(Paris, France) After several long days, nights, and weekends, we have a historic global climate agreement! The mood the past two weeks of all parties here in the tent city in Le Bourget has been uncharacteristically positive for a round of climate talks and coupled with the firm leadership of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Paris can now be considered a relative success.
The ghosts from Copenhagen have finally been laid to rest
Heading into the last few days, it was readily apparent no one wanted a repeat of the disastrous outcome in Copenhagen in 2009, where nothing substantial was signed and developing countries walked out in protest.
The tone was set early in the day today, despite a few hours delay. Fabius perhaps said it best when he quoted Nelson Mandela, “it always seems impossible until it’s done.” Coincidentally, that was also a sign posted outside the office of the G-77/China bloc, the group of approximately 134 developing countries. All three stressed heavily the concept of unity and cooperation, as Ban said in his statement, “the world is watching…We must protect the planet that sustains us. For that, we need all hands on deck.”
Though the world’s Least Developed Countries Group (LDCs) happily accepted the Paris Agreement to the delight of many exhausted delegates, observers, and journalists there are still some lingering concerns.
As South Africa’s Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa expressed after the final gavel, it is “not perfect…but balanced and the best that we can get at this historic moment.” Most of the LDCs feel that though this was a major leap forward in terms of assigning legal obligations on developed countries as they never had before, loss and damage and “fundamental issues … such as the omission of the phasing out of fossil fuels or the lack of finance for adaptation,” remain unresolved according to Simon Chin-Yee, doctoral researcher at the University of Manchester, and part of the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA) delegation.
The reason for the sticking points comes down to legal language. What’s important to know about the Paris Agreement is that are actually two parts to the official document. The Conference of the Parties (COP) Decision, which is issued at every annual round of talks and the actual Agreement, which is the part that is actually legally binding. In short, what is put in the Decision can be changed with each round of talks, but the Agreement is a done deal.
Sustained Finance Commitments
To circle back to Fabius’ statement from the morning, Molewa said the work on getting “sustained financial commitments” from developed countries in future talks is akin to Nelson Mandela’s quote, “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”
Though the U.S. and EU agreed to language that reads, “Parties to the Paris Agreement shall set a new collective quantified goal from a floor of USD 100 billion per year, taking into account the needs and priorities of developing countries,” the world’s poorest countries argue that it’s placement in the Decision does not legally bind countries to that amount.
They also argue that though language that says developed countries “should continue to take the lead in mobilizing climate finance … noting the significant role of public funds,” there is no binding commitment on making the majority of those funds public or grant-based. The last thing the very poorest need is a loan to repay, public or private, for climate damage they had no part in causing.
Though French President François Hollande said this morning that the world would not judge parties on one clause but the text as a whole, the Agreement language says that developed countries “should represent a progression beyond previous efforts” on climate finance going forward makes all the difference for LDCs. The legal responsibility on financial commitments drastically changes between the simple words of shall which means “will,” and should which is the weaker spin on that.
Loss and Damage, a standalone Article but not enough
Developed countries, especially the USA, didn’t want to come across as insensitive to the needs of the world’s poorest. However, the LDCs also know the realities of trying to negotiate on the concept of “loss and damage,” which is the term used to describe compensation for developing countries and vulnerable populations when climate-related natural disasters occur.
The USA, EU, and other developed countries agreed to make Loss and Damage its own section in the Agreement portion of the document, what Mohammed Adow of Christian Aid says is “a victory in and of itself” because having it as a standalone section means parties will no longer lump it together with the concept of adaptation – the term used in these talks to refer to measures taken to help developing countries adapt to an already-changing climate. Loss and damage is now clearly written as the section meant to help people when it is too late to adapt to the climate because of the devastation already caused.
What was left out of the legally binding portion and, essentially, moved to the Decision portion was perhaps one of the most critical pieces of the loss and damage text: “liability and compensation.” Meaning, developed countries have said that though they agree there needs to be formal, legal recognition of the victims of natural climate-disasters and the infrastructure damage that occurs, the details on who will pay for that and how much will have to be made another year, in another round of talks. Adow notes that this was a compromise parties made so other elements like the addition of a 1.5 degrees Celsius target mention could be “settled” upon.
Though Adow was relatively positive, Azeb Girmai of LDC Watch said before the final agreement was signed today was the “saddest day for all the poor people in the world…especially Africa.” Statements like hers could be heard peppered throughout the civil society observers, but the view is a bit narrow. Indeed, the existing language “does not show any financial security for loss and damage” as Girmai pointed out, but it also does not exclude it.
On to Morocco…
Girmai and others may feel that developing countries were pushed into accepting the terms, but the LDC Group never raised any formal, public objections before Fabius, very quickly, gaveled in the final Paris Outcome. There is no turning back on the agreement, but as Molewa pointed out, work can still be to refine the Paris Decision portion of the outcome. This COP was about getting global consensus on language but as Morocco’s Minister Delegate in Charge of Environment Hakima El Haite put it, “COP22 [in Morocco next year] will be the COP of action.”