Category Archives: Paris Agreement

COP 24: Paris Agreement Rule Book Agreed But Is It Enough?

Alicia Nicholls

On December 15th, 2018, nearly 200 countries signed off on the rules required for translating the Paris Agreement from mere aspirational words on paper to an operable agreement. Agreement on the Paris Agreement ‘rule book’ came late on Saturday night, one day after the Twenty-Fourth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) talks were scheduled to conclude.

While there is understandable international relief and jubilation that an agreement for operationalising the Paris Agreement has been reached after two weeks of at times tension-filled negotiations, climate-vulnerable countries like Small Island Developing States (SIDS) would be justified in opining that the global political response to the climate change crisis still remains well below what is needed to stop irreversible global warming which threatens their very existence, and the future of the planet.

Background

Over 20,000 delegates from 196 nations converged in the small Polish town of Katowice from December 3-14, 2018 with one primary objective in mind – formulating the guidelines and institutional mechanisms for giving life to the landmark Paris Agreement adopted at COP21 in 2015 in Paris, France.

While far from perfect, the Paris Agreement represents a commitment by the parties to hold the global average temperature increase to levels below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius, to increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience, to make available finance flows for climate change mitigation and adaptation, and to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.

The Paris Agreement rule book includes the modalities, procedures and guidelines for making this happen. A deadline of December 2018 was set for the rule book’s completion, which meant that negotiators were in a double race against time.

Given the need to balance the national interests of almost 200 countries, the many technical issues to be negotiated, the threat to multilateral diplomacy posed by growing nationalism and populism, and the current climate-skeptic rhetoric by the world’s second largest anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emitter (the US), the success of the talks was hoped for, but not assured. Negotiators were walking a thin rope and the negotiated outcome reflects many areas of compromise, including on areas where climate-vulnerable countries, like SIDS, would have wished more robust language to reflect the urgency of the political action needed.

What was agreed?

The majority of the rule book has been completed. The parties have decided on the rules for reporting on their mitigation, adaptation and financing efforts in a universal and transparent manner.

As opposed to a bifurcated system (separate rules for poor and rich countries), the rule book establishes a single set of rules for transparent reporting. This was one of the lines drawn in the sand by the US and the European Union (EU) to ensure, in particular, that large developing countries like China abide by the same transparency rules as they.

The rules for the enhanced transparency framework provide flexibility for “developing country parties that need it in the light of their capacities” in the implementation of the transparency provisions of the Paris Agreement. This will be on the basis of self-determination, and developing countries seeking to avail themselves of these flexibilities must clearly indicate the provision to which flexibility is applied, concisely clarify capacity constraints, and provide self-determined estimated time frames for improvements in relation to those capacity constraints.

A further flexibility comes with respect to reporting support. The rule book uses the legally binding language of “shall” for developed country parties with respect to providing information on support given, while for other parties, it uses less forceful language in the form of “should”.

Under the Paris Agreement, each party committed to progressively ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) which reflect their pledges to climate action and are to reflect their highest possible ambition. Of note is that the interim public registry developed by the UNFCCC Secretariat will serve as the public registry for parties’ NDCs. The registry will be accessible for use by the parties, stakeholders and the public. From 2031 onward, parties are to apply common time frames to their NDCs. The exact time frame is to be determined later.

One of the issues at COP24 was scaling up parties’ ambitions by 2020 because when calculated, the current ambition level in countries’ existing NDCs puts global average temperature increases on track for more than 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This was noted in a Special Report on Global Warming at 1.5 Degrees Celsius released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This temperature increase would be well-above the Paris Agreement goal and towards levels that would lead to even more irreversible global warming, and would put some low-lying SIDS under water, literally.

The IPCC further warned that restricting temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels would limit some of the more severe climate change impacts, than at 2 degrees, confirming what SIDS were arguing under their “1.5 to stay alive” campaign in the lead up to COP21 when the Paris Agreement was signed.

How these scientific findings in the IPCC report were to be treated was a major sticking point in the COP24 negotiations. In a blow to climate activists and SIDS, fervent objection by the US and the major oil-exporting nations of Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait led to a weak statement which merely welcomes the “timely completion” of the Report, but is silent on its dire findings.

Financing for developing countries’ mitigation and adaptation efforts is critically important, especially for SIDS whose climate vulnerability far exceeds their ability to self-finance their mitigation and adaptation efforts. It was agreed that the Adaptation Fund, which was established under the Kyoto Protocol, will serve the Paris Agreement. Some countries have also made additional pledges to the Green Climate Fund, another multilateral fund. Another nugget of good news is that parties have agreed to increase the collective climate finance goal post 2020 beyond the current goal of 100 billion USD per year. However, it is not yet decided by how much.

