COP22’s watershed moment on Paris Agreement

Courtesy of Creative CommonsWhen the Paris Agreement was gaveled into being on December 12, 2015, everyone in the room anticipated it coming into force in 2020, as the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period ends. While the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was ratified in only two years, its Kyoto Protocol had taken a full eight years to move from adoption in 1997 to entry into force in 2005. The fact that sufficient countries ratified the Paris Agreement in only 11 months thus surprised—and inspired. In September, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) announced new market-based standards to reduce global airline emissions.  In October, the Montreal Protocol parties adopted the Kigali Amendment to phase out HFCs.  By November 7, 2016, when the UNFCCC parties gathered for the start of COP22, this trifecta of multilateral environmental agreements had positioned the world community to take a big step forward on climate change mitigation and adaptation.ap_611245925978_wide-0d885fdde8a9b22d1501efec383f5eb03654796c-s900-c85

COP22’s goal was relatively simple: begin translating 2016’s political will—the “spirit of Paris”—into the rules needed to implement the Agreement. Action was needed on four, core pieces of treaty architecture:

  • a temperature rise limit of “well below” 2⁰C;
  • nationally determined contributions (NDCs) on mitigation, adaptation,and other means of implementation renewed every five years;
  • transparent reporting and verification of them; and
  • a periodic “stocktake” to assess collective progress on meeting the temperature goal and influence the next round of NDCs.

CAT_thermometer_151001_300dpiThis last facet is essential to a “bottom up” system of self-defined contributions. As the reported mitigation emissions gap resulting from pre-Paris intended NDCs shows, nationally determined pledges can fall short without a collective nudge.

The COP22 decisions document the implementation actions taken, largely in the form of work plans and deadlines for them. Most important is a 2018 deadline for completing these operational rules by COP24, with a 2017 review at COP23 to stay on track. These rules will need to spell out strategic facets of the Paris Agreement’s new “bottom up” architecture, like the market mechanism under Article 6, the transparency framework under Article 13, and accounting methods for land-based carbon sinks under Articles 4 and 5, as well as the specifics of NDC features and timelines. COP22 also made a small contribution to climate finance by deciding that the Adaptation Fund, which was established under the Kyoto Protocol, will continue under the Agreement.

Beneath its “nuts and bolts” implementation orientation, two potent, political forces shaped COP22. The first is the longWorld Resources Institute simmering question of how to recalibrate the core principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities” (CBDRRC), which seeks to allocate equity in multilateral climate change treaty commitments. It has traditionally done so by accounting for the historical responsibility of developed countries for global warming and the differing national capacities of developing countries to mitigate and adapt.  Hence CBDRRC took early form in the Protocol’s firm line on mitigation responsibilities, which were imposed on developed countries (like the U.S. and E.U.) and not on developing countries (like China, India, and Brazil). The Paris Agreement profoundly alters this interpretation by requiring all countries to make NDCs and publicly report progress on these self-defined pledges over time. At COP22, developing and developed countries negotiated persistently about how their respective NDCs could differ, whether in terms of content or timing or a combination of both. This debate – at core, about equity principles – was not resolved and will continue through 2018 as parties hammer out these rules.

President François Hollande of France

President François Hollande of France

The second political force was the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, which occurred midway during the first week of COP22. A core staple of Trump’s stump speech was “canceling” the Paris Agreement. Although the United States, as one party among almost 200, cannot do so per se, it can undermine the Agreement’s effectiveness by withdrawing from it or the UNFCCC, or by remaining a party but doing little to comply, let alone lead. This cloud of uncertainty settled over COP22, even while the U.S. delegation continued to represent the Obama Administration’s priorities and speakers ranging from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to French President Francois Hollande underscored that energy markets and consumer behavior had already embraced the Paris Agreement’s low carbon and resilient development mantra. Nonetheless, as countries continued the work of writing the COP22 decision to guide implementation of the Paris Agreement, uncertainty about U.S. participation during the Trump Administration remained.


Delegates forming a COP22 huddle

That is why the dynamics of COP22’s closing plenary stand out. COPs have earned a reputation for last minute delays, with pauses for “huddles” on the floor to work through conflict and achieve consensus. COP22 went into overtime when disagreement erupted over a footnote on how and when the Paris Agreement’s rules would come into play. Bolivia, speaking for the Like Minded Developing Countries (LMDCs) negotiating group, opposed the compromise inherent in this footnote. Historically, the LMDCs have put CBDRRC front and center, calling out attempts to dilute the principle’s role in ascribing historic responsibility. India is a core member of this group, with China joining on some issues, and other developing countries, acting through negotiation groups like the G77+China and Africa Group, regularly joining the LMDCs’ positions. But the BASIC negotiation group—composed of rapidly industrializing countries like Brazil, South Africa, India, and China—has shown just how fluid membership in these developing country negotiation groups can be. BASIC countries negotiated with first-term President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to craft the Copenhagen Accord, which set the UNFCCC parties en route to the Paris Agreement’s new nationally determined architecture. Since then, the Obama Administration has worked bilaterally with individual BASIC members, producing the break-through U.S.-China announcement in November 2014 followed by U.S.-India and U.S.-Brazil announcements in January and June 2015, respectively. When Brazil took the floor to directly counter Bolivia, and then rally top negotiators from China, India, and South Africa to huddle with their Bolivian counterpart and project the consensus needed to gavel COP22 closed, BASIC once again found a way to move multilateral climate change action forward.

U.S. Special Envoy Pershing on the periphery of a COP22 huddle

U.S. Special Envoy Pershing on the periphery of a COP22 huddle

Nine years ago, a negotiator from Papua New Guinea earned international headlines when he quietly challenged the U.S. delegation in Bali, Indonesia at COP13: “I would ask the United States, we ask for your leadership. But if for some reason you’re not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of the way.”  When Jonathan Pershing, U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change, gave his closing statement at COP22, it was a poignant moment of stepping aside. The warm applause that followed implicitly recognized that, this time, the political challenge to U.S. climate change leadership came from within its own borders. It likewise tacitly acknowledged the Obama Administration’s role in supporting BASIC members’ renewable energy development and how this bilateral diplomacy had enhanced the multilateral negotiating group’s collective capacity to lead at COP22. It remains to be seen how the U.S. will participate in the Paris Agreement during the next four years. But if the dynamics of COP22’s closing plenary hold true, multilateralism on climate change will forge ahead under new leadership, with or without U.S. support.