In all, 195 countries which are parties to the U N Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), reached a landmark agreement on December 12, 2015, in Paris, charting a fundamentally new course in the two-decade-old global climate effort.
The Paris Agreement is widely recognised as launching one of the most significant transformations in human interaction, technology and landscape. India played a significant role in the process, especially in safeguarding differentiation between rich countries and developing countries. India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has expressed his satisfaction that India’s main concerns in all areas have been addressed in the Paris Agreement.
The new treaty, culminating a 4-year negotiating round, ends the strict differentiation between developed countries and developing countries that characterised earlier efforts, replacing it with a common framework that commits all countries to put forward their best efforts and to strengthen them in the years ahead. This includes, for the first time, requirements that all parties report regularly on their emissions and implementation efforts, and undergo international review.
Every country was required to approve the final text, and the deal would have crashed even if a single party disagreed. The final text seems to contain something for everyone, though not nearly enough to satisfy anyone fully.
The Paris Agreement is a treaty under international law, but only certain provisions are legally binding.
The agreement reaffirms the goal of keeping average warming below 2 degrees Celsius, while also urging parties to “pursue efforts” to limit it to 1.5 degrees, a top priority for developing countries which are highly vulnerable to climate impacts.
The agreement and a companion decision by parties were the key outcomes of the conference, known as the 21st session of the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, or COP 21. The main points of the agreement are:
- Reaffirm the goal of limiting global temperature increase well below 2 degrees Celsius, while urging efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees.
- Establish binding commitments by all parties to make “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs), and to pursue domestic measures aimed at achieving them.
- Commit all countries to report regularly on their emissions and “progress made in implementing and achieving” their NDCs, and to undergo international review.
- Commit all countries to submit new NDCs every 5 years, with the clear expectation that they will “represent a progression” beyond previous ones.
- Reaffirm the binding obligations of developed countries under the UNFCCC to support the efforts of developing countries, while, for the first time, encouraging voluntary contributions by developing countries, too.
- Extend the current goal of mobilising $100 billion a year in support by 2020 through 2025, with a new, higher goal to be set for the period after 2025.
- Extend a mechanism to address “loss and damage” resulting from climate change, which explicitly will not “involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation”.
- Require parties engaging in international emissions trading to avoid “double counting”.
- Call for a new mechanism, similar to the Clean Development Mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol, enabling emission reductions in one country to be counted toward another country’s NDC.
Issues of contention
The main issues of contention have been differentiation, financial support, mitigation action, and loss and damage. These terms have been interpreted in the following way: maintaining the difference between rich countries and developing countries through the expression of Article 3 of the Convention; common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR); providing support for developing countries through finance, technology and capacity-building so they can reduce emissions and adapt to climate change impacts; determining whether all major emitters, rich countries and developing countries, should announce a date when their greenhouse-gas emissions would peak; and supporting poor countries that experience loss and damage as a result of warming and deciding whether the language of ‘liability and compensation’ should be preserved.
On the overall question of whether the agreement maintains differentiation between developed countries and developing countries, several experts seem to provide a qualified answer in the affirmative. Many elements of differentiation are embedded in various parts of the agreement even if the language in the preamble itself is not as strong as was hoped for by many developing countries.
The language on differentiation (CBDR) has been expanded to include the term “in the light of different national circumstances”, which is likely to indicate that a previously strict firewall between developed countries and developing countries has been broken down. Also lost in the maelstrom is explicit acknowledgement of the historical responsibility of developed countries.
French President Francois Hollande summed it up thus: “In Paris, there have been many revolutions over the centuries. Today, it is the most beautiful and the most peaceful revolution that has just been accomplished – a revolution for climate change.”
Implications for India
India will have to make considerable efforts to implement the new contours of the agreement, especially the progressive review of goals, monitoring frameworks, and the revised wording of CBDR to consider national circumstances in the Paris Agreement. In particular, the way in which India’s “national circumstances” will be interpreted for financial flows, technology transfer, or capacity-building are not clear since India is a large country with high GDP and millions live in poverty. There are also harsh implications in terms of vulnerability and adaptation because of the severe impacts of climate change that we could expect if global average temperatures rise by 2 degrees or more.
What made this an elusive goal was the long tussle between developed countries and developing countries over who should bear the burden of responsibility. There are criticisms about the stand that India had taken on this. Asked why India made compromises, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said: “To achieve big things, you need to be accommodating without changing the meaning and thrust of agreement and that is success.” The agreement could have been more ambitious as the actions of developed nations are “far below” than their historical responsibilities and fair shares, Javadekar said.
The original UN convention had a stronger language on developed world providing climate finance. Experts say that the current text is weaker. The text also leaves room for confusion on what can be counted as climate funding – for example, developmental aid or loans can be counted as climate finance. Most civil-society experts say the dilution was made following tremendous pressure from the US, which is facing issues with domestic politics, and an umbrella group of developed nations.