While the parties recognise the importance of capacity-building, they put off adoption of a decision on the initial institutional arrangements for capacity building to COP25.

Loss and damage due to climate change’s irreversible and adverse impacts remains a sensitive issue for developed countries, but one on which climate-vulnerable countries, such as SIDS, are particularly concerned. Indeed, climate change impacts have cost some SIDS like Dominica after Hurricane Maria in 2017 the equivalent of 226% of GDP, at a time when that country was still recovering from the devastation of Tropical Storm Erika in 2015.

SIDS fought hard for the inclusion of loss and damage in the Paris Agreement, and although ‘loss and damage’ is also included throughout the rule book, the language is less robust than desired. The transparency rules provide that countries “may, as appropriate” report on loss and damage, and the global stocktake rules “may take into account, as appropriate..efforts to avert, minimise and address loss and damage”.

Another example of compromise is in the weak compliance mechanism provided for. Under the Paris Agreement, this mechanism is “to facilitate implementation of and promote compliance with the provisions of the Agreement”. The rule book makes clear that the committee is to “neither function as an enforcement or dispute settlement mechanism, nor impose penalties or sanctions, and shall respect national sovereignty”. This mechanism, therefore, will have to rely on moral suasion for ensuring compliance.

The compliance mechanism will consist of an elected 12-member committee which is to function in a manner that is “transparent, non-adversarial and non-punitive”. In a nod to developing countries, the committee membership is to have “2 members each from the five regional groups of the United Nations and 1 member each from the small island developing States and the least developed countries, taking into account the goal of gender balance”. It “shall pay particular attention to the respective national capabilities and circumstances of Parties.”

A critical area which remains incomplete is that of voluntary market mechanisms. Agreement on this was held up as Brazil objected strongly to rules preventing double counting. This issue has been deferred to COP25 which will be held in Chile.

What next?

The rule book is a welcomed achievement given the swirling headwinds it had to face leading up to its negotiation. But the reality of balancing varying political interests meant that the text features many areas of compromise, with the net result that the political response and ambition do not adequately reflect the urgency needed to confront the magnitude of the climate crisis.

The Global Carbon Project released a report noting that global carbon emissions are to reach an all-time high in 2018. While SIDS are undoubtedly at the frontlines of the climate change battle, natural disasters, such as the impact of Hurricane Harvey (2017) and Hurricane Katrina (2005) in the US, show that large countries are by no means immune to climate change’s most disastrous effects. Climate action is, therefore, in all countries’ interests.

Political headwinds, however, still threaten the global climate response as powerful fossil fuel interests now have climate deniers in the highest positions of political power. Brazil has withdrawn its offer to host next year’s COP25. Its incoming President Jair Bolsonaro, a climate change denier, has already signalled his support for increased agricultural production in the Amazon – the world’s largest green lung. The Trump Administration has re-emphasised a commitment to so-called ‘clean’ coal, rolled back many Obama-era emissions-cutting initiatives and has indicated earlier this year that the US is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. Under the Agreement, the US cannot withdraw until 2020 and its delegation played an active role in the COP24 negotiations, especially on the issue of transparency. However, should President Trump be re-elected in 2020 and the US make good on its threat to withdraw, this will have implications for the Agreement and on global climate action more widely.

The next few years will be critical for climate action. At COP25 in Chile next year, the parties will seek to finalise the final details of the rule book. However, before this, a special climate summit will be convened in September 2019 to mobilise ambition. The deadline for current emissions commitments is 2020 and new targets will have to be set. Failure to scale up ambitions puts SIDS and future generations at risk of climate disaster. More ambitious political action will be needed to ensure a transition to a low carbon and climate resilient world which ensures that the most deleterious climate change impacts are averted.

The informal text may be found here.

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.

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Human Rights in the context of the International Climate Change Agenda

Stefan Newton, Guest Contributor

snewton

Stefan Newton

In her address to the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Prime Minister of Barbados, the Hon. Mia Mottley, abandoned a scripted speech and made a passionate appeal to United Nations (UN) Member states to make good on their commitments to climate change under the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC). She urged States to accelerate mobilizing the necessary funding for climate adaptation and mitigation under The Green Climate Fund.

In thinly veiled remarks, she criticized the current position of the United States of America (USA) by refusing to acknowledge the reality of climate change, noting “For us it is about saving lives. For others it is about saving profits”. It is well known by now that the USA has regrettably withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement: which builds upon the UNFCCC and for the first time brings all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects, with enhanced support to assist developing countries to do so.

