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 “1.5ºC 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.
Aliioaiga Feturi Elisaia, Samoa’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations noted that “the Agreement is not a perfect one but a good foundation for climate action.” With attention to climate justice, Tuiloma Neroni Slade who served as chairman of the AOSIS from 1997 to 2003 said “ultimately, for the small and vulnerable, justice and the rule of law offer the best protection.” 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 2ºC as the binding target.
The long-held dream of the AOSIS for a 1.5ºC 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, includes 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 2.7ºC 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 countries “that need it in light of their capacities.”
The Samoa/AOSIS position in the negotiations
One of the most conspicuous elements of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), 21st session of the Conference of Parties (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 was 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 mobilization 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 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 it should be in the context of cooperation, and not shift the burden away from developed countries to provide finance.
The AOSIS negotiators, focused on loss and damage’s relationship 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 earned 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 optimsism as the tentative deadline closed on Saturday night, 12 December 2015. Following the adoption of the Paris Agreement, Aliioaiga Feturi Elisaia, Samoa’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, acknowledged that “we have just agreed by acclamation to a transformative Pathway of shared responsibilities and mutual accountability from 2020 onwards for a humane cause, after all, we are one global family, we share the same environment that knows no boundaries and does not differentiate between rich and poor or big or small states.
For Samoa, the Paris Agreement is the embodiment of what a true and genuine partnership is all about – it is about caring and supporting each other in both the highs and lows of our joint journey through life’s uncharted waters.
And like in any partnerships or marriages in life, the only time when a couple reverts to their marriage certificate is when things are not working well, or if one of the partners is not owning up to, or discharging his or her responsibilities.
But we know that our Paris Agreement will not be subