What’s happening in Paris? A view from the front lines of the UN climate summit

Photo: Project Survival Media

PARIS — After a full week at the UN climate summit, international climate negotiators have finally reached the halfway mark towards a binding deal.

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Editors' note: Ziona Eyob is the managing editor for The Tree's Canada desk. She's in Paris for the COP21 summit and is filing regular dispatches from the front lines of the global climate negotiations.

Ministers have arrived in Paris for COP21 to build on the existing international climate framework. They need to develop goals that will allow governments to work together to keep the rise in global temperatures below 2C — the temperature goal previously adopted by world leaders — or ideally, 1.5C, the target called for by the most vulnerable nations.

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The climate summit, which began on the evening of Nov. 29 in the French capital, takes place at a critical moment. An effective agreement will accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy necessary to keep the climate safe and protect those most directly affected. It will also shape the development of the real energy economy in the months and years to follow.

While there have been previous attempts to reach an international agreement, momentum is now stronger than ever. There is greater political will to drive home a strong deal than at past summits, as shown by the national climate pledges (called INDCs) that over 160 countries submitted to the UN in the run-up to the summit. These pledges cover over 90 per cent of global emissions and show that most countries are now on board with the inevitable transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

To meet these targets, negotiators still need to make progress in a number of key areas before delivering the final text.

Long-term goal

World leaders are in agreement: a long-term goal of decarbonizing the planet over the coming decades is the only way to keep global warming below 2C. This temperature limit is the internationally agreed upon threshold to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

But to make 2C meaningful for the real economy means developing an operational way of assessing spending and emissions that governments, investors and others can use to benchmark their decisions.

Many NGOs are calling for a phase-out of fossil fuel emissions and a phase-in of 100 per cent renewable energy as soon as possible but not later than 2050. This type of concrete goal keeps open a possibility of limiting climate change to no more than 1.5C while increasing the probability that the 2C limit will be respected.

Climate finance

Many of the world’s poorest areas overlap with those most vulnerable to climate change and they need empowered ways to cope with the impacts and develop in way that produces less pollution. Negotiators need to ensure that rich countries keep their promise of providing US$100 billion in annual climate finance for vulnerable countries by 2020 and scaling up from there. They will also need to sort out the proportion of funding that goes towards adaptation and how much of that rich countries will pay.

Ambition mechanism

Over the past few years, countries were responsible for submitting national targets to reduce emissions. Those targets, if all fully implemented, would contribute around half of the emission reductions needed by 2030 for the world to take the least costly path to hold warming under 2C. As a result, negotiators are now also tasked with raising countries’ ambitions to make even deeper emission cuts. An “ambition mechanism” would enable countries to come back to the negotiation table every five years to take their ambitions up a notch. For the greatest impact, the first review should take place prior to 2020.

Adaptation goal

Climate change has already destroyed the livelihoods of many around the world and aggravated poverty. A long-term adaptation goal would create a link between adaptation efforts and emissions levels. Furthermore, observers are calling for adaptation to receive public financial support and for the issue of loss and damage — when the impacts of climate change are too severe to adapt to — to be firmly anchored in the agreement.

Loss and damage

When climate change impacts become more severe, adaptation may no longer be an option. One of the first issues this raises is how to attribute a specific event that causes loss and damage to climate change, then understand and document those impacted by such an event and identify how to redress their loss. Many NGOs argue there should be public financial support to address loss and damage.

The 100 per cent renewable future

It is likely that some form of agreement will be delivered by the end of this week. Whether that agreement checks off all the requirements needed to address the global climate crisis is still to be determined, but irrespective of these talks, one thing is clear: the global momentum to accelerate the transition to a decarbonized economy is stronger than ever.

Leaders are under pressure to deliver a substantial deal that meets the demands of the people they represent, and many are pulling their weight within their means. Thus far, more than 500 institutions representing over $3.4 trillion in assets have made some form of divestment commitment this year, and even subnational governments such as cities and provinces are contributing to the international climate cause. The transition towards 100 per cent renewable energy is ongoing and inevitable, and the pressure is on leaders to be on the right side of history.

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