COP21: A historic, but still fragile milestone for climate change

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      Some hope on global collective action to end 2015

      The Paris climate deal is a clear step in the right direction, and gives hope on the ability of the world leaders to organise collective action to address global threats. For the first time in history, all nations, including the largest emitters, have come to a universal and (partially) legally binding agreement on climate change, with the ambition to keep global warming below the 2°C target. The COP21 has blurred the line between rich and poor countries, and put an end to the longstanding division between polluters and sufferers, which led to a stalemate in previous climate talks. The Paris negotiations mark the beginning of a new era in international climate diplomacy where global collective action meets national interests in a “pledge-and-review system”. Nations know what they are prepared to deliver at home, and have made the commitment to monitor the effect of their collective effort and ratchet up ambition to decarbonise and build climate resilience every five years. A clear breakthrough for developing nations is that the COP21 outcome document acknowledges the issue of “loss and damage” separately from adaptation. It also explicitly recognises Africa’s vulnerability to climate change, and confirms “the need to promote universal access to sustainable energy in developing countries, in particular in Africa”. This counts as a success for African climate diplomacy.

      Little room for complacency

      However, the Paris deal is quite fragile.It contains no mandatory scheme, nor a compliance enforcement mechanism. The voluntary carbon market may create the wrong incentives for developed countries to outsource emissions and do less at home. Nations have not committed to leaving fossil fuels on the ground. Major emitting sectors, such as aviation, maritime transport, and agriculture have been omitted. Although the pledges made so far will no doubt accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy, they are not enough to meet the highly ambitious target of limiting global warming to 2°C. This risks undermining the Sustainable Development Goals and reversing development progress achieved over the past 40 years. The Paris deal could have also been much stronger on safeguarding equity. Although it supports “loss and damage”, this will not be considered as liability or compensation, erasing historical responsibilities. There is also no clear commitment to increasing climate finance beyond 2020, and the challenge to ensure that adaptation finance reaches smallholder farmers is unsolved.

      The proof of the pudding will be in the eating

      Governments will need to take radical solutions, immediately. In practice this means that politicians will need to make very difficult choices not always in their short-term interest, such as putting a higher price on carbon, giving up fracking, ending fossil fuel subsidies, and subsidising renewables with unequivocal conviction. The public sector has a key role to play in establishing stable regulatory frameworks that give confidence to private investors and contribute to making green energy competitive on its own merits. Otherwise, the needed massive carbon cuts and colossal investments will probably not happen. The tension between the right-to-development and zero emissions by 2050, a continuous stumbling block between countries such as China, India, Nigeria and South Africa, and industrialised countries on the other hand, is still apparent. Only time will tell if COP21 was really successful in collectively addressing the climate change threat. The extent to which nations deliver on their pledges, raise ambition, and honour their commitment to policy coherence for sustainable development is yet to be seen.

      The COP21 was a major success for EU climate diplomacy

      We are far from Copenhagen’s blow to the EU’s self-image as a global climate leader. Since 2011, the EU has taken steady efforts to shape and revitalize its external climate action, and related climate diplomacy, in view of creating alliances in the run up to COP21. The EU and its Member States, together with a group of Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) through the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) played a leading role in driving forward the “high ambition coalition”, joined by the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States, and soon after by other countries, including “deal breakers” such as Brazil, Canada, Japan and the US. The EU had been preparing this coalition for months, with outreach efforts going to the Caribbean, the Pacific, Latin American (AILAC) countries, and Morocco. The “high ambition coalition” caused a big media show. This put the necessary pressure on China and India, weakening their role within the G77, and isolated hardline countries like Saudi Arabia and South Africa, particularly with regards to climate finance and time-bound commitments. It had the big merit of blurring the lines between rich and poor countries and of rallying broad support on the key elements of an ambitious deal (cf. legally binding, with a 5-year revision mechanism, a transparency and accountability system to track performance and a fair deal on climate finance and support).

      Policy incoherence weakened the EU’s credibility

      Two examples of the EU’s policy incoherence for sustainable development surfaced during the Paris negotiations. First, an EC internal document outlining the EU’s negotiating position was leaked. The document showed the EU’s blunt opposition to discussing trade measures and including Intellectual Property Rights in the COP21 deal, giving the TTIP precedence over environmental regulations, and therefore also COP21 outcomes. Second, the EU’s new aviation strategy - presented by the EC when COP21 negotiations came to an end - seemed oblivious of what was going on in Paris. Geared towards generating growth for European business, and allowing passengers to fly safer, cheaper and cleaner, the EU’s aviation strategy states that R&D for innovative green technologies will be enough to reduce the aviation sector’s environmental impact. That is foolish and irresponsible. Green tech improvements will be offset by the ever-expanding air traffic. Developed countries’ increasing demand for cleaner transport - read biofuels - may quickly outweigh developing countries’ food production needs. As a starter, the EU should take the global lead to end the aviation sector’s fuel tax exemption. Air traffic cannot continue to grow unbridled, and airlines need to reflect the full cost of their emissions and climate change effects. This casts doubts on whether Neven Mimica, Commissioner for Development and International Cooperation, indeed has sufficient top political support to deliver on his mandate of ensuring the connection between the EU’s climate action and sustainable development. The views expressed here are those of the authors, and not necessarily those of ECDPM.
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