A symbolic victory on 1.5 degrees for LDC Group in Paris

The text of the Paris Agreement, finalised after four years of negotiations culiminating in COP21, represents a significant victory for the Least Developed Countries at the talks – whose specific needs and special situations are often overlooked. How did one of the smallest negotiating groups manage to make their voices heard?

Blog by
18 December 2015

Helen Burley is a communications officer for IIED

US special climate envoy Todd Stern tells journalists his views on the 'Higher Ambition Coalition'. LDC chair Giza Gaspar-Martins in second left on the panel at the press conference (Photo: Matt Wright/IIED)

One of the remarkable things about the historic climate deal reached in Paris was that it included almost all of the key demands of the world's Least Developed Countries (LDCs). While these countries face some of the biggest challenges in dealing with the impacts of climate change, their voices and demands are too often dismissed within the power politics of climate talks. What was different this time?

IIED was privileged to shadow a day in the life of the LDC Group at the talks in Paris (we will be sharing more on this in the new year), following the group's chair, Giza Gaspar-Martins, and gained an insight into the efforts involved.

The LDC Group (which represents 48 of the world's poorest countries as defined by the United Nations) negotiates as a block, while also belonging to other negotiating groups, including the much bigger G77 group of developing countries.

Ahead of the Paris climate talks (COP21), they had set out their key priorities:

  • A below 1.5 degree global temperature target
  • A legally binding agreement
  • Inclusion of 'loss and damage' within that agreement (i.e. recognising that countries will suffer losses that can no longer be prevented – whether to crops, land or infrastructure)
  • Recognition of the specific vulnerabilities faced by LDCs as a result of their limited capacities
  • Financial commitments for adaptation support of US$100 billion per year, and
  • A mechanism to ensure increased ambition from countries – with contributions reviewed on a five-yearly basis.

Many of these demands – in particular the demand for a 1.5 degree target and for adequate finance – are not new. They were made at previous COPs (the Conferences of the Parties under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC), and were brushed aside by more powerful interests, not least in Copenhagen, when the Maldives President was effectively told he could abandon his country to the waves (the Maldives graduated from being an LDC in 2011).

Since Copenhagen, the demands for a 1.5 degree target have strengthened, with the demands of the island states (AOSIS) and LDCs amplified by the outreach activities of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, and echoed by civil society activists who in Paris occupied one of the halls chanting "1.5 to stay alive".

Science has also supported the call. A UNFCCC review on the adequacy of the long-term goal, drawing on research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), found that a 1.5 degree limit would provide greater safety in terms of impacts on food production and sea-level rise (PDF).

But wider coalition building has also been credited with playing a part. The LDC Chair was a key member of the Higher Ambition Coalition – an informal grouping of countries seeking higher ambition from the Paris Agreement, driven by the Marshall Islands Environment Minister Tony de Brum, as was Gambian Environment Minister Pa Ousman Jarju.

The LDC chair explained how informal chats, initially over coffee, then later over lunch and dinner, had helped a shared purpose among key negotiating states – including, crucially, the United States, whose special climate envoy Todd Stern is credited with coming up with the "higher ambition" name.

Marshall Islands Environment Minister Tony de Brum (front left) and the LDC chair Giza Gaspar-Martins (right) brief Guardian journalist Karl Mathiesen (centre) on the 'Higher Ambition Coalition' (Photo: Matt Wright/IIED)

The politics of coalition building are never straightforward – especially when the stakes are so high. The LDC Group chair was acutely aware of the limits of his remit in speaking out in the coalition – as his words would represent the views of all members of the LDC Group.

Some questioned whether the US would deliver on high ambition. Similar attempts at COP17 in Durban failed to get US support, but this time they stayed on board. The final agreement may not reflect the most ambitious options on limiting temperature rise included in the earlier drafts, but the wording is there.

Indeed the final outcome, after nights of deliberation, did deliver a deal that promises action by all countries, that recognises the "specific needs and special situations" of the LDCs, and that includes a recognition that developed countries should continue to take a lead in economy-wide emissions cuts, as well as including reference to the 1.5 degree target, mention of loss and damage, a commitment to finance, and a mechanism to allow increased ambition.

The chair of the LDC Group welcomed the deal, saying: "It is the best outcome we could have hoped for, not just for the Least Developed Countries, but for all citizens of the world."

That is not to say it is the perfect deal, or that it could not have been stronger. No global agreement acquires real force until it is implemented at the national and local level.

As IIED senior fellow Saleemul Huq wrote for the Daily Star: "The challenge ahead is to ensure that the 1.5° C goal is not just symbolic but becomes a reality."

Helen Burley (helen.burley@iied.org) is a communications officer for IIED.

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