Alicia Nicholls

Caribbean representatives will shortly join their international counterparts in Madrid, Spain, from December 2-13, 2019 for the 25th meeting of the Conference of the Parties – the decision making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Climate change is the greatest threat facing the planet, and for many low-lying small island developing States (SIDS), coastal cities and communities, it is an existential one.  In recognition of the climate crisis, leaders from over 190 countries signed the historic Paris Climate Change Agreement in 2015 at the end of COP21 in Paris. Inter alia, they agreed to the ambitious but important goal of keeping global average temperature increases to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts towards a 1.5 degrees Celsius ceiling.

To achieve this goal, the Agreement’s framers recognised that the world needed to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as soon as possible.  However, with emissions still rising, countries’ levels of climate action and ambition remain too feeble to address the severity of the climate crisis. A significant increase in both at COP25 will be needed if the world is to avert the impending climate disaster.   

World climate action/ambition still off-track

The just released United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report 2019 showed that GHG emissions “continue on an upward trajectory and reached a record high of 55.3 GtCO2e in 2018”. The report found that G20 members, which account for 78 per cent of global GHG emissions, are collectively “on track to meet their limited 2020 Cancun Pledges”.  But, it noted that “seven countries are currently not on track to meet 2030 NDC commitments, and for a further three, it is not possible to say”. The report concluded that greater action by G20 members “will be essential for the global mitigation effort”.

Making reference to the “large” emissions gap, the Emissions Gap Report further indicated that “in 2030, annual emissions need to be 15 GtCO2e lower than current unconditional Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) imply for the 2°C goal, and 32 GtCO2e lower for the 1.5°C goal”. This means the level of ambition in countries’ NDCs – their national commitments for reducing emissions and pursuing adaptation – remains too low to meet the Paris goal. As such, countries will need to agree to deeper emissions cuts in a shorter time frame.

What will be discussed at COP25?  

Even in its planning stages, COP25 has already faced and overcome two potential ‘crises’. Firstly, Chile assumed COP25 chairmanship after Brazil reneged on its offer to chair the event, shortly following the election of then incoming President Jair Bolsonaro. Secondly, weeks leading up to the event, Spain stepped in as the host nation after mass civil unrest caused the Chilean government to abandon hosting both the COP25 and an APEC trade summit. As such, the event will be chaired by Chile but held in Madrid. The President-designate of COP25 will be Her Excellency Carolina Schmidt of Chile.

At COP24 in Poland last year, parties completed the majority of the implementation rules and guidelines of the Paris Agreement – the so called ‘Rulebook”. At COP25, they will continue deliberations to allow for the Agreement’s full operationalization. Key on the agenda to be resolved is establishing rules for implementing Article 6 of the Paris Agreement which pertains to market-based tools for limiting GHGs, such as international carbon markets.  Due to the sensitivity of this issue, the parties were unable to agree on ‘Article 6 rules’ at the COP24 and deferred the issue to COP25.

Developing countries will, in particular, be concerned about climate finance critically needed for their mitigation and adaptation efforts. The parties at COP25 will also review the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts.   

Importantly, a goal of COP25 will be ramping up global climate ambition in advance of 2020 – when countries have committed to submitting their revised NDCs and their long-term low GHG emissions development strategies.

On this note, it would not be lost on participants that the US, the highest producer of GHG emissions on a per capita basis, has formally withdrawn from the Paris Agreement. While the US’ withdrawal will not take effect until November 2020, the Trump Administration has in the interim been reversing environmental regulations, including those enacted under the former Obama Administration.

To date, the US is the only country to have withdrawn from the Paris Agreement. Other major emitters such as China (the world’s largest producer of GHG emissions on an absolute basis), the EU and India have not followed suit. Indeed, incoming president of the EU executive Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, plans to make the EU “the world’s first climate-neutral continent” by 2050 and has promoted a European Green Deal.

Although the Trump administration has been reversing federal level environmental regulations, several US states, cities and businesses have maintained their commitment to climate action under America’s Pledge Initiative. According to the America’s Pledge Initiative, these represent “65% of the US population and 68% of the economy”. While this is some comfort, the potential absence of the world’s second largest emitter from the Agreement is a political setback for ratcheting up climate action at a time when the stakes are ever higher.

Stakes remain high

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C published in 2018 found that human activity has already caused the earth to warm by 1 degree Celsius. Though a point five degree difference may sound negligible, the IPCC report found that even a 2 degree Celsius increase in warming could cause catastrophic impacts. The IPCC also more recently published two other special reports highlighting the real impact of climate change on land, and on the ocean and cryosphere.

There has been a noticeable increase in the number of climate-related events and disasters internationally, be it droughts, flooding, record wild fires or faster than expected melting of the polar ice caps. These events have affected several countries around the world. But, it must be emphasized, while SIDS contribute the least to climate change (together accounting for less than 1% of global emissions), they are among the most negatively affected by the adverse impacts of climate change. Indeed, rising sea levels are already negatively affecting our fragile coastlines.

The recent IDB assessment on the effects and impact of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas estimated damages at $2.5 billion, and losses at $717.3 million, with most of the damage confined to the Abaco Islands and to a lesser extent, Grand Bahama. According to the IDB report, there were 67 confirmed deaths and 282 missing persons as of 18 October 2019. This is by no means an isolated incident. As sea surface temperatures increase, scientists predict more intense hurricanes.  

Climate change has already caused shifts in weather patterns with implications for food security and access to water. Besides the human impact, it also threatens the tourism, manufacturing and agriculture industries, which are the economic building blocks, to varying extents, of most of our Caribbean economies.   

Debate in silos

On another note, the debate on climate change and trade is still to a large extent occurring in silos. The Paris Agreement does not touch on trade, which is not only a contributor to climate change, but can and has been impacted by climate change. Similarly, trade officials are not among the negotiators at climate talks.

However, the World Trade Organisation, the global regulator of international trade, has since April 2018 hosted three Natural Disasters and Trade symposia, and will on November 29 host its fourth. With financing from the Permanent Mission of Australia to Geneva, three research studies focused on the macro-economic impacts on disaster-affected countries and the trade issues arising in the disaster response, recovery and resilience-building. The country studies were Nepal, the Caribbean (Dominica and St. Lucia) and The Pacific (Fiji, Tonga and Vanuatu).

Barbados’ co-hosting of the UNCTAD XV quadrennial conference in October next year is the perfect opportunity to keep climate action high on the trade and development agenda and to bring these two disciplines together.

In conclusion

Nearly four years after world leaders gathered at COP21 and negotiated and signed the historic Paris Agreement, levels of climate action and ambition do not match the severity of the impending climate crisis. Certainly, governments, businesses, households, and individuals all have their role to play in reducing their emissions footprint. But it is imperative for governments to set the policy tenor by enacting environmental legislation, and creating an enabling environment for the adoption of renewable energy and climate-friendly practices, products and services. With COP25 a mere week away, what the world needs right now is urgent and coordinated action to step up mitigation and adaptation efforts and accelerate the shift to a climate-friendly and resilient future.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed herein are her personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of any institution or entity with which she may be affiliated from time to time.