Paris Agreement must stand on three pillars

As UN climate negotiations resume in Bonn (1-11 June), momentum is building for a new climate agreement in Paris this December.

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1 June 2015

Tidal damage on the small island nation of Kiribati. Small island developing nations, especially the atoll nations of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, are among the poorest and most vulnerable to climate change (Photo: Jodie Gatfield, AusAID)

As meetings resume in Bonn, Germany, the UN climate negotiations have entered the most important six months of climate diplomacy. The momentum is building towards the adoption of a new watershed climate agreement in Paris this December.   

The June session

There are only 20 negotiating days left until the Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris. This means UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) diplomats have a tremendous task to fulfil here in Bonn, if they are to ensure a successful outcome in Paris. 

The process ahead requires mutual trust and confidence from all parties to deliver an effective agreement that not only responds to public demand but also reflects the moral imperative to ensure a safe environment for both current and future generations. 

While considerable progress was made at the last negotiating session in Geneva, much remains to be done in Bonn. The negotiating text (PDF) reflects too many divergent views on all areas of negotiations. 

Three pillars

The Durban Mandate (PDF) calls for countries to adopt an agreement that is legal in nature, addresses mitigation, adaptation, means of implementation, transparency of action and support and be applicable to all parties.

Accordingly, trust and mutual confidence in the Paris Agreement will come from three key pillars: its legal nature, the effectiveness of the agreement and participation by all countries.

Legal nature

In an international agreement, the legal nature is reflected in a combination of three elements: the form, the obligations and provisions for compliance and enforcement. 

The legal form of the Paris Agreement and intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) remain unclear. A multilateral agreement adopted under the Vienna Convention of Law of Treaties has the highest legal rigour under international law. Hence a vast majority of countries are calling for the Paris Agreement to be a protocol. If COP21 only adopts a set of decisions, they will not have sufficient legal rigour to create the trust and certainty that needs to be established in Paris.  

An agreement or a provision is not only binding through its form. The Paris Agreement must create obligations for parties to implement their greenhouse gas reduction targets and achieve individual and collective goals. 

There must also be obligations to provide means of implementation to developing countries that are the poorest and most vulnerable to climate change (the Least Developed Countries, Small Island Developing States and countries in Africa). There should also be provisions for compliance and enforcement of these commitments to make them binding. 

Effectiveness

An environmentally effective agreement must be able to put the world on a climate neutral pathway that no longer jeopardises the lives and livelihoods of current and future generations or natural ecosystems.

The current mitigation pledges are more consistent with warming of above 3 degrees and raise concerns about the need for stronger processes to ensure more ambition. The June session offers parties a further opportunity to shape this ambition.  

In Bonn, parties must agree on a system that allows a gradual yet speedy process for creating an upward spiral of ambition and action. Parties need to agree on: 

  1. A long-term goal and a pathwaythe science is clear that even a 2°C target as a 'guardrail' is no longer "safe and adequate". Therefore the agreement must reflect long-term global goals for mitigation and climate resilience to keep the global average temperature below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels to achieve the ultimate objective of the convention. Many parties also call for such a long-term goal to focus on climate neutrality by the mid-century. 
     
  2. Cycles of commitments these must ensure that parties plan beyond their current national potential-aspirational ambition. Each cycle should include progressive commitments and actions in type, scope and scale, reflecting long-term vision and an ability to prioritise the hard decisions that will ultimately pay dividends: socially, economically and environmentally.
      
  3. A process to ensure transparency and accountability which are crucial for establishing trust in the process. This would allow progress towards individual and global mitigation goals to be measured and compared, and allow consistency in reports and reviews. It would also provide a clear overview of resources and improve the efficiency of tracking the delivery and results of climate finance.
     
  4. Robust review process this is essential for checking previous commitments and ensuring these are ratcheted up.  
     
  5. Institutions and processes to achieve ambition  the current institutions such as the Green Climate Fund and the Least Developed Countries Fund can be further strengthened to achieve ambition under the new agreement. However, the magnitude of the transition needed for a climate neutral future may also require new institutions and processes.

Participation

The Paris Agreement cannot be a success unless every country commits to take part. A global goal of climate neutrality and resilience at least by the mid-century requires a considerable transition in every country.

If developing countries are to commit to such a transition, they will need support in terms of the means of implementation, including finance, technology and capacity building. Through such support, countries can prioritise plans for climate-resilient sustainable development, including through climate-proofing critical infrastructure.

Finally, the agreement must send a signal to the poorest and most vulnerable that the world is taking serious actions to protect them; that they will have timely access to the necessary support, and that they will not be left behind in the process.

In this regard, among others, the agreement must set clear obligation to address the needs and the demands of the least developed countries that are the poorest and most vulnerable to climate change.

Achala Abeysinghe (achala.abeysinghe@iied.org) is the principal researcher and team leader of the global climate law, policy and governance team in IIED's Climate Change Group.

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