The Climate Change Battle in Paris

1 May 2016 (Meenakshi Raman)

1. Introduction

The Paris Agreement adopted by the 21 st Conference of Parties (COP21) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on 12 December 2015, was the outcome of major battles on a multitude of issues, especially between developed and developing countries.

Developing countries by and large had these negotiating objectives. They wanted to (a) defend the Convention and not let it be changed or subverted; (b) ensure that the Agreement is non-mitigation-centric with all issues (including adaptation, loss and damage, finance and technology, besides mitigation) addressed and in a balanced manner; (c) ensure differentiation in all aspects be reflected, with the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities; (d) ensure that developed countries enhance the provision of finance and technology transfer (f) ensure that ‘loss and damage’ is recognised as a separate pillar apart from adaptation and (g) have legally binding provisions, especially on the developed countries.

The United States and allies (especially those under the Umbrella Group) wanted the opposite. They mounted an onslaught on the Convention, seeking to weaken the provisions and their obligations; redefine differentiation so as to blur the different obligations of developed and developing countries; and a legal ‘hybrid’ agreement (in terms of what clauses are and are not legally binding), mainly to suit the US administration’s relations with the US Congress, which is hostile to the climate change issue.

COP21 was a battleground that involved an onslaught (with both defensive and offensive interests) of the US and its allies versus the resistance and offensive by the Group of 77 and China, and especially the Like-minded Developing Countries (LMDC) that had comprehensive negotiation positions and a well operating machinery.

A major concern was how the French Presidency of COP 21 would behave, in light of the polarised positions. Towards the end, an important meeting took place between the LMDC and the French  Presidency (who were crafting the final compromise) during the night of Friday, 11 December, where the LMDC presented its ‘super-redlines’. These included: that the purpose of the Agreement is to enhance  the implementation of the Convention in accordance with the principles and provisions of the Convention; reflection and operationalisation of equity and CBDR across all elements; clear differentiation between developed and developing countries on the mitigation efforts; commitment by developed countries on provision of finance, technology transfer and capacity-building with no transfer or extension  of obligations to developing countries to provide finance.

The LMDC conveyed the message that with 30 countries in its grouping representing more than 50% of the population of the world and 70% of the poor, it wanted the COP to be a success but that the outcome must be balanced, and not depart from its super-redlines. In the end the French took the LMDC points, and got the US to agree.

The COP 21 Presidency was generally viewed as playing a fair and difficult role in securing a delicate and balanced outcome, except for an incident in the final plenary that somewhat marred the process. This is the ‘should incident’ where the US wanted the word ‘shall’ to be replaced with the word ‘should’ in Article 4.4 of the Agreement that related to the mitigation efforts of Parties. The US wanted developed and developing countries to be treated in a like manner legally, as the original version referred to ‘shall’ for developed countries and ‘should’ for developing countries. Instead of raising the issue from the floor of the plenary, the US request was accommodated by the COP Presidency by what was termed a ‘technical correction’ and the word ‘shall’ was then replaced with ‘should’ and was read out by the Secretariat. This was viewed with dismay by some LMDC delegations, but as there was no formal objection, the US-inspired amendment stood.

Another incident was when Nicaragua put up its flag in the final session of the Paris Committee 1 that adopted the Paris Agreement but it was ignored by the Chair. The Minister of Nicaragua made a strong statement protesting against his being ignored, after the Agreement had been passed by the Committee.

After adopting the Paris Agreement, the Paris Committee then forwarded it to the COP which in turn adopted the Agreement.

2. Highlights of the Paris Agreement

[Read all the highlights in the pdf of this briefing paper.]

3. Conclusion

The developing countries started the Paris talks with some clear objectives and principles. Though some aspects were diluted, it got its red lines protected, though it did not get some of its offensive points accepted (for example, clearer targets on finance or a reference to IPRs as a barrier to technology transfer). Some of the important points gained by developing countries were that –

  • The Paris Agreement is not mitigation-centric as desired by developed countries, although in some aspects mitigation does gets pride of place;
  • The developing countries to a significant extent successfully defended the Convention and stopped the plans of developed countries to drastically rewrite the Convention. –
  • Differentiation between developed and developing countries was retained in the main, although weakened in some areas.
  • The principles of equity and CBDR were mentioned in a specific clause in the important Article 2 on purpose of the Agreement, and operationalised in some key areas of the Agreement.
  • Sustainable development and poverty eradication as important objectives of developing countries were referred to as the context of actions by developing countries in some key areas.
  • –Developed countries should take the lead in mitigation and finance is referred to in the Agreement.
  • Although the temperature goal is to limit temperature rise to well below 2°C from pre-industrial levels, the reference to pursuing efforts to limit temperature rise to below 1.5°C (this 1.5°C as the target was called for by Small Island States, LDCs, Africa and ALBA countries) is significant;

True, the Paris Agreement also means that big pressures will be put on developing countries, and especially the emerging economies, to do much more on their climate actions, including mitigation. But these enhanced actions need to be taken, given the crisis of climate change that very seriously affect developing countries themselves.

The Agreement also fails to provide actions that fulfil the 2°C pathway, let alone 1.5°C. The emissions gap between what countries in aggregate should do and what they pledged to do in their INDCs up to 2030 is very large. This has led many commentators to condemn the Paris COP21 as a failure.

However another perspective is that COP21 is only a start, and the Agreement represents an agreement internationally to enhance individual and collective actions to face the climate catastrophe. A real failure would have been a collapse of the Paris negotiations, Copenhagen-style, or an outcome that only favours the developed countries with the rewriting of the Convention.

The Agreement, from this perspective, has laid the foundation on which future actions can be motivated and incentivised, a baseline from which more ambitious actions must flow. There are mechanisms in place in the Paris Agreement, such as the global stocktake, that can be used to encourage countries to raise their ambition level.

International cooperation, however inadequate and flawed, remains intact from which much more cooperation can flow in future.

The outcome represented by the Paris Agreement, that a bottom-up approach is taken on enabling each country to choose its ‘nationally determined contribution’ with presently very weak or even no compliance, was the only possibility, given the state of many governments (including the United States) generally not being ready or willing or able to undertake legally binding targets.

It can be expected that developed countries will pile pressure on developing countries, especially emerging economies, and also try to shift or avoid their obligations. For the developing countries, they should invoke the overall context of what will make a low-carbon pathway a reality – finance, technology transfer, capacity building plus adaptation, loss and damage, all in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication. They must also remain firm and united in the negotiations and other processes ahead, starting from now, even before the signing and ratification of the Agreement.

Meenakshi Raman is Senior Legal Adviser and Coordinator of the Climate Change Programme of the Third World Network.

The contribution of Martin Khor is gratefully acknowledged.





Paris Agreement Climate Change
30 November - 11 December 2015, Paris, France
by Meenakshi Raman
1 May 2016