"Building on the progress made so far, countries now need to take a decisive step forward in preparing the ambitious and balanced outcome that we need in Katowice [Poland],” executive secretary of UN Climate Change, Patricia Espinosa, said at a press conference in Bangkok on Monday, ahead of the week-long Climate Conference in Bangkok, which ended on Sunday.
“It will be critical for negotiators in Bangkok to produce solid text-based output that can function as the basis for the concluding negotiations in Katowice and be turned into final implementation guidelines of the Paris Agreement at COP24.
The texts capturing progress to date, she added; “are not yet refined enough for this purpose”.
As chief of one of the world’s most universal membership frameworks spoke, the key ideas – a decisive step, ambitious outcome, final implementation guidelines, and others – were raised. Also critical is a sense of concern and urgency, as time is fast running out for serious implementation of climate solutions with the looming 2020 deadline.
Since it was first adopted and ratified in the early decade of 1990s, the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC), simply known as UN Climate Change, has been providing the sole and universal platform for 197 countries to talk policies and measures to tackle increasingly evident climate change and its impacts.
Over the years, the framework has managed to pin the key principle of “common, but differentiated responsibilities, and respective capabilities”, which over time has been translated into obligations as well as various instruments and actions.
At the same time, it has been challenged by denials of facts, pushes and pulls of responsibilities, and ignorance, resulting in the framework being one of the world’s most complicated and politically charged platforms.
Amid the push and pull forces, the obligations as well as instruments and actions under the convention have revolved around the principle elements with different pace and weightage.
As the new Paris Agreement has entered into force without binding national targets on cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, critics view this as a compromise to get everyone on board, while leaving the necessary efforts towards the collective target uncertain.
“If we look throughout the history of this convention, we will see that political obligations and climate actions have still developed around the principle.
“But as we are facing increasing and unavoidable climate impacts, the question is whether we should allow such a voluntary approach introduced in the new agreement. Considering the need for steep cuts on greenhouse gases, our present collective present endeavour is not sufficient. They are critically not,” said Associate Professor Niramon Sutummakid, director of the Policy Research Centre on Green Economy, who has conducted extensive research on climate agreements since the early years of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations and a former Minister of Environment of Nigeria, Amina J Mohammed, urged Parties to step up the work.
Climate change obligations history
Hardly anyone before the 1990s believed in climate change, not until the first solid set of facts concerning GHGs and climate change was revealed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which comes up with assessment reports on climate every five years.
Its first report issued in 1990 suggested critical changes in the global climate system and sea level rises as a result of a century and a half of industrialisation, prompting action which was galvanised into a new UNFCCC framework, which was adopted in 1992.
It has since become a strong back-up for the framework, helping maintain the balance with political forces in the negotiations.
In 1997, the framework’s parties managed to come up with the first political and legally binding obligation in an attempt to cut GHGs. With the principle of “differentiated responsibilities” claimed against one another over past industrialisation, it was developed countries that eventually had to be responsible for the cuts under the protocol.
The United States, however, applied the same principle against emerging economies like China and India, and refused to ratify the protocol, leaving the burden largely on the EU.
Under the protocol, Niramon observed in her studies that economic mechanisms were adopted as prime vehicles to deliver the targets extensively. Carbon markets were created in developed countries, as well as so-called clean development mechanisms (CDM), under which the target cuts could be borrowed from carbon credits from developing countries, thus allowing them to act jointly.
Due to its complicated nature, the protocol entered into force much later, in 2005, and its first phase ended in 2012. There was an attempt to renew the second phase in 2013 in Doha, known as the Doha Agreement, but it did not come into force. It will end in 2020.
During this period, a long-term action was also conceived, evident in the Bali Action Plan in 2007, before gathering momentum in 2009 at the climate conference in Copenhagen in Denmark.
Although the parties failed to endorse the long-term action negotiated at the conference, largely because developing countries strongly opposed the proposed role to jointly take responsibility, it was followed by the 2009 Copenhagen Accord and the 2010 Cancun Agreements. They principally required developed countries to “communicate” emission targets for 2020, and developing countries to “implement” nationally appropriate mitigation actions (NAMAs) with support from developed countries.
During the lead up to Paris in 2015, both developed and developing countries were required to “prepare” intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs), which outlined national efforts to reduce emissions and increased resilience.
As result, national emission-cut targets were also pledged, and the concept of INDCs was eventually formalised under the Paris Agreement as nationally determined contributions (NDCs).
Other instruments concerning emission cuts from the forest sector, known as REDD-plus, adaptation, finance, technology transfer, as well as capacity building have been developed and put in place with the aim to facilitate mitigation.
The Paris Agreement in 2015 was hailed around the world as a great success in climate change negotiations, as it met the core principle – common, differentiated, and respective. But what has happened in practice because of the loose commitment is a steep shortfall in collective emission cuts needed to keep the world safe.