Moreover, the Prime Minister pointed to the need for UN Member States to recognize that “mighty or small we must protect each other in this world”. In closing her speech, she appealed to the international community to exercise empathy and care for those States and their citizens who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. I humbly submit that this is perhaps the most significant speech given by a Barbadian leader to the United Nations, as it impinges on Barbados’ very survival as a nation State. Indeed, if climate change ambitions are not met, Barbados and its citizens will face very certain demise due to the effects of climate change.

Climate Change is a Human Rights Problem

While climate change is most often viewed as an environmental problem, it is also very much a human rights problem. Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and former High Commissioner for Human Rights, has described climate change as “probably the greatest human rights challenge of the 21st century”.

Explicit mention of human rights is now being made in international climate agreements. The Preamble to the Paris Agreement to the UNFCCC calls for all States, when acting to address climate change, to “respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights”. The World Bank Report on Human Rights and Climate Change highlights the relevancy of international human rights law to climate change by linking particular social and human impacts of climate change to special human rights standards under international human rights treaties, thereby confirming human rights impacts. For example, the right to life is the most fundamental human right and well enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

A number of observed and projected effects of climate change will pose direct and indirect threats to the human right to life. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects with high confidence an increase in people suffering from death, disease and injury from heat waves, floods, storms etc. Equally, climate change will affect the right to life through an increase in malnutrition, cardio- respiratory morbidity and mortality related climate change effects.

Despite the clear human rights implications of failure to act to combat climate change, the international community is not “grasping the baton firmly” enough through decisive policy actions to reach the ambitions of the climate change agenda. The USA- Trump led administration seems to be a lost cause with its view that climate change is a fiction. Heeding Prime Minister Mottley’s call to climate action will most likely be viewed by them as a mere courtesy, not an obligation. However, it can be soundly argued that Prime Minister Mottley’s urging of States to protect each other from the effects of climate change, are not merely aspirational or appeals to international consciousness, but are linked to and grounded in legally binding international human rights principles.

Legal Link between Human Rights and Climate Change

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has set out the essentials of the legal dimensions link between Human Rights and Climate Change. International Human Rights principles to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of all people without discrimination gives rise to a wide range of duties for State in acting on climate change. I will touch on three.

First, under these principles is the duty to mitigate climate change and to prevent its negative human rights impacts. Failure to take affirmative action to prevent human rights harms caused by climate change, including foreseeable long-term harms, breaches this obligation. Second is the duty to ensure that all persons have the necessary capacity to adapt to climate change. Falling under this duty States must ensure that appropriate adaptation measures are taken to protect and fulfil the rights of all persons, particularly those most endangered by the negative impacts of climate change e.g. small islands, riparian and low-lying coastal zones. Third, under core human rights treaties, States acting individually or collectively are obliged to mobilize and allocate the maximum available resources for the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights, as well as the advancement of civil and political rights and the right to development. The failure to adopt reasonable measures to mobilize available resources to prevent foreseeable climate change harm breaches this obligation.

Incorporating Human Rights into Climate Change Policy Discussions

Besides recognizing the legal implications of international human rights law as it pertains to climate change, Caribbean policy makers should also recognize the value added of incorporating human rights into discussions around climate change policy.

Among other things, a focus on human rights law may serve to locate policy within the framework of internationally agreed obligations and acceptance of certain goods, interests or goals as rights. This has the effect of establishing a hierarchy of importance among policy goals, helping to ensure that human rights are not traded off among interests lacking that status. Simply put, human rights place people before profits. This is critical as more firms and investors enter the Caribbean market whose activities may have climate and environmental impacts.

Additionally, human rights offer a normative and institutional framework for strengthened accountability and international co-operation for those responsible for adverse impacts of climate change. It may be argued that states should be encouraged to take climate action on this basis and do more in their capacity to assist and contribute to the financing of climate adaptation programs. This might be a useful bargaining chip in the realm of international relations and negotiations. For small developing states, such accountability can be used as a tool of moral suasion against large carbon emitting States like the USA which have retreated from global actions on climate change, or to spur States who are already implementing climate action targets to redouble their efforts.

