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VOL 23 NO 55 REGD NO DA 1589 | Dhaka, Tuesday, January 5 2016
Posted : 05 Jan, 2016 22:53:43 AA-A+
COP 21- is the glass half empty or half full?
Muhammad Zamir

The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 21 or CMP 11 that was held in Paris, France, from November 30 to December 12, 2015 has left some wondering whether it was as successful as claimed by certain leaders. This was the 21st yearly session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 11th session of the Meeting of the Parties to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. 

A number of meetings had already taken place in preparation for COP21, including the Bonn Climate Change Conference, October 19- 23,  2015, which produced a draft agreement. The Organising Committee had earlier stated that the objective of the 2015 Conference was to achieve, for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, a binding and universal agreement on climate, from all the nations of the world.

The Conference took place two weeks after a series of terrorist attacks had shattered the peace of central Paris. Security was tightened ahead of the event with 30,000 police officers and 285 security checkpoints deployed across the country until the conclusion of the Conference. The European Union and 195 nations, including Bangladesh, were the participating parties.

The overarching goal of the Convention was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to limit the increase of global temperature. Since COP 17 this increase had been set at 2 °C (3.6 °F) above pre-industrial levels. Christiana Figueres, a leading figure associated with COP-21, had however acknowledged in the closing briefing at the 2012 Doha Conference that "the current pledges under the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol are clearly not enough to guarantee that the temperature will stay below 2 °C and there is an ever-increasing gap between the action of countries and what the science tells us."

During previous climate negotiations, countries agreed to outline actions they intended to take within a global agreement by October 01, 2015. These commitments were identified as "Intended Nationally Determined Contributions" or INDCs. It was generally agreed that the INDCs would be the common pathway for bringing down global warming from an estimated 4.5+ °C (by 2100) to 2.7 °C, and reducing emissions per capita by 9.0 per cent by 2030, while providing hope to the Conference organisers for further reductions in the future that would allow meeting a 2 °C target. 

On  December 12, 2015 the participating 195 countries agreed by consensus to the final global pact, the Paris Agreement to reduce emissions as part of the method for reducing greenhouse gas. In the 12-page document the members agreed to reduce their carbon output "as soon as possible" and to do their best to keep global warming "to well below 2.0 degrees C". France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said this "ambitious and balanced" plan was a "historic turning point" in the goal of reducing global warming.  However, some others have since criticised the fact that significant sections of the Agreement were "promises" or aims and not firm commitments by the countries.

It may be recalled that the organising committee at the outset of the talks had mentioned that the expected key result of the Conference was to reach the understanding whereby there would be consensus to set a goal of limiting global warming to less than 2.0 degrees Celsius (°C) compared to pre-industrial levels. The agreement reached calls for zero net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to be reached during the second half of the 21st century. In the adopted version of the Paris Agreement, the parties also agreed to "pursue efforts to" limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C. It would however be necessary to point out that the 1.5 °C goal will require zero emissions sometime between 2030 and 2050, according to some scientists.

It is this prospective scenario that has led some analysts to being quite critical about the approach. They are reminding the world that contrary to claims by France and USA, the glass is really half-empty. Some critics have pointed out that the text of the final Agreement is filled with Non-binding commitments and that there is a lack of enforcement mechanisms.

Some analysts have also pointed out that this Agreement will become legally binding only if acceded to by at least 55 countries which together represent at least 55 per cent of global greenhouse emissions. Such parties will need to sign the agreement in New York between 22 April 22, 2016 and April 21, 2017, and also adopt it within their own legal systems (through ratification, acceptance, approval, or accession). 

It is understood that each country that ratifies the agreement will be required to set a target for emission reduction, but the amount will be voluntary. There will unfortunately be no mechanism to compel a country to set a target by a specific date and no enforcement if a set target is not met. There will only be a "name and shame" system or as Janos Pasztor, the U.N. Assistant Secretary-general on climate change, told CBS News (US), a "name and encourage" Plan.

Nevertheless, there appears to be one plus point about the current process. All stakeholders are assuring that they are taking the dynamics seriously. This was reflected in 146 national climate panels, including Bangladesh, publicly presenting draft national climate contributions (called INDCs) prior to the Conference. These suggested commitments, put together, generated estimates of a prospect that would limit global warming to 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100. For example, the European Union suggested INDC as a commitment whereby there would be a 40 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 compared to 1990.  The agreement also established a "global stocktake" whereby the national goals would be subject to revisits to "update and enhance" them every five years beginning 2023. However, most unfortunately, no detailed timetable or country-specific goals for emissions were incorporated into the Paris Agreement - as opposed to the previous Kyoto Protocol.

In this context some think tanks such as the World Pensions Council (WPC) have argued that the key to success of this equation would lie in convincing U.S. and Chinese policymakers and persuading them in Washington and Beijing to put all their political capital behind the achieving of these ambitious carbon-emission capping targets. Without their pro-active engagement the efforts of other G-20 governments will remain in the realm of pious wishes. They have however expressed their appreciation about France and Germany who have been identified as model countries during COP-21 discussions. This was so because both these developed countries are trying very seriously to decarbonise electricity production and fossil fuel energy while still providing a high standard of living. As of 2012, France, according to some environmentalists, has been generating over 70 per cent of its electricity from zero carbon sources, including nuclear, hydroelectric, and wind. Germany has similarly taken strides towards this goal. 

There have been forward-looking steps. That has been encouraging. However, the principal parties to the Agreement need to fine-tune further the aspirational connotations of some of the aspects of the Agreement.

For example, the Paris text failed to decide on the specific target of reducing GHG emission and date for meeting this target. It needs to be recalled that discussions regarding mitigation target and deadline has been hanging in the air during last five years since the Copenhagen Agreement and the matter has not moved forward in Paris. Secondly, to the disappointment of the least developed countries (LDCs), including Bangladesh, though the Agreement recognised the need to enhance adaptive capacity, strengthen resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate change, the question of giving priority to LDCs was not mentioned in Article 7 of the Paris Agreement.  Thirdly, the Paris Agreement failed to agree on an institutional and financial mechanism to address the wider dimensions of the humanitarian aspect of climate change-induced displacement of population and the creation of refugees in vulnerable areas. This is being interpreted by some as overlooking the reality of the deteriorating situation and also in the ensuring of social and economic justice. Fourthly, the Agreement does not have any particular reference to developed and industrialised countries providing priority support to LDCs in terms of technology development and transfer to contain the impact of climate variability.

Some academics, as reported by Reuters from Paris, have expressed their disappointment that the Agreement repeatedly uses words like- "invites", "urges", "requests" and "further requests" countries to take action. Consequently, attaining national emission goals are being interpreted as not mandatory but voluntary. Critical reference has also been made that there appears to be substantial reliance on the reduction of emissions through technologies yet to be invented in realistic terms.

Despite these negative references of the Paris Agreement being a mixed-bag, it would be fitting to conclude with the remark made by Al Gore, an environmentalist campaigner: "No agreement is perfect, and this one must be strengthened over time. Groups across every sector of society will now begin to reduce dangerous carbon pollution through the framework of this agreement." 

One will need to monitor the evolving situation across the world carefully. From that context it has been a good idea of the United Nations and the Global Environment Facility to schedule the "Climate Action 2016" Summit of government, business and city leaders on May 5-6, 2016 in Washington DC, USA so that they can meet with civil society and academics and review the challenges being faced in meeting the targets agreed to in Paris. We need to have trust in ourselves and not forget that even a half-empty covered glass may have unutilised oxygen in its half-empty space. We have to anticipate the bigger picture and therein lies hope. 

The writer, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

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