Paris triumph

The climate agreement strikes a fine balance between ambition, differentiation and finance

Written by Lavanya Rajamani | Published:December 16, 2015 12:06 am
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After four years of deeply discordant negotiations for the high-stakes Paris Agreement, the French took skilful control and led 196 tense nations past the finish line on Saturday night. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon characterised the Paris Agreement as a “monumental triumph”, and he was right. While far from perfect, this agreement strikes a remarkably delicate balance between the collective ambition of global efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions, differentiation between developed and developing countries, and mobilisation of the financial resources needed for support — a balance few thought possible even a week ago. India had much to lose and gain from this negotiation, as did the world, and collectively we all came out ahead.

The relationship between ambition, differentiation and support was clear from the start — the greater the overall ambition, the greater the need for differentiation in efforts between developed and developing countries as well as for financial resources to support ambitious efforts. However, there were two seemingly intractable problems standing in the way. First, developed countries, scarred by the Kyoto Protocol that obliged only them to take on absolute emissions reduction targets, were fiercely resistant to another differentiated climate agreement. Second, developed countries, with faltering economies, were reluctant to bankroll global efforts to combat climate change. Developing countries were fundamentally opposed both to giving up the differential treatment that had benefited them thus far and to assuming a share of the financial burden for lowering emissions. Something had to give. Ambition, it was assumed. However, the French were relentless in their pursuit of the most ambitious agreement possible and pressed countries as far as they could on differentiation and finance. This daring strategy, to much astonishment, worked.

The Paris Agreement is ambitious in several respects. It resolves to hold global temperature rise to “well below 2 degrees Celsius” above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts towards a 1.5 degrees C temperature limit. This was a crucial demand of the small island states and least developed countries — for them, a higher temperature increase poses an existential threat. The world is not currently on a pathway to 1.5 degrees C — far from it — and such a pathway would dramatically shrink the remaining carbon space with troubling implications for countries like India. Nevertheless, the aspirational 1.5 degrees C sets an ambitious direction for the climate regime. This ambitious goal is complemented by a binding obligation to submit mitigation contributions every five years and to pursue domestic measures to achieve them. For every five-year cycle, states must put forward contributions more ambitious than their last. To ensure delivery, the agreement puts in place a robust transparency framework. States will provide information on the implementation of their contributions, which is then subject to a technical expert review process. In addition, the agreement envisages a “global stocktake” every five years to assess collective progress towards long-term goals. Significantly, the global stocktake will also take into account “equity” — thus paving the way for conversation on burden-sharing between nations. Although contributions are still nationally determined, the agreement puts in place strong top-down elements that are expected to discipline self-determination and enhance ambition.

Such an ambitious framework, applied uniformly, would have acted as a straitjacket for developing countries like India. But the Paris Agreement, in a negotiating coup for India, is firmly grounded in the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. The agreement is peppered with references to this principle, particularly the crucial articles that set the long-term temperature goal and frame the implementation of the entire agreement. Further, the agreement recognises that the global temperature goal must be achieved in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and that developed countries should lead in mitigation efforts and continue to provide financial resources to developing countries. It also clearly recognises that enhanced support for developing countries will allow for higher ambition in their actions.

As India had long sought, the agreement places contributions on mitigation, adaptation and support on an even keel. Thus the obligation to put forward increasingly ambitious contributions applies not just to mitigation contributions but also to financial contributions by developed countries. The global stocktake, too, will assess progress not just on mitigation contributions but also the finance ones. Tucked away in the introductory text accompanying the Paris Agreement is a decision to set a new collective quantified target from a floor of $100 billion per year from 2025, taking into account the needs and priorities of developing countries. Both on finance and differentiation, developed countries made significant concessions from past positions in the final hours to make a compromise possible, while developing countries like India won several battles along the way.

More than a milestone, Paris represents a landmark in the UN climate negotiations. In striking a fine balance between ambition, differentiation and finance, it sets us on track to secure our climatic future, the best way we know how — based on our common but differentiated responsibilities, respective capabilities and different national circumstances. Indian Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar signalled in his closing speech that the road to climate ambition must be paved with equity. And the historic Paris Agreement ensures that it will be.


The writer is professor, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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