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Updated: Feb 10, 2021

by Natalie Jones

Governments of the world have been negotiating on climate change for at least as long as I have been alive. This year is the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which aims to conclude a new globally applicable agreement on climate change, under the existing convention.

Geopolitical dynamics dominate the talks. A foundation of the UNFCCC agreement is the concept of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities”, which is the idea that countries should contribute, in terms of emissions cuts and finance, in a way that is proportionate to both their responsibility for the problem, and their capacity to help fix it. Although these words sound deceptively simple, the debate over what, precisely, they mean has spanned twenty years.

How did we get here?

At the core of the equity issue is that those countries which have contributed least to the problem are most often the ones that will be most affected by it, yet have the least capacity to adapt. The way climate change will affect those living in the slums of Mumbai or working on subsistence farms in Nicaragua vastly differs from how it will impact those living in suburban England or Norway, yet it is the latter countries who have contributed more, per capita, to the problem and have benefited from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas.

The Kyoto Protocol, the precursor to the agreement currently being negotiated, was founded on a division of countries into “Annex I” (developed) and “Non Annex I” (developing), meaning that only developed countries had to take binding emissions cuts. There will be no such stark dichotomy in the new agreement, which countries have already agreed must be ‘applicable to all’.

Last Saturday, the draft negotiating text was finalised. This text is much improved from the beginning of the conference, with more streamlined language and a lot fewer square brackets (which signify that the text within them is still disputed). But there are still crucial arguments yet to be resolved. Now, at the start of the second week of negotiations, government Ministers have arrived to sort out the trickiest negotiating issues.

The key issues here in Paris

  1. Keeping every country above water

Way back in Cancun in 2010, COP16 agreed to the goal of keeping global average temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius. This is the internationally agreed “safe limit” or “defense line”, meaning that to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change we must stay within 2 degrees.

However, the problem with a 2 degree goal is that many countries, communities and indigenous peoples are already experiencing the adverse effects of climate change, and even a 2 degree increase will cause existential threats. For instance, small island states like the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Kiribati would be underwater in a 2 degree world. As a result, there is a large campaign here to move the long term goal from 2 degrees to 1.5 degrees.

One of the most interesting developments so far at COP is that many countries – at last count numbering over one hundred – have come out in support of including a reference to a 1.5 degree goal in the agreement. This will be one of the most interesting things to track over the next few days.

But we still see that there are several options for the long term goal in the draft agreement.

  1. Raising ambition

A crucial issue here in Paris is that so far countries’ Intended Nationally Determined Contributions have only added up to enough emissions reductions to lead to 2.7 degrees of average global warming. This is still far above where we need to be to stay below even the 2 degree target, let alone 1.5. How can the agreement get countries to reduce their emissions to the level required?

The Paris Ambition Mechanism, affectionately known as PAM, is the touted answer to this problem. What it will contain, however, is still up for discussion.

  1. Climate finance, technology transfer and capacity building

Many developing countries argue that to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and adapt to the effects of climate change, finance is required from developed countries. Similarly, it is argued that technology transfer is necessary to help developing countries develop in a low carbon way without being trapped in poverty; it would be immensely unfair if stopping greenhouse gas emissions meant that developing countries were locked into their situations forever.

Developed countries have already agreed to provide US$100 billion worth in finance by 2020, but a key issue in Paris is how this goal will be achieved. Likewise, post-2020 finance – whether and how finance should be scaled up – is proving to be a crucial issue.

Access and participation

But it’s often hard to know what exactly is going on inside those rooms. Civil society observers at the UNFCCC, of which I am one, are not allowed in to many negotiating sessions. Sometimes there is a broadcast from inside meetings, but sometimes not. Sometimes we rely on informal google docs written from inside the meetings just to keep track. Civil society access is a crucial barrier to reaching an effective and equitable agreement, as many developing countries rely on civil society to assist their under-resourced government teams.

Intergenerational equity

Youth participation in this agreement is particularly crucial. The bulk of historical carbon emissions have been caused by generations past, and in particular our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. In addition, people who are not yet born have no say in decisions that affect them.

The youth constituency here in Paris campaigns on including intergenerational equity in the agreement text. This is the idea that there should be equity between generations; present generations should leave a world comparable to the one we grew up in, to afford future generations the same rights and opportunities their ancestors had. But the UNFCCC has now been negotiating for, literally, our whole lives, and we have consistently failed to see adequate climate action. Youth representation at the UNFCCC must be more than token, if we are to effectively address the climate crisis.


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