Diagonal Environmental Rights

Further to policy, human rights law has an incredible potential to fill in a missing legal gap present in the international legal framework addressing climate change. The carbon emissions from large industrial States have a disproportionate impact on small lesser emitting States. Citizens of small developing States are thus marginalized and face aggravated vulnerability to human rights impacts from climate change. Yet currently there exists no formal legal mechanism for citizens to claim climate justice against large states responsible for impacting on and violating their human rights. This is referred to a Diagonal Environmental Rights; a term coined by John Knox the United Nations Independent on Human Rights relating to a safe, healthy and sustainable environment. Without going into the theory of a State’s extra-territorial human rights obligations, and proving causation, I submit that the ability to claim climate justice is well founded in the principles of international law.

As previously stated, no formal international diagonal environmental rights legal mechanism exists. Given the state of geo- political madness that has taken hold of multilateralism, I also do not see one being created and implemented by UN Member States. As the experience of the Paris Agreement has shown, it is a challenge just to get a critical mass of countries- let alone all countries- to participate in an international environmental agreement.

Therefore, the greatest hope is that existing international human rights mechanisms, such as the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR), and domestic courts are flexible enough to accommodate climate change litigation. There has been jurisprudence emerging from domestic courts that successfully incorporates rights-based arguments to climate change e.g. Pakistan in the case of Leghari v Federation of Pakistan.

Albeit these claims were made in the context of litigation by citizens against their own State for failing to respond to climate change. Nevertheless, such cases do much to add shape and contour to this emerging body of climate justice jurisprudence. They set precedents on which international, and broader litigation may find success.

Stefan Newton is a graduate of the University of the West Indies Faculty of Law.  The views reflected here are entirely his own.

IMO Member Countries adopt pathway to reduce shipping carbon footprint

Alicia Nicholls

Member countries of the United Nations specialised agency charged with regulating the shipping industry, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), adopted the first greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction framework for the shipping industry. This decision came at the 72nd session of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) held in London from April 9-13.

The Initial Strategy adopted by IMO member countries has set a target of halving greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from ships by 2050 vis-a-vis emissions levels in 2008. This move brings the shipping industry closer in line with the goals of the Paris Climate Change Agreement signed by over 190 countries in 2015, but to which the shipping industry (like the aviation industry) is not bound.

Some 80% of the volume of global trade is carried by ships. The phenomenon of mega-ships has seen a doubling in container ship capacity, and improvements in engine efficiency have increased the ability to travel longer distances in shorter time. However, the industry is estimated to account for 2-3% of global GHG emissions, including carbon dioxide and sulphur. A study entitled “Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Global Shipping: 2013-2015” found that CO2 and other emissions from ships were increasing, despite increases in efficiency. Aside from the very real climate impact, emissions  from ships have public health risks for persons who live on or near the coast.

So what was decided?

Under the Initial Strategy, IMO States agreed:

  • To reduce total annual GHG emissions from international shipping by at least 50% compared to 2008
  • The peak and decline of GHG shipping emissions completely by the end of the century
  • To reduce the carbon intensity of ships through implementation of further phases of the energy efficiency design index for new ships
  • A working group will develop a program of follow-up actions to the Initial Strategy, and will consider ways to reduce shipping GHG emissions in order to advise the committee and will report at the next session of the MEPC in October 2018
  • The Initial Strategy is to be revised by 2023.

As noted by the IMO, achievement of these targets will require continued innovations in shipping design and technology to maximise energy efficiency and decarbonisation through use of alternative and renewable energy sources.

Agreement on the Initial Strategy did not come easy and reflects a compromise. Small Island Developing States, China and the European Union for example, had advocated for a more ambitious emissions reduction target of at least 70%, which scientists argue would put the sector more on track to meeting the Paris Agreement goal to limit global temperature increases to well-below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.  Others like the US, Saudi Arabia and Brazil had argued for lower targets.

Some environmental groups have posited that the compromise target of 50% is not enough to bring shipping emissions in line with the target set out by the Paris Agreement.

Nonetheless, the Initial Strategy is an important milestone as, after years of delay, it represents the first pathway forward for reducing the shipping industry’s carbon footprint. In March this year, a  mandatory data collection system for fuel oil consumption of ships also came into force.

The full IMO press release may be viewed here.

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.

COP23: Five Negotiation Priorities for Small Island Developing States (SIDS)

Alicia Nicholls

In about a week’s time, delegates from over 190 countries will convene in Bonn, Germany for the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). During this round of climate negotiations, which will last from November 6-17th, the parties will continue work on implementation guidelines for the Paris Climate Change Agreement signed at COP21 in December 2015.

Despite United States’ President Donald Trump’s statement in June that the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, there is some cause for optimism that this year’s COP negotiations will bear fruit. For the first time, a small island developing state (SIDS), the Republic of Fiji, has assumed the presidency of COP and brings to this task first-hand experience from the front lines of the climate change battle.

