Negotiating the survival threshold: 1.5°C to stay alive

Jacqueline Fa’amatuainu, The University of Auckland

It may be too soon to understand the ultimate impact of the Paris Agreement; it is after all one step in a long-term process of international cooperation to address climate change. On 12 December 2015, the Paris Agreement was adopted by 196 countries (including all members of the European Union) – this is, certainly, an extraordinary achievement. The ‘1.5°C to stay alive’ dialogue was also a signpost of success for the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and its rise to prominence was the result of a long-term push from the world’s most vulnerable to climate change. The Agreement is a strong signal to the world that the AOSIS were negotiating for their own survival.

The underlying premise of the universal Agreement is the collective responsibility that all country Parties will ‘aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as soon as possible,’ and to reach net zero emissions between 2050 and 2100 ‘on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.’ The deal commits countries to stabilise global temperature rises well below 2°C as the binding target. The long-held dream of the AOSIS for a 1.5°C warming limit is the stretch target and an aspirational goal in recognising that this would significantly reduce the impacts of climate change.

For the AOSIS, the key elements of the Paris Agreement, therefore, include its purpose (strong scientific core), long-term goals, emission targets, regular assessments (five-year cycles of action), transparency, finance and the issue of ‘loss and damage’ associated with climate disasters, as separate from adaptation.

The emission cut pledges that have been submitted so far still leaves the world on a pathway towards at least 2.7°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100. Even so, climate action is now the responsibility for governments under the Agreement. The intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) will become nationally determined contributions (NDCs) upon all states that ratify it.

All countries have committed to submitting ambitious NDCs and to report on their progress towards them using the Agreement’s review mechanism. A new transparency framework primarily seeks to find out whether countries are actually working towards their pledges and will encourage monitoring from external parties. Here, developed countries are expected to disclose an inventory of their emissions and information on the finance that they are mobilising.  This information will be subject to a technical expert review that will provide recommendations for improvement. The transparency framework also provides a built-in flexibility measure for developing countires ‘that need it in light of their capacities.’

The AOSIS position in the negotiations

One of the most conspicuous elements of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP21, was the international community’s endorsement of the principle of common but differentiated responsibilties (CBDR) as a way of achieving both environmental protection and sustainable development. The AOSIS position on differentiation is the special recognition of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in accordance with the UNFCCC.

To support their NDCs, the AOSIS proposed a commitment to scale up climate finance from a floor of $100 billion each year – the finance target set in Copenhagen which provides that developed nation-states are obliged to mobilise $100 billion a year of public and private finance to help developing countries by 2020. Currently, the provision for adequate finance appears in the non-legally binding decision text, which accompanies the Paris Agreement.  This decision text provides that ‘developed countries intend to continue their existing collective mobilisation goal through 2025 in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation.’  In other words, prior to 2025 the $100 billion a year will continue and then from 2025 a new collective quantified goal would be established from a floor of $100 billion per year.  

AOSIS were also aggressive in wanting to simplify the procedures for accessing support along with continuous readiness support, particularly for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Least Developed Countries (LDCs). The Independent Alliance of Latin America and the Caribbean (AILAC) were in agreement with the AOSIS in making references to ‘enabling environments’ and how this should be in the context of cooperation, and not shift the burden away from developed countries to provide finance. 

The AOSIS negotiators, focused on the relationship of loss and damage with adaptation in the agreement and as such they sought to have a separate article which was distinct from adaptation. Another important aspect of loss and damage was its permanence. During the negotiations, it was proposed that the new loss and damage mechanism would be defined in the new agreement with no termination date. The United States and Umbrella Group were not satifised with this process in that it would lead to potential claims of compensation. In the end, the Agreement noted that loss and damage does not ‘involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.’

The Paris Agreement has earnt high marks from diverse constituencies. The non-binding decision text has called on Parties to convene in 2018 to take stock of their collective INDCs in working towards the long-term goal and to then prepare new NDCS every five years thereafter. The first global stocktake is set for 2023. The binding agreement which covers the period after 2020, therefore, requires Parties to update their NDCS every five years or ‘ratchet up’ their pledges. As a ratchet mechanism, the successive NDCs should represent a progression beyond their previous efforts.

The AOSIS left the UNFCCC COP21 with a certain level of optimism as the tentative deadline closed on Saturday. Maldives on behalf of the AOSIS at the closing plenary emphasised that ‘the international community has a responsibility to ensure that those who suffer from climate change impacts that are now unavoidable will have the resources they need to adapt when possible and rebuild their lives when all else fails.’  After hailing the global climate deal as a truly historic agreement, AOSIS said that ‘we must remember that history will judge us not by what we did today but by what we do from this day forward. That is how the Paris Agreement will be measured: by future generations.’

What next for the AOSIS?

The Paris Agreement’s more explicit focus on the national level makes it clear that governments must ratchet up their ambitious targets for cutting their emissions towards clean growth and resilient development. Once policy priorities are identified according to the Agreement’s mandate for concerted action, measures should be translated into wider development benefits to increase the participation of all national stakeholders and key sectors.

Once again, it is worth noting that the voluntary pledges at the centre of the Agreement are unenforceable.  Regular assessments and transparent reporting of each country’s pledges are therefore necessary to ensure that all Parties are working towards their emission reduction targets.

The UNFCCC negotiation process and outcome of Paris offers hope for AOSIS and low-lying atolls that the world can put aside competing agendas to work towards a common goal. That climate protection and economic development can be complementary with the necessary political will. The aim to reduce GHG emissions to zero is a clear sign from the international community that countries and investors are expected to re-examine their development strategies and plans. This provides the impetus for investors to assess whether their investments in fossil fuels are viable in the long-term. As a unique legal package, the Agreement is likely to be remembered as a turning point in the international climate regime, which brought together the world in the pursuit of sustainable development. Increased climate ambition will play an adequate role in keeping temperatures below 1.5°C. Whether it is 2 or 1.5°C, what is clear is that getting countries to aim for 1.5°C will require a lot of pressure in the coming years. 

Photo Credit: John Englart (Takver) via Compfight cc