21 Years of COP…

By Winnie Khaemba


‘You have been negotiating all my life’ lamented a Youth NGO’s Constituency  (YOUNGO) representative while making an intervention at a UNFCCC COP 17 session in Durban, South Africa in 2011. Four years on, the world is rife with anticipation that the UNFCCC COP 21 in Paris will at long last deliver on a global climate deal applicable to all, which is fair, ambitious, and legally binding. Whatever this will translate to in real terms - and how a cocktail with all these ingredients can be made - remains to be seen.

What is clear now is that Paris appears to be set on a deal, binding or non-binding, which will succeed the Kyoto Protocol. Countries have been in a rush to submit their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) a reflection of national action to combat climate change. But what exactly is at stake in Paris? Scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  (IPCC) have warned that if urgent action is not taken, the world will set itself on a dangerous path with climate change impacts projected to increase in both frequency and intensity. Action by countries to curb greenhouse gas emissions has been long coming, but there is worry that an aggregation of already submitted INDCs representing 147 parties falls above the 2 degree threshold that scientists and countries agree is the limit within which global warming should be maintained.

Tracking the 21 years of COP

Tackling the global climate change challenge begun with the adoption of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992 after IPCC scientists had warned of global warming caused by increasing green house gas emissions in the late 1980’s. The UNFCCC came into force in 1994 and in 1995, the first conference of parties was held in Berlin.  It is however not until 1997, in Kyoto Japan that parties agreed to the Kyoto Protocol setting out clear targets and obligations for Annex 1 countries to cut emissions by 5% in reference to 1990 levels by 2012. One hundred and ninety two (192) countries are party to the Kyoto Protocol but it is worth noting that the US, the biggest historical emitter is not party to the Protocol. Subsequent COPs focused on getting the protocol into force, this happened in 2005. Emissions have continued to rise since even though some 20countries with obligations met their commitments mainly because some of the world’s major polluters (US, China and India) were not party thus had no binding commitments for emission cuts.

In Montreal, Canada during COP 11 countries agreed to Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA) setting the stage for a shared vision on climate change. The Nairobi Work Program on Adaptation resulted from COP 12 held in Nairobi in 2006 putting adaptation issues to the limelight of negotiations. However, it is not until COP 13 in Bali that a clear mechanism for moving forward seemed to emerge in the form of the Bali Action Plan which established the Long-term Cooperative Action Ad Hoc Working Group to look at adaptation, mitigation, finance, technology and a common vision for cooperative action.

At the same time negotiations under the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Kyoto Protocol continued both aiming to conclude their work and reach an agreement at COP in Copenhagen.  This did not happen, instead COP 15 produced the Copenhagen Accord, negotiated and agreed on by only a few parties, which the COP merely took note of. Interestingly it is this Accord that later crystallized into the Cancun Agreements in 2010. Whereas the Copenhagen summit stands, for many, as a reminder of the complexity and fragility of multilateral negotiations and how things could go wrong, it served as a turning point highlighting the core importance of transparency, inclusion, consultation and building trust in order to come to a consensus.

The Copenhagen Accord came with ‘faststart’ finance where developed countries pledged 30billion USD to address climate change in 2 years (2010-2012). The extent to which this has been achieved is debatable with the EU reporting that it had surpassed its target. However, it is unclear how much of the EU’s 7.34billion ‘fast-start’ finance was new and additional since the figures were inclusive of funds channeled through existing bilateral and multilateral means including as Official Development Assistance (ODA). It was widely understood that ‘fast-start finance would be new and additional but this understanding was obviously not shared by all parties. Besides ‘fast-start’ finance raised the issue of sustainability with parties noting that funding would be unpredictable and unclear if a long-term finance mechanism was not established.

The Cancun Agreements contained what had been achieved through the two negotiating tracks, AWG-KP and AWG-LCA, agreeing on a long- term vision of 2degrees[1] warming relative to pre-industrial levels. This COP also decided on Monitoring, Reporting and Verification as well as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. Other outcomes included the Cancun Adaptation Framework and the Adaptation Committee, which further raised the profile of adaptation. A Technology Mechanism (with the Technology Executive Committee and the Climate Technology Centre and Network) was established to facilitate technology transfer through information sharing, technical assistance and promoting collaboration. Technology transfer remains a challenge with inadequate financing for climate technologies for developing countries as well as barriers to accessing IPR. Additionally, COP 16 set in place the Green Climate Fund (GCF) to provide resources to help the most vulnerable cope with climate change. The GCF is now operational with 20 accredited entities and at a recent board meeting in Zambia, it approved funding for an initial set of eight (8) projects.

