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Yulia Yamineva

PhD University of Cambridge, Researcher, Centre for Energy, Climate and Environmental Law, University of Eastern Finland; consultant at the International Institute for Sustainable Development

Climate change is high on the global policy agenda. Not only this is a priority area for the UN and its Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; political, business and religious leaders, including Pope Francis, have joined the plea to take action on slowing down global warming. Despite recent terror attacks in Paris, leaders of more than 120 nations are expected to flock into the French capital in late November for a final act in the multi-year negotiation process on a new UN treaty on climate change.

Climate change is high on the global policy agenda. Not only this is a priority area for the UN and its Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; political, business and religious leaders, including Pope Francis, have joined the plea to take action on slowing down global warming.

Despite recent terror attacks in Paris, leaders of more than 120 nations are expected to flock into the French capital in late November for a final act in the multi-year negotiation process on a new UN treaty on climate change. Multilateral efforts to address global warming have not always been successful in the past with a failed UN meeting in Copenhagen in 2009 being just one example. This year’s meeting in France provides yet another opportunity to agree on a global response to climate change.

The article provides an overview of what to expect from the UN summit on climate change taking place from 30 November to 11 December 2015 in Paris, France. The article begins with background information on climate science, emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and economics of climate change. It then continues with a brief history of developments under the Convention on Climate Change and Kyoto Protocol and moves on to discuss how a Paris agreement is expected to be different from the approach taken in Kyoto. The article further outlines the main elements of a Paris package and analyses the areas of disagreement among nations. It concludes with an analysis of prospects for achieving a successful diplomatic outcome in Paris. The piece reflects on implications for Russia throughout this overview.

Science, emissions and economics

The last year of 2014 was pronounced as the warmest yet in history by the World Meteorological Organisation and the same applied to the first half of 2015. The current change of the global climate is due to unprecedented concentrations of GHGs in the atmosphere. These gases – with carbon dioxide (CO2) being the most important among them – are primarily emitted through the burning of fossil fuels in particular coal and oil but also in agriculture, industry, transportation and buildings sectors. Deforestation also contributes to the rising levels of CO2 as forests serve as carbon sinks in the environment.

The economic costs of climate change are profound: the negative impacts on water resources, food production, health, and the environment if no action is taken would be equivalent to loosing at least 5% of global GDP a year. For Russia, available analyses also show the potentially high costs of climate change: for example, without adaptation measures in the agriculture sector, the annual economic loss from a decrease in climate-determined crop yield is estimated at 108 billion of roubles (approximately 3.5 billion of US dollars) by 2020. The frequency and intensity of extreme nature events will increase in a changing climate, and so will their cost: for instance, damages from forest fires in the unusually hot summer of 2010 were estimated at about 500 billions of roubles, or 1.2 % of the Russian GDP at the time.

Two-thirds of global CO2 emissions are generated in just ten countries with China, the US, India, and Russia topping the list. Per capita emissions however vary: for instance, these were 6.7 metric tons per capita in China against 17 tons per capita in the US, according to the World Bank data for 2011-2015.

UNFCCC, Kyoto Protocol and negotiations on a new agreement

International cooperation to address climate change is clustered under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Convention was adopted in 1992 with the goal to stabilise GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at a level which would prevent dangerous climate change. The two main responses envisaged in the UNFCCC regime are reducing GHG emissions and adapting to impacts of climate change. The agreement is very generic in its language and does not set concrete obligations to reduce emissions or take other action for countries which ratified it – perhaps, for this reason nearly all UN nations are parties to the Convention. In 1997, the Convention was complemented by Kyoto Protocol. Unlike the Convention, the Protocol was more concrete in establishing detailed legally-binding commitments for industrialised countries to reduce their GHG emissions. These obligations were set for 2008-2012 (Kyoto-1). The Protocol was also extended for 2013-2020 (Kyoto-2) albeit with limited participation.

Negotiations on a new agreement on climate change began in 2007 but its culminating UN summit in Copenhagen in 2009 failed to achieve consensus. A new negotiating platform was established in 2011 and is expected to conclude its work in December 2015 in Paris.