Secondly, recent natural disasters worldwide have brought increased international attention to the devastating effects of climate change and the need for urgent action on reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. This point was well-made by President of Fiji, Mr. Frank Bainimarama, who stated at a Pre-COP Ministerial Meeting held on October 17 in Fiji that:

“We can no longer ignore this crisis. Whether it is fires in California, Portugal and Spain. Flooding in Nigeria, India and Bangladesh. The dramatic Arctic melt. Ice breaking off the continent of Antarctica. The recent hurricanes that devastated the Caribbean and the southern United States. Or the hurricane that has just struck Ireland and Scotland – the tenth hurricane of the Atlantic season this year. It’s hard to find any part of the world that is unaffected by these events.”

Thirdly, except for the US, political will among the world’s most powerful nations has coalesced on the side of climate action. The 19 other G20 countries reaffirmed their “strong commitment” to the Paris Agreement, calling it “irreversible” in their Summit Declaration following the Hamburg meeting in July.

Below are five key likely priorities for SIDS as they go into the negotiations:

  1. Scaling up Climate Finance to SIDS

At COP15 in 2009, developed countries committed to jointly mobilise USD 100 billion annually by 2020 to meet the mitigation and adaptation needs of developing countries. According to an OECD study, climate-related concessional finance has increased in both absolute terms and as a percentage of total concessional development finance, however annual commitments for 2014 were still 20% of the USD100 billion goal.

SIDS often find it difficult to attract private financial inflows for development purposes due to their small size and economies, and current financing levels do not meet their current needs. Moreover, current graduation criteria have made some middle and upper income SIDS, like those in the Caribbean, ineligible for certain types of concessional financing.

Pledged contributions, whether to the Green Climate Fund or otherwise, also do not necessarily always lead to timely disbursement, and there is the need for guidelines and protocols for incorporating the Adaptation Fund established at COP7 into the Paris Agreement’s framework.

Finding innovative and effective ways to attract and increase financial flows, including from both public and private and bilateral and multilateral sources, will be key. For example, Fiji became the first developing country to issue a sovereign green bond, with technical support from the World Bank, to support the country’s mitigation and adaptation efforts.

  1. Loss and damage

Loss and damage was one of the most contentious topics in the negotiations leading up to the Paris Agreement and was strongly lobbied for by SIDS and LDCs as they are the least culpable but most vulnerable to the harshest impacts of climate change. The concept recognises that there is some irreversible damage which cannot be avoided through mitigation and adaptation strategies.

The Paris Agreement has recognised the concept of ‘loss and damage’ as a distinct concept of climate action and has made the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage permanent. It, however, does not deal with liability or compensation, something which developed countries were adamant they did not wish to be included. The softer language used in Article 8, which, inter alia, itemises areas for cooperation and facilitation, is reflective of these developed country concerns.

The costliness of this year’s Atlantic hurricane season is an important background against which SIDS should call for greater discussion on concretely addressing loss and damage, including the successful launch of the Clearing House for Risk Transfer which is slated to take place at COP23.

  1. Adaptation and Mitigation

Developed countries’ continued and increased support will be necessary to assist SIDS in implementing national climate action plans, policies and projects in order to build climate resilience. This support for adaptation and mitigation includes not just financial support, but technology transfer and capacity building and technical assistance.

Certain groups within societies are particularly vulnerable to climate change, including women and children, the disabled and indigenous and rural communities. As such, the COP23 negotiations will involve operationalizing the Gender Action Plan and the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platforms.

  1. More ambitious NDCs

Some 163 parties have already submitted their Nationally Determined Contributions which outline their emission reduction targets toward meeting the goal set out in Article 2 of the Paris Agreement of keeping average global temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and as close as possible to 1.5 degrees Celsius. These NDCs may be found at the interim NDC registry.

However, the May 2016 synthesis report on the aggregate effect of INDCs showed that a higher level of ambition will be needed in order to reach the goal in Article 2.

SIDS will want all parties to communicate to more ambitious NDCs after 2018 in order to meet the temperature goals in the Agreement and in keeping with the Article 4(3) commitment of communicating successively progressive NDCs.

  1. Preparations for Facilitative Dialogue 2018

The Facilitative Dialogue which will take place in 2018 will be the first initial opportunity under the Paris Agreement to take stock of parties’ collective progress in a transparent manner towards meeting the Agreement’s long-term goal and inform the preparation of NDCs. It will be a precursor to the Global Stock Take, the first of which will take place in 2023 and will occur every five years thereafter.

