Climate summit starts on hopeful note


The Third Pole,

The annual summit of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) convenes in Marrakech, Morocco, this year in an atmosphere of hope, given the Paris Agreement at the last summit and two important agreements in 2016 — one by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to start cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions due to flights and the other an amendment to the Montreal Protocol to phase out refrigerants that are powerful GHGs.

The other reason for hope is that the Paris Agreement has been ratified by so many countries and has come into legal force within less than a year of the initial signatures.

But that hope is also tempered by reality, as policymakers realise that the pledges made by their governments — which have gone into the Paris Agreement in the form Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs, earlier called INDCs, but the word intended has been dropped by UNFCCC) — are going to be difficult to keep.

At the same time, they are insufficient to keep average global temperature rise since the pre-Industrial Age within two degrees Celsius, leave aside the limit of 1.5 degrees enshrined in the Paris Agreement as an aspirational goal. In a full implementation scenario, the NDCs add up to a 2.7 degree Celsius temperature rise.

The UNFCCC secretariat has requested the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to come up with a series of recommendations on how countries can move towards the 1.5-degree goal, and the IPCC will bring out a special report on this in 2018, the same year the Paris Agreement will come up for its first review.

Primary concern

Right now, the negotiators gathered for the November 7-18 UNFCCC summit in Marrakech are primarily concerned about implementing the Paris Agreement. There is every indication that when it comes to details of implementation, the developed versus developing world wrangling over who does what will continue to dog the negotiations. Over the past 11 months since the Paris Agreement, the negotiators have not yet been able to reach any decision that they can present to the summit for ratification. Given that the agreement is short on details, they will have to start the implementation negotiations almost from scratch.

This is especially worrying given the history of UNFCCC negotiations. The Kyoto Protocol was agreed upon in 1997, but it took another eight years before rich nations agreed on the details of their pledge to reduce GHG emissions. The US did not ratify the protocol at all.

No window

There is no such window available to agree on the details of implementing of the Paris Agreement. First, because climate change impacts are already evident around the world in the form of reduced farm output; more frequent and more intense heat waves, droughts, floods and storms; rising seas, receding glaciers; melting ice caps and permafrost. Second, because the Paris Agreement is supposed to come into force in 2020.

A related issue will lead to more bickering — what is the world doing before 2020? The Kyoto Protocol is still going through the second phase of implementation, but most industrialised countries see it as dead, and have managed to keep pre-2020 actions largely off the negotiations agenda in Marrakech.

This is dangerous, not least because the United Nations Environment Programme has warned that GHG emissions must peak by 2020 if the world is to have any chance of keeping average temperature rise by the end of the century within 1.5 degrees Celsius.

See: Cut carbon emissions by a quarter more, urges UNEP

Financial worries

Developing countries are also worried because they are not getting the money they want to reduce emissions or to deal with climate change impacts. At the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised that rich countries would give USD 100 billion a year from 2020 for this purpose, and would use this decade to ramp up this financial support to that figure.

This became an overall pledge by developed countries, and has been a contentious issue since then, with the rich country club OECD calculating last year that it was already providing around USD 63 billion a year to poor countries as climate finance, and developing countries contesting this figure strenuously, accusing the OECD of double counting and considering loans as grants.

British and Australian governments have come up with a similar figure this year, and that may lead to just as many arguments. Developing countries point out that the Green Climate Fund (GCF) – the main financing arm of the UNFCCC – has little over USD 10 billion its kitty.

With negotiators from industrialised countries keeping pre-2020 actions largely off the official agenda and their counterparts from developing countries being very upset about this, host Morocco has come up with the compromise of holding a high-level “facilitative dialogue” over two days during the Marrakech summit. Some sparks may fly.

Devil in the details

All veteran climate negotiators and observers know that reaching a broad agreement between governments can be a relatively easy step, because the devil lies in the details. That is why many of the negotiators gathered in Marrakech are apprehensive about what will happen over the next two weeks. But this time they do have some successful negotiations to build upon.

The ICAO agreement to control emissions from international flights has not pleased all governments. But at least it is a start from a sector that had earlier been notoriously resistant to any change.

See: Flights on emission control radar

See: India wants aviation carbon cap to follow Paris pact

See: India marks serious flaw in aviation emissions deal

The other big development this year, the amendment to the Montreal Protocol, finally pleased most governments since those – including India – opposed to early phase-out of the refrigerant HFC were allowed to have their way. Given the amount of HFC these laggards use, the delay may not matter very much, and the amendment is being rightly showcased as a successful example of diplomacy that actually will help combat climate change.

See: Coolants that warm earth on way out, finally

See: India vows to kill super greenhouse gas

See: Countries move closer to deal on cutting super-strength global warming gases

Tackling impacts

There are now good examples on how to handle mitigation of GHG emissions. But what about the impacts of climate change, the ways to adapt to them, the loss and damage already occurring when countries fail in their adaptation attempts?

Developing countries have fought long to have these issues on the agenda, but they have had to fight developed countries all the way, and negotiations over these issues remain at a more vague level. There are adaptation projects going on in many developing countries, but many more are needed, in a situation where the UNFCCC’s Adaptation Fund has run out of money, and the GCF has so far agreed to fund only 17 adaptation projects.

There are many studies on the humongous extent of loss and damage being faced due to floods, storms and other disasters that have become more frequent and more intense due to climate change. Climate activists and developing countries – especially the poorest among them – have fought long and hard to have this issue included in the UNFCCC negotiations agenda. They managed to get the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage adopted at the 2013 climate summit only after agreeing to drop all mention of liability – rich countries, especially the US, were very afraid of court cases in this area.

The mechanism will come up for review at this year’s summit, and poor nations may have to fight to retain whatever little they have achieved, leave alone make any progress in this area.

Concerns over climate justice

A few days before the Marrakech summit, India’s environment minister Anil Madhav Dave reiterated the country’s longstanding demand for climate justice — that rich nations should do more to combat climate change and to help poor nations because most of the GHGs polluting the atmosphere today have been emitted by rich nations.

This cannot be contested in theory, but has been consistently contested in practice by rich nations. In fact, many think tanks have calculated that developing countries are actually spending a larger portion of their GDP than rich nations to control emissions and deal with climate change impacts. The issue will be mentioned volubly by some governments and observers, but is likely to remain marginal in official negotiations.