COP 17 in Durban resulted in the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action and the creation of an Ad Hoc Working Group on the same (ADP) required to work on a new agreement with legal force ‘applicable to all’. A 2nd Commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol was agreed upon, but it wasn’t until COP 18 in Doha that this was finalized with a time period set for 2020 to avoid a gap, effectively winding up the AWG-KP. The Doha Climate Gateway also wound up the AWG-LCA.

COP 19 in Warsaw resulted in the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and damage and the REDD+ framework. This COP effectively set in motion the INDCs process in which countries would make mitigation pledges. In 2014, the Lima Call for Climate Action resulted from COP 20. It agreed on some elements to form the basis of the COP 21 agreement as well as a process for INDC submission and their review. A decision was also reached to set in motion the operationalization of the Warsaw Framework on loss and damage. It is expected that at COP 21 and at future negotiations the Loss and damage framework will be strengthened to address the needs of states and communities at risk especially the small island states and least developed countries by addressing issues of reparations, insurance and territorial loss among other outstanding issues. COP 20 also agreed on the Lima Work program on gender aspects of which are set to be contained in the final Paris outcome.

What has been achieved over the 21 years of COP?

In these years of negotiations, awareness levels on climate change have significantly increased but so have climate induced extremes. Countries have sent in their National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) and Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) a key outcome of the Cancun meeting in 2010 which have helped countries put in place measures to address the challenge yet these have done little to halt the effects of climate change in these countries. Political and economic will to address climate change by the developed countries has been slow but steadily growing in the past decade mostly as a result of increased scientific evidence, public pressure to act on climate change and increased climate extremes such as floods, drought, typhoons and hurricanes among others. In these many years of negotiations, adaptation support to developing countries has been emphasized. However, in most developing countries funding for adaptation remains limited with little national resources allocated to climate change activities and financial flows from the developed countries waning as the financial downturn took its toll.

Despite the constraints, some countries such as Rwanda have gone ahead to set up their own national climate funds and some such as Bangladesh, one of the most vulnerable countries, have set in place local adaptation plans to tackle climate change.

In terms of engagement at the negotiations, there has been a marked increase in civil society participation, indigenous communities, youth and women participation and inclusion in government delegations as well as in climate change response activities. Issues of gender and inter and intra-generational equity as well as inclusivity feature more in outcome decisions and countries own initiatives. More needs to be done especially in emphasizing the contribution of these groups in fashioning climate change solutions. Capacity building has also yielded results with increased negotiator capacity and understanding of the issue and the attendant domestication of the UNFCCC process at national and regional level.

In consideration of this, it is difficult to assess what has been achieved in 20 years of negotiations on climate change in the context of the UNFCCC objective in Article 2 but a Post-2020 framework may provide a definitive answer to this. After all Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) are a process and climate change futures are uncertain thus time and advanced scientific and technological knowledge may have helped create the urgency with which the world now has to act. Buoyed by increased participation and goodwill from the public as well as global leaders including the Pope, Paris may indeed be the defining moment the world has been waiting for, a crowning of the over 20 years of international climate change policymaking and cooperation to combat climate change.

Paris-espoir: what prospects?

The climate negotiations have come full cycle it seems, what has changed is that most countries are now willing to do something about climate change as exemplified by the submission of mitigation pledges in the form of INDCs ahead of COP 21.

It is little wonder therefore that the Paris meeting has been put on a pedestal – as some sort of panacea - to finally solve a problem that won’t simply go away.

For the Paris negotiations, a number of issues stand out with numerous expectations for different stakeholders in a climate deal ‘applicable to all’. These include financing with the expectation that developed countries will commit to stable funding (additional to Overseas Development Assistance) to boost adaptation and mitigation efforts in developing countries. It is also expected that there will be progress on technology transfer discussions opening the way for fair terms and concessions on transfer of technologies for mitigation and adaptation between not only the global north and the global south but also south-to-south collaboration. Deeper greenhouse gas emission cuts are still needed from historical and emerging polluters to keep the planet under the two (2) degree limit as are further adaptation measures and capacity building to ensure the survival for communities that are already affected.  

A number of questions come to mind, including what will a deal ‘applicable to all look like? What compliance mechanisms will be put in place to overcome past challenges? Will countries agree to deeper emission cuts? What will be the place of adaptation in a post-2020 agreement? What will be the outcome on financing and technology for both adaptation and mitigation? What role will the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities play? And ultimately, what sort of deal will the Paris meeting agree to? Will it be legally binding? Ultimately, these questions place great hopes in the Paris talks but it remains to be seen if these hopes will come to pass….  

[1] Developing countries maintain that the vision should be 1.5 degrees, noting that 2 degrees means devastating impacts for most vulnerable communities