The Facilitative Dialogue 2018 will be launched at COP23 and parties will need to organise and decide on the procedures, events and expected outcomes in time for its convening. The President of Fiji, who must be commended on his country’s excellent work on preparations for COP23 to date, has indicated that these talks will approached on the principle of ‘talanoa’, a Pacific concept which values inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue.

A copy of the negotiating agenda for COP23 (current as at this date) may be viewed here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a 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.

 

Paris Climate Change Agreement Enters into Force: What next?

Alicia Nicholls

“Humanity will look back on November 4, 2016, as the day that countries of the world shut the door on inevitable climate disaster and set off with determination towards a sustainable future.” Joint Statement by Patricia Espinosa, UNFCCC Executive Secretary and Salaheddine Mezouar, President of COP22 and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of the Kingdom of Morocco

It is with these poignant words that United Nations (UN) Climate Chief, Patricia Espinosa, and President of COP22 and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of the Kingdom of Morroco,  Salaheddine Mezouar, heralded the entry into force of the Paris Agreement just shy of twelve months after it was agreed to by nearly 200 parties at the UNFCCC’s Twenty-first Conference of the Parties (COP-21) in Paris, December 2015. November 4 was indeed a momentous day for the global community and planet Earth and the Agreement’s early entry into force signals countries’ strong stated commitment to global climate action. However, the hard work now begins.

Background

The historic Paris Agreement sets the overarching framework for global climate action. It is the culmination of years of hard-fought negotiations and compromise. Inter alia, countries around the world have committed themselves to “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5  degrees Celsius.”

This more ambitious latter threshold of “1.5 degrees Celsius” was strongly advocated for by Small Island Developing States (SIDS) which, despite their negligible contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, are the most vulnerable to the adverse and deadly effects of climate change. This harsh reality was reiterated in October 2016 when Haiti was struck by Hurricane Matthew, which took 1,000 innocent lives and has left 800,000 persons without food. The Bahamas, parts of Cuba and also of the southeastern United States also felt some of Matthew’s fury. Outside of more devastating weather events and changing weather patterns, some of the other effects of climate change include coral bleaching, sea level rise and beach erosion, which have implications for fisheries, tourism and agriculture, industries upon which many small states’ economies and livelihoods depend.

This universally accepted climate change accord was signed by over 190 parties on Earth Day (April 1, 2016). However, the Agreement could have only entered into force once at least 55 countries accounting for at least an estimated 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions had ratified the Agreement. This threshold was reached on October 5, 2016 and the Agreement entered into force 30 days later on November 4, 2016. According to UNFCCC, ninety-seven (97) countries accounting for an estimated two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions have ratified. Most major  greenhouse gas emitting parties, including the US, China, the European Union and India, have ratified the Agreement.

It’s Show time!

It is one thing to sign off on the dotted line. It is another thing to actually implement the Agreement. In regards to the fight against climate change, we are quickly reaching the point of no return. Here are some not so fun stats:

  • Global greenhouse gas emissions, including CO2 emission levels, have continued to rise. The World Meterological Organisation (WMO) reported that globally average CO2 levels reached 400 parts per million for the first time in 2015 and in 2016 again due to El Nino.
  • 2015 was the hottest year on record, surpassed only by the first six-months of 2016.
  • According to NASA, global  surface temperatures continue to rise, while “[f]ive of the first six months of 2016 also set records for the smallest respective monthly Arctic sea ice extent since consistent satellite records began in 1979”.

As United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon is reported to have said, “[w]e remain in a race against time”.

Even more concerning is that current emissions reduction targets pledged  by counties in their Nationally Determined Contributions are not enough to maintain the temperature increase to the ambitious levels set by the Paris Agreement. This was reconfirmed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in its most recent Emissions Gap Report released the day before the Paris Agreement entered into force, which stated as follows:

Even if fully implemented, the unconditional Intended Nationally Determined Contributions are only consistent with staying below an increase in temperature of 3.2°C by 2100 and 3.0°C, if conditional Intended Nationally Determined Contributions are included (page xvii).

Another issue which is critical for developing countries’ efforts towards transitioning to low carbon and climate-resilient development is that of climate change financing. This is particularly important for SIDS, some of which are highly-indebted and with limited capacity to mobilise adequate domestic financing to fund their climate change adaptation and mitigation needs. Reiterating a promise made at Copenhagen and Cancun, developed countries have pledged in the Paris Agreement to jointly mobilise US$100 billion a year in climate change finance by 2020 from a variety of sources.