The IPCC noted that from 1880 to 2012, the average global temperature increased by 0.85 degree Celsius. From 1901 to 2010, the global average sea level rose by 19cm, as oceans expanded due to the warming and melting ice. The sea ice extent in the Arctic, in addition, has shrunk in every successive decade since 1979.
In the IPCC’s fifth report, AR5, launched in 2014 before the agreement was made, it noted that the end of this century will likely see a 1–2°C increase in global mean temperature above the 1990 level, or about 1.5–2.5°C above the pre-industrial level, given current concentrations and ongoing emissions of GHGs. It was approximately 52.7 gigatonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2 e), as addressed in the 2016 UNEP Emission Gap Report.
If the trend was allowed, the IPCC warned that the world’s oceans would warm and the melting of ice would continue. The average sea-level rise was predicted to be 24–30cm by 2065 and 40–63cm by 2100 relative to the reference period 1986–2005.
According to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), the global temperature in 2015 had already risen by 1°C above the pre-industrial era, or halfway to the 2°C limit in the agreement.
The IPCC pointed out that even if the parties fully implemented their pledges, the temperature increase was estimated to reach 3.3°C.
This was reflected again in the UNEP 2016 report, that the pathways for staying well below 2°C and 1.5°C require deep emission cuts after, and preferably before 2020, and lower in 2030 when it is expected to peak.
Between 12 to 14 GtCO2e is the amount of CO2 needed to be cut by 2030 in order to keep the temperature below 2°C, and another three GtCO2e for the 1.5°C target. It’s called “an emission gap” that parties need to fill in to help stabilise the global temperature as targeted – a painstaking task of all.
Niramon, also lecturing at Thammasat University’s Faculty of Economics, said the overall past and present obligations under the framework still reflected the principle.
However, considering the need for steep cuts on greenhouse gases, the new hope – like the Paris Agreement – must do more as its voluntary pledges requirement is its key weakness.
Those causing a problem, she said, should take more responsibility in order to truly honour the principle. The portion of responsibility must be made more clear, rather than being based on voluntary pledges.
As such, the Kyoto Protocol should be kept intact along with the Paris Agreement.
As for the Paris Agreement itself, it needs to come up with mechanisms to push everyone to take ambitious action. Economic mechanisms are seen as hopeful vehicles, she said, adding new economic mechanisms are likely to be developed and put in place, similar to those under the Kyoto Protocol. This time, they would be regulated more effectively under international transfer of “mitigation outcomes” and “sustainable development” addressed in Article 6.
Last but not least are the national policies, Niramon said. The direct policies to deal with climate change must be firm and clear to guide serious action in line with a serious problem.
More critically, climate change does not have only one dimension of environment. It concerns social aspects as well as economic aspects, and often the government’s policies themselves are the cause of climate change or exacerbate it.
She said to cope with climate change, policymakers need to take those aspects into consideration while dealing with climate change.
“Climate change is everything, actually our lifestyle, our economy, our society, and so on. That’s why we need holistic thinking to deal with it,” said Niramon.
Tara Buakhamsri, Greenpeace Southeast Asia’s Thailand country director, said considering the overall obligations and action taken, they have still honoured the principle and been on track.
What is happening, he said, is a transition and a new dimension of global climate politics as it is being switched from a top-down approach in the past to a bottom-up approach, moving away from strictness to flexibility to respond to different capacities of parties.
The Paris Agreement, as well, has broken an impasse, under which parties argued with one another in an attempt to avoid responsibilities, and prompted them to get on the same boat following the principle of “common” responsibility.
The collective target needed, he said, would pose a critical challenge to such an approach, but he believes that in a new era of climate politics, people will be able to come up with ways to enforce action to meet the shared goal and predicament.
“It’s really a challenge to see whether or not we can solve the problem in time,” said Tara, citing a big emission gap waiting to be filled as reported by the UNEP.
Marin Khor, executive director of the think-tank South Centre, monitoring global negotiations, wrote in an article published on the Inter Press Service website early this year that climate change is among the world’s most critical issues in 2018.
He said the target of keeping 2°C above pre-industrial levels seems to be out of date, leaving only 1.5°C as a choice.
This, he wrote, would be much harder to meet, especially since the rise in average global temperature has already passed the 1°C level.
“Will political leaders and the public rise to the challenge, or will this coming year see a wider disconnect between what scientists say needs to be done, and a lack of response, and what will be the impact of the bad example of the US under President Trump?
“And will the developing countries get the financial resources and technologies needed by them to take climate action, as pledged as commitments by the developed countries?” Khor posed.
As the meeting was wrapped on Sunday, talks foundered over the key issue of how efforts to limit climate change are funded and how contributions are reported, AFP reported.
Delegates representing some of Earth's poorest and smallest nations said on the final day of the summit that the US and other Western economies had failed to live up to their green spending commitments, the agency reported.
They would hand over technical discussions to a panel of experts, who will continue to meet before the COP 24 kicks off in Katowice, Poland, at the start of December.
The issue of climate finance was "very difficult and politically sensitive," said Espinosa. "For Katowice to be successful, work needs to speed up and political will needs to be intensified.”