How different will a Paris agreement be from Kyoto Protocol?

A new agreement to be potentially concluded in Paris will be fundamentally different from Kyoto Protocol in (1) covering all emitters, not just industrialised countries and (2) following a bottom-up approach in defining individual mitigation actions, as opposed to top-down emission reduction targets which were prescribed under the Protocol.

The Kyoto protocol although revolutionary and innovative on many accounts proved to be ineffective in reducing global emissions of GHGs. This was due to the fact that the Protocol only imposed emission reduction targets on a handful of industrialised countries while the changing global economy meant that emissions were fast-growing in large developing countries. Also, the US – one of major emitting nations in the world – did not ratify the agreement due to the change of presidential administration. As a result of limited participation, the Kyoto Protocol currently covers only 13% of global emissions. In contrast, a new agreement is being negotiated in the framework of universal participation and hence all nations will have to reduce their GHG emissions.

The devil is as usual in detail. The price for getting all nations on board (US and China in particular) was a conceptual rethink of the top-down system of the Kyoto Protocol which defined a common target for GHG emission reductions and translated it into legally-binding targets for individual countries. A new agreement will follow a bottom-up approach where nations themselves decide on what actions they are ready to take. Countries already submitted their plans to the UN known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). As of 20 November, 168 countries corresponding to about 90 % of global emissions submitted their plans. Since there was no common format agreed on INDCs, information submitted by countries varies in terms of sectors and GHGs covered, reference years, time frames, and types of targets (absolute emission reductions, emission intensity reductions, carbon neutrality etc). Still, this is a remarkable development for international climate policy in terms of global participation.

The drawback of such bottom-up system is however in its low ambition. According to the UN Emissions Gap Report, these national plans if fully implemented will lead to limiting the increase of global average temperature to below 3-3.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. On the one hand, this indicates progress compared to what would happen otherwise. On the other hand, any temperature increase above 2 degrees Celsius globally is perceived as too dangerous due to profound, irreversible and costly negative impacts. Current INDCs therefore fall short of the temperature target of 2 degrees, and bridging this gap will be one of the issues to be discussed in Paris.

Main elements of a Paris package

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At this point, there is no clarity on a legal form of a Paris outcome. The formal negotiation mandate suggests a cryptic choice between “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention”. In reality, despite certain countries still calling for a legally-binding agreement, a negotiation outcome is unlikely to contain legally-binding commitments. So its specific provisions on emission reductions pledged in INDCs or financial commitments will not be defined in a binding way. The main reason for that is domestic politics in the US where it would be impossible to pass approval by the Senate or the Congress since Republicans fiercely oppose to any actions to address climate change. To keep the US in the game, the UN has to come up with some innovative way and/or language to reflect INDCs and give a legal effect to a negotiation outcome in Paris. In any case, the outcome will comprise a package consisting of a main agreement under some name and a series of decisions under the Convention.

Regardless of the legal form, the main elements of a Paris package are already known although specific choices are still up for negotiation. These are reflected in the articles of the draft negotiation text which currently runs at 51 page. The text includes the following main elements: mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology, capacity-building, transparency of actions, and review.

The mitigation article comes down to what is a long-term global goal for emission reductions and what is the status of INDCs submitted by countries prior to the Paris meeting. Among options for a long-term goal is for example decarbonisation– a choice which would be very difficult to chew for economies based on extraction of fossil fuels, Russia included. On the status of INDCs, imposing on countries a commitment to implement actions defined in their submissions would be qualified as legally-binding so this course of development is unlikely. Finding another language will be difficult to satisfy all countries.

Adaptation stems from the need to adapt to already occurring negative impacts of climate change. These are unevenly distributed around the world with the most vulnerable countries being also the poorest and having the least capacity to deal with adverse effects of climate change.

Both mitigation and adaptation action in developing countries are strongly connected with support mechanisms in the form of finance, technology development and transfer, and capacity building.