However, some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have argued that the US$100 billion annual goal is not nearly enough. There may be some merit to this argument. For example, a 2013 report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimated that “[i]nfrastructure investment required for sectors such as agriculture, transport, power and water under current growth projections stands at about US$ 5 trillion per year to 2020.”

There is, however, some encouraging news. The Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment Report 2016 reported that in 2015, investments in renewable energy reached nearly $286 billion, more than six times more than in 2004. Moreover, for the first time, more than half of all added power generation capacity came from renewables.

So what is next?

The modalities for the Agreement’s implementation will be top of mind when the latest round of UN Climate talks commence this week in Marrakech, Morocco. Three critical sets of UN climate meetings will be occurring:

  • The twenty-second session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 22)
  • The twelfth session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP 12)
  • The first session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA 1).

The provisional agendas for each set of meetings are available on UNFCCC’s website. In regards to CMA1’s agenda, they are expected to “consider and adopt decisions on the modalities, procedures and guidelines on the implementation of the Paris Agreement” in addition to organisational and other matters.

The elephant in the room is the upcoming US presidential election. The US is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, accounting for an estimated 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Its future climate action will be determined by the results of Tuesday’s poll. President Obama has pledged to cut U.S. Climate Pollution by 26-28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.

In complete contrast from current US climate policy, the Republican presidential nominee, Mr. Donald Trump, has famously called climate change a “Chinese hoax” and has gone as far as threatened to pull the US out of the Agreement. Although it would take about four years before the US can formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement, in the intervening time, Mr. Trump could still undo the US’ progress on climate change action by overturning the executive actions President Obama has implemented to fight climate change, cancelling funding for clean energy initiatives, and reducing and eliminating aid to developing countries for climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Therefore, as I argued in a previous post, the future of US and global climate action, will depend significantly on the outcome of Tuesday’s poll.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a 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.

Climate Change, the US Elections and Small Island Developing States’ Survival

Alicia Nicholls

We are the first generation to be able to end poverty, and the last generation that can take steps to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Future generations will judge us harshly if we fail to uphold our moral and historical responsibilities.” – Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations.

In a step that was both historic and symbolic, the Presidents of the United States (US) and China last week ratified the Paris Agreement ahead of the on-going G20 summit in Hangzhou, China. This single showing of solidarity by the world’s two largest industrialised powers was welcomed news for the small island developing states (SIDS) such as those in the Caribbean, Pacific and the Africa, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean and South China Sea (AIMS) states. Through the 44-member Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), SIDS  pushed not only for the conclusion of the Paris Agreement but insisted on the inclusion of language in the Agreement in which parties endeavored to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels” (Article 2(a) of the Paris Agreement).

SIDS are the least culpable but most physically and economically vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. Rising sea levels have dislocated coastal communities and threaten the territorial integrity of the Pacific states of Kiribati and the Marshall Islands. Earlier this year, Cyclone Winston caused US1.4billion in damage, with the highest economic and human toll in Fiji, while Tropical Storm Erika in 2015 cost the Caribbean state of Dominica nearly half of its GDP. However, as the story of a remote Alaskan village which has voted to relocate from their ancestral home because of sea level rise shows, climate change is not a SIDS’ problem alone. It is a cross-cutting global issue which has implications not just for the global environment but for human health, security, sustainable development and economic growth.

So what does all of this have to do with the upcoming election for the 45th President of the US? Well, if one considers the wide disparity in climate change rhetoric and policy proposals between the two major candidates running for the Oval Office, it is pellucid that the election of either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump is the difference between strong US support for reducing GHG emissions and leading the global fight against climate change on the one hand, and on the other, a reversal of the gains that have been hard fought for. In other words, the future of SIDS’ survival could depend on the outcome of the US election.

Current US climate change policy

Current US policy supports global climate change efforts. US President Obama’s three-pronged Climate Action Plan commits to cutting carbon pollution in America, preparing the US for the impacts of climate change, and critically for the Paris Agreement, leading international efforts to address Global Climate Change. This is a policy position which Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, has pledged to honour should she be elected to office by the American people this November.

The Paris Agreement was concluded in December 2015 at the end of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21). Since the Agreement’s opening for signature in April 2016, over 180 states have signed. However, as of September 3, only 26 states so far (representing 39% of global emissions) have ratified it. The recent ratification by the US and China, which together account for about nearly 40% of GHG emissions, is a significant step towards the threshold needed for the Agreement to come into effect; ratification by at least 55 countries which contribute to 55% of global GHG emissions. According to a White House press release on the US-China Climate Change cooperation outcomes, the two countries “committed to working bilaterally and with other countries to advance the post-Paris negotiation process and to achieve successful outcomes this year in related multilateral fora”.

