COP21

Why this year's UN climate negotiations matter

Paris agreement likely to be weak, but climate movement will have final word
Aaron Saad

This late into the game, it would be reasonable to have high expectations for the Paris climate meeting at the end of this year. A fair and binding global agreement with immediate and deep reductions of greenhouse gas emissions has never been more necessary.

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But what COP21, the twenty-first meeting of the countries signed onto the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, aims to accomplish is something different: to bolster the credibility of the negotiating process. The goal is simply to produce some kind of long-term global agreement on emissions reductions. To get all parties on board, that agreement will not impose the strong and urgent emissions reductions that are needed, and it will likely not be legally binding. Instead, each state will opt into the agreement by voluntarily pledging its own reduction target.

The pledges are unlikely to differ significantly from those offered over the previous six years of negotiations. If met — and, as Canada has shown, there is no guarantee voluntary pledges will be — they would still warm the Earth well past safe levels.

Yet UNFCCC players insist this would not signal a failure. Todd Stern, the U.S. envoy for climate change, says the Paris agreement cannot be judged on its own, as it would be the first in a series of deals. The European Union’s climate chief, Miguel Arias Canete, has offered reassurance that COP21 is part of an “ongoing process.” If the voluntary pledges fail to add up to sufficient reductions, we are supposed to simply trust that later agreements will get us there — though no one has plausibly explained how that would work.

So all signs point to a weak agreement. Nevertheless, the Paris summit will have an impact, lending decisions made in its name a legitimacy they may not deserve, ones the climate movement may need to prevent or overturn. The UNFCCC released the official negotiating text in February. Bloated to 90 pages of often wildly differing options for negotiators to pick from, the agreement that emerges from it will have important implications in at least three areas.

The target

Negotiators will need to decide whether the agreement will aim to limit global warming to an increase of 1.5˚C or 2˚C — or leave out a target altogether. The choice is important, as each would yield a very different world. A 1.5˚C world, the target that small island developing states and least developed countries are seeking, is much less dangerous for vulnerable communities than a 2˚C world, which is less dangerous than a world allowed to warm without clear targets.

The selected target will define the end goal of the “ongoing process,” the one governments will, ostensibly, set policies to achieve. And it will become a powerful norm, referenced in every article on climate change for years to come.

The division of responsibilities

Previous agreements recognized an important principle: “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” It was widely interpreted as saying that developed industrial countries, having long powered their economic growth with fossil fuels, were obligated to make the earliest and deepest emissions reductions. These countries had duties to assist the others in mitigating and adapting to climate change.

But developed countries opposed climate agreements that failed to place emissions reductions on emerging competitors such as India, Brazil, and especially China, and never carried out their responsibilities. The negotiating text for Paris contains suggestions for a new category of countries and “evolving” responsibilities and capabilities, showing a push to redefine the obligations of some developing countries, almost certainly the emerging economies. To the degree that they are expected to take on the duties of developed industrial countries — duties those countries never performed — the common but differentiated principle is at risk.

The money

Climate change funding is typically split into two parts: mitigation (to reduce emissions) and adaptation (to make societies resilient to climate change). The Green Climate Fund, up for discussion at COP21, is intended to play a major role in north-to-south climate finance, with half the amount raised going towards adaptation.

But small island states and others have been pushing for a new “loss and damage” stream of funding that compensates them for destruction caused by climate change that mitigation and adaptation cannot prevent. Developed countries have long considered the topic taboo, fearing it would open up legitimate discussions about their liability for historical emissions and the reparations entailed.

The negotiating document contains some innovative suggestions from developing countries for both adaptation (1 per cent of developed country gross domestic product per year to fund the Green Climate Fund) and loss and damage (in the form of a “climate change displacement coordination facility”), but right now, developed countries hold all the cards. And we already have a good sense of how low their funding ambition stands. In 2014, they barely pledged enough to bring the Green Climate Fund to its US$10 billion target, even after that target was dropped from US$15 billion.

Beyond Paris

Left to their own devices at COP21, countries of the Global North will likely push for a weak agreement that allows them to get out of delivering the funding they owe and offload their responsibilities onto countries far less culpable for the climate crisis — essentially a pact to wreck the planet.

So why leave them to their own devices?

We have no shortage of opportunities this year to put Canada in a position to push for a serious agreement in Paris. People are already preparing for COP21, creating campaigns and independent documentaries to rally the movement before Paris.

Provinces have led the federal government on climate policy, but have yet to go far enough. The premiers are meeting next month in Quebec City to discuss climate change. A public march planned for April 11 will pressure them in advance of the talks. The momentum built in Quebec could be used to change climate politics on an even larger scale. In July, just before the Pan Am games, Toronto will host the Climate Summit of the Americas.

Properly organized, Canada’s climate movement could use all of this to make climate change part of the national conversation in a way it hasn’t been in years. And it would be just in time for the upcoming federal election. Canada has had nine years of the Conservative government’s policy of worsening climate change. Meanwhile, the Liberals intend, incoherently, to address climate change while expanding the oil industry. The New Democrats support refining tar sand oil in Canada. The election could put in power a government that takes climate change seriously — but only if the parties can be made to change their current tune.

But it is also important to avoid seeing COP21 as the final word on climate policy. The climate movement should not feel bound to anything that fails to protect a liveable world, and has every reason to continue pushing countries to do more what they pledge.

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