Transparency of actions is an important element in particular in a bottom-up framework where countries themselves define their mitigation actions and hence there cannot be a strong compliance and enforcement structure at the international level. This is otherwise known as a system of measuring, reporting and verifying (MRV) which would allow to compare emission reductions across countries. The question is to what extent such international system should be centralised and detailed or it should be left unspecified. The former could be found too intrusive by many countries while the latter does not allow for a meaningful assessment of national actions on reducing their emissions. Developing countries also expand the question of transparency to finance provided by industrialised countries in attempt to condition their mitigation action upon support provided.

Finally, it will be necessary to conduct a periodic global stocktaking as to whether current emission reductions by countries are sufficient to slow down global warming and keep the temperature increase within 2 degrees. Such periodic reviews are proposed to take place every five years. Since the agreement is expected to enter into force in 2020, the first review would be a while from now, so options for earlier reviews are also on the table.

On a question of market mechanisms, the current negotiation text includes some options but in overall the Paris meeting will provide no specifics. This is another difference from Kyoto Protocol where carbon markets based on the trade of emission permits among countries provided for flexibility in meeting national emission reduction commitments. Russia for instance took advantage of the Joint Implementation scheme which provided investments into energy efficiency, renewables and other low-carbon options. In a new agreement, market mechanisms prove to be difficult to define due to the bottom-up nature of mitigation, complexity and simply political differences in country positions. This is not to say that carbon markets have died as a concept; on the contrary, these have been thriving in countries and regions around the world like the EU, Republic of Korea, California, and Kazakhstan with other countries like China planning to establish their markets in the nearest future.

Main areas of disagreement

Although it seems like the structure of a Paris outcome is in place, there are still profound disagreements among countries on details which will have to be resolved over two weeks of negotiations in order to achieve a successful diplomatic outcome. These disagreements effectively concern three issues – differentiation, finance, and loss and damage (connected to finance).

The question of differentiation has to do with one of the principles of the Convention – the so called principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. While it is assumed that all countries should take responsibility to mitigate climate change, their historical contribution to the current increase in global temperature varies. Industrialised nations are responsible for the current global warming; yet, large developing countries have been developing rapidly which translates into their emissions. In 2012, already 60% of all global emissions originated in non-OECD countries. Still emissions per capita are lower in developing countries and so is their capacity to undertake mitigation and adaptation actions.

Although a new agreement will cover all nations, the question of differentiation still applies. This is an old argument between developed and developing countries which will manifest itself in negotiations on every article of a new agreement. How to differentiate between mitigation actions in developed and developing countries? Should mitigation in developing countries be conditional upon support provided? Should international MRV be different in its principles and process for developed and developing countries and how?

Here, Russia is in a somewhat strange position. In the UN Climate Change Convention, Russia belongs to the group of industrialised countries but enjoys a special status of “economy in transition” meaning that its obligations to reduce emissions should be in principle more flexible. Indeed, the country’s emissions shrunk by nearly 40% in 1990s owing to the post-Soviet collapse of its economy and industry. Despite this, the country remains one of the major GHG emitters in the world. In its INDC, Russia promised to limit its emissions at 70-75% by 2030 from 1990 - the goal which should be achieved comfortably according to the IEA.

Finance is another divisive issue. Developing countries argue they need sufficient financial flows to allow them take action on reducing GHG emissions and adapting to climate change. This finance in their opinion should be predictable and additional to already provided aid for development as well as come from the budgets of developed countries in the form of grants with no conditionalities attached. In 2009, industrialised countries agreed to raise their contributions to 100 billion of US dollars a year by 2020 but this applied to both public and private sector money and a variety of forms including grants and loans. In Paris, developing countries will be insisting on clarity as to how this figure will be achieved as well as on a new quantitative finance goal after 2020. Also, developing countries will argue for increasing finance for adaptation to climate change which is currently being underfinanced.

Another matter is who should provide finance. Traditionally, industrialised countries listed in a special Annex to the Convention have been donors of international finance. However, since 1992 many other countries gained capacity to provide funds. China recently pledged approximately 3 billion US dollars for developing countries to help them address climate change. As for Russia, the country should also use an opportunity to provide climate finance in order to increase its soft power in poorer countries. This could for example be directed to Central Asian countries which are particularly vulnerable to climate change. A recent Russian partnership with the UN Development Programme on development aid could serve as a model for that.