Climate Change Platforms of Candidates 

While a four-way race in theory, the candidates of the two major parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, still have a large lead ahead of the two other candidates (Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party). Perhaps never before has there been such wide disparity in the positions of two US presidential candidates on the issue of climate change. The democratic candidate, former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has vowed to “take on the threat of climate change and make America the world’s clean energy superpower”. Some of her major policy initiatives to this end are: launching a $60 billion Clean Energy Challenge, investing in clean energy production and infrastructure, cutting methane emissions across the economy and prioritising environmental and climate justice, inter alia.

This stands in stark contrast to the stated position of Republican candidate, billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump, who, inter alia, tweeted in November 2012 that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”. He later said he was joking. Unfortunately, for the world, and especially for SIDS, climate change is no joking matter.

While Trump’s skepticism on the anthropogenic nature of climate change is not dissimilar to that of most Congressional Republicans, a Sierra Club report has rightly stated that “if elected, Trump would be the only world leader to deny the science of climate change.” He has also denounced the Paris Agreement as a bad deal for America, ascertaining it “gives foreign bureaucrats control over how much energy we use right here in America”, a claim soundly and poignantly rejected by the US special envoy for climate change (2009-2016) in a Washington Post op-ed. Mr. Trump first asserted he would renegotiate the Agreement and later stated that he would ‘cancel‘ the US’ participation in it. He has railed against environmental regulations. His proposals to reverse President Obama’s climate change initiatives, abolish the US Environmental Protection Agency, save the coal industry and continue subsidies to the oil and gas industry would jeopardise the US’s current emission reduction targets.

Implications for SIDS of US Climate Policy Change

Should a President Trump, if elected, implement his stated policies, not only will there be a 360 degree reversal of the US’ current commitment to meeting its emission-reduction targets, but an end to US cooperation or support for the global climate change agenda. If this happens, there will be little the world could do,besides raise universal condemnation. This is because one weakness of the Paris Agreement is that there is no binding enforcement mechanism in the agreement to force compliance of countries to the emissions limits they set for themselves. Already, there is skepticism that the current “nationally determined contributions” are not ambitious enough to conform with the Agreement’s goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels” (Article 2(a) of the Paris Agreement).

Secondly, should the US withdraw from the Agreement or renege on its commitments, some other high emitters may feel less of a moral imperative to follow through with their own commitments or may withdraw as well.

Thirdly, climate change finance is important for SIDS’ adaptation to, and mitigation of, the effects of climate change. Under Article 9 of the Paris Agreement developed country members are obligated to provide “financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention”.

Caribbean countries  and several other vulnerable states around the world have benefited significantly over the years from the US Department of International Aid (USAID)’s projects which aim to build countries’ resilience to climate change. Climate change was one of the Obama Administration’s priorities for DA funding with $310.3 million in funding requested for Global Climate Change in the FY2017 Budget Request. The future of USAID aid flows to developing countries for climate change adaptation is bleak if current US policy towards climate change action changes under a Trump administration.

What then for SIDS?

The aim of this article is NOT to be an endorsement of either of the two major candidates running for the upcoming US Presidential election, neither is it an attempt to influence the American people’s decision. The US election is a democratic choice for the American people and only they can decide which of the four candidates’ platform better serves their interests. What this article attempts to do is to discuss and show the wide policy differences which exist between the two candidates of the major parties on climate change, and argues that any negative change in current US climate change policy will have far-reaching implications for the global climate change fight.

There are a few nuggets of hope, however.  Because of Article 28 of the Paris Agreement, a President Trump would have to wait at least three years from the date the Agreement has entered into force in the US before he could notify his intention to withdraw the US from the Agreement and it would take another year for such withdrawal to come into effect.Any US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is unlikely to be a popular move among Americans. Recent US polling data show there is grassroots support for Climate Change. Action. This includes not just environmental lobbies but the ordinary man on the street. There would also be universal condemnation by other major countries.

SIDS may have a few allies in the fight within the US. Outside of federal action, some states, like Oregon, have quite robust climate change initiatives. Moreover, faced with pressure from more discerning and environmentally-aware consumers, more businesses and large corporations are forced to demonstrate their use of energy-friendly processes and products.

Despite this, however, besides lobbying and moral suasion by other countries, there is little SIDS  can realistically do to change US climate change policy should there be a reversal. The vote for US president is a decision only the US electorate can make. However, for SIDS it could be a matter of survival.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a 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.

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