilize these funds cannot be placed entirely on bilateral assistance and the Green Climate Fund. The developing countries would need to virtually de-link the greenhouse gas emissions from economic growth and devise innovative ways to mobilize funds.

Mitigation

Towards mitigation, the developed countries are needed to take lead in setting absolute emission reduction targets. However, the developing countries are “encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets in the light of different national circumstances”. Under this so called “enhanced transparency framework”, all the countries are required to provide updates on their achievements towards NDCs. There might be some practical problem in the periodical review or global stocktake for developing and least developed countries.

Questions & Answers

After Copenhagen (2009), it was thought that the UN process will no longer work, as evident from the statement of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who said – “It was deeply disappointing. It was painful.” What changed from Copenhagen to Paris?

There were three important changes from Copenhagen to Paris.

Firstly, there was a fundamental change in the geopolitics of climate change. By 2009, United States had withdrawn from Kyoto Protocol suffering its image on climate change front. Despite America being biggest greenhouse gas polluter, Americans demanded action from other countries but themselves doing little. Then, there was an impasse between China {second largest polluter} and United States, which led other countries to first wait for their commitments before taking any action. The Cop meeting failed also because Latin American countries {Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba} blocked the passage. In the first term, US President Barack Obama had promised to bring some changes in the way US was negotiating.

However, climate change issue remained at backburner during his first term.  But things changed after reelection of Obama. The United States Environmental Protection Agency brought out new aggressive regulations to cut greenhouse gases from coal power plants. These rules were considered to be the most aggressive action {could lead to shutdown of plants} taken by a US president so far on climate change; and this was called Obama’s “War on Coal“. However now, there was a fundamental change in global perception about US on climate change. Meanwhile, China’s view also shifted. China’s coal fired power plants were fuelling the economic growth but also irked the people due to record levels of toxic smog. Thus, China also started taking steps to curb use of coal. Both China and United States came closer on the issue and announced in 2014 that they would move forward jointly to reduce the GHG emission. This particular announcement changed everything. Thus, the geopolitics of climate change altered when China and US both came on board to bring rest of 184 countries to Paris.

Secondly, so far global warming was perceived as a distant warning. This perception changed drastically and it was now considered to be an immediate threat. A lot has changed from 1980s, when the climate change policies were push by law makers to 2010s, when direct links have been drawn between certain weather events and climate change. These include: Extreme heat wave and forest fire in Russia (2010), severe droughts in Texas (2012), Australia Droughts (2012), Miami Floods and its sinking in ocean etc.

Thirdly, the art of French Diplomacy led to conclusion of the agreement. It made sure that the voice of each country, big or small is heard.

What defines the success or failure of Paris Agreement?

The success of this agreement is function of less time taken by the countries to achieve desired / zero emission levels. It also depends on how countries such as United States, China, India and other countries define their future, particularly urban future. Further, it would also depend on developing a common understanding on growing need for energy, transportation, food, buildings and goods within newly defined limits.

Has India secured its interests in Paris?

This question must be answered in the light of India’s long term advocacy of “principle of equity”, “climate justice” and “Common But Differentiated Responsibilties (CBDR)”.  Government of India says that the Paris agreement has recognized the imperative of climate justice and sustainable lifestyles and the developing countries will have development space and will receive support in terms of finance, technology transfer and capacity building from developed countries.

What are Key differences between Paris Agreement and Kyoto Protocol?

There are some of the key differences as follows:

  • United States did not ratify Kyoto Protocol and due to this it made little impact. In Paris Agreement, things have changed and America is on board. However, critics of Paris Agreement say that it is an agreement which countries will not follow through on.
  • Paris deal has looped in more countries than Kyoto Protocol.
  • Under Kyoto, no Green House Gas targets were set for China, India and other developing countries; in Paris, the countries would follow their INDCs.
  • The terms of Paris Agreement are NOT legally binding. Instead, they are guidelines which call the countries to pass their own laws. In this context, Paris is Kyoto turned on its head. Thus, for critics, Paris is worse than Kyoto, which countries failed to comply despite of its being legally binding.
  • The Paris agreement puts more emphasis on Green Climate Fund, which sends money from rich countries to developing countries. The developing countries were brought to the table because of promised financial support.

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