On the way to Paris – what to expect of a global climate agreement?

Two weeks from today, on Monday 30 November 2015, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will open in Paris. The Conference will last for 2 weeks and is mandated to adopt a legally binding agreement. Despite the horrible attacks in Paris, the French presidency – and the world – is determined to work constructively towards reaching an agreement.

Perhaps never before has there been such a strong political resolve for global action on climate change. Certainly, never before has the scientific basis (and warning) been so strong. Yet, never had State Parties to negotiate an issue so complex, challenging and global both in its political, social and economic nature and its factual and moral inter-linkages. At the same time, never was the need for effective solutions so urgent. Finding consensus, compromises and landing zones will, therefore, be a difficult task given the current status of the negotiation draft, but not impossible.

But what can the Paris agreement deliver?

The backbone of the agreement will be nationally determined contributions – climate change mitigation action plans which Parties develop based on their national circumstances and capabilities. So far, 161 states have submitted their intended nationally determined contributions. Though those states collectively stand for about 93 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the current plans are not enough. They still set the world on a path towards 2.7 to 3 degree Celsius warming, as a recent UNFCCC synthesis report indicated.

The significance of the agreement will therefore lie in complementing a bottom-up, sovereign approach to climate action with a durable, dynamic and flexible process to enhance the individual and collective level of ambition over time. In doing so, a careful and difficult balance needs to be struck between effectiveness and equity.

While states’ sovereign circumstances determine much of the initial actions, the agreement is expected to comprise of dynamic elements that aim at ramping up the aggregate level of action. These elements include, inter alia:

  1. Up-dating of nationally determined mitigation contributions in regular intervals, most likely every 5 years. In up-dating their contributions, Parties should progress, meaning that each up-date should go beyond previous undertakings. Furthermore, it is expected that Parties’ actions constitute each Party’s best efforts.
  2. A global stock-take of aggregate progression towards halting the increase of global temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius should be conducted every 5th year – where the outcome of the stock-take will inform and guide Parties up-dates on their national determined contributions.
  3. The agreement must also include a credible single framework for transparency of action and support, comprising of measuring, monitoring, reporting and reviewing progress. Transparency is an important pull-factor, enabling peer-pressure, as well as criticism and pressure from domestic constituencies and civil society worldwide.
  4. Collaborative and cooperative approaches among Parties, for example through the use of market-mechanisms, which aim at enhanced levels of ambition.
  5. A mechanism to promote compliance and facilitate implementation of the provisions of the agreement in order to avoid  that Parties fall behind their international Commitments.

In practical terms, the Paris conference will unfold in an unprecedented manner:  Day one of is reserved for Heads of State and Government. Several of the most controversial issues, such as differentiation and finance have proven to be too difficult for negotiators to resolve. Clear guidance is therefore needed from the highest political level, which will inform the negotiations both on expert level and – for the final days – on ministerial level.

In a recent statement, the UN Secretary-General addressed G20 Heads of State and Government by stating: “The time to make the right choice is now. In Paris, let us choose not only to survive, but to thrive.”

The expectation of the Paris agreement is that it provides the international legal tools to set the world on such a path. If done rightly, it will emerge as a new type of an international legally-binding instrument, which sets in motion global, dynamic and iterative processes which over time will bring about effective collective action while respecting differences.

Professor Dr. Christina Voigt

University of Oslo, Department of Public and International Law

Legal Advisor to the Government of Norway at the UN climate negotiations

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