Then, there is an issue of loss and damage connected to irreversible impacts of climate change. For small island states this can mean the loss of land due to rising seas and the need to relocate while for other countries this can translate into severe droughts or floods disrupting agriculture and livelihoods. Loss and damage are a difficult issue in the negotiations morally, politically and methodologically. Vulnerable countries insist on a separate mechanism to address loss and damage from climate change which will be connected to financial support. However, determining causal links between climate change and for example a flood is a complex if not impossible task. There is also a conceptual disagreement with the idea on the part of industrialised countries who refuse to see the loss and damage element as a financial compensation mechanism.

Destined to fail or to succeed?

Given the strong points of contention outlined above, what are the chances that a Paris meeting will be a successful diplomatic event resulting in a new agreement on climate change? There are several reasons for optimism. Almost every country has agreed in principle to taking action on climate change and submitted its national plan to the UN. This is an impressive achievement. Importantly, both the US and China – two most emitting countries in the world – have done their homework and cooperated bilaterally on bridging the gap in opinions.

Steering action on climate change is a legacy issue for the US President Barack Obama. The US has committed to cutting emissions by 26-28% by 2025 from 2005 levels. Apart from bilateral work with China, another achievement of Obama’s administration is the adoption of Clean Power Plan which aims at cutting emissions from the power sector by 32% by 2030 from 2005 levels.

In the last years, China made a rapid evolution from a laggard to a leader in environmental policy. China announced targets to peak CO2 emissions around 2030 and increase the non-fossil fuel share of all energy to around 20% by 2030. Air pollution legislation has been strengthened significantly to combat poor air quality in cities. China’s national carbon market is set to launch in 2017 and will be the largest in the world. The Communist Party and the government announced in September 2015 a new reform plan “to promote ecological progress” comprising of redefining property rights for natural resource assets and introducing market-based mechanisms. China has embraced the green agenda albeit perhaps for other than climate change reasons: its massive air, land and water pollution reached a level where it simply began to pose a threat to social stability and hence became a political issue.

The energy sector is changing too. The price of renewables has dropped sharply and investments in renewables remain strong. Renewables accounted for nearly half of all new power generation capacity in 2014, led by China, the US, Japan and Germany. Also, banks, investors, cities and companies are taking some action on climate change ranging from energy efficiency and fighting deforestation to climate finance reporting and divesting from fossil fuels.

Despite this positive context, major disagreements among developed and developing countries still remain strong and will determine the fate of the Paris summit on climate change. At the same time the pressure on the UN and its member states to deliver a new agreement is huge. The Paris meeting will result in some type of an outcome but this will not contain strong commitments to mitigate climate change. Still, there are many shades of grey where some outcome can be better than nothing. A successfully concluded agreement in Paris will provide a much needed direction for global climate policy and hopefully catalyse further action by a variety of actors at all levels. It is also good to remember that the meeting will not only mark an end to a long and difficult negotiation process but also a beginning of no less complex work on implementation details in the years to come. Part of that process should be strengthening the international regime to bring global efforts in line with climate science.

For Russia, the Paris summit is unlikely to result in serious implications for its domestic policy. This is provided that nations do not decide to expand the circle of donors for delivering finance to climate change projects in developing countries. Still, the UN summit is relevant to Russia as it will hopefully build the foundations of a new international regime on climate change for decades ahead.

In addition, Russia needs to look at the issue of climate change beyond the lens of the environment. Global response to climate change is strongly associated with green tech, green economy and higher productivity at higher efficiency. By ignoring the global climate change and green agenda, Russia risks to lock itself into an outdated development pathway. The government also needs to be mindful of associated developments like divestments from fossil fuels, OECD restrictions on export credits for coal and the rise of renewable sources of energy.

Additional resources:

Guide on the UN climate change regime

World Energy Outlook 2015: Special Report on Energy and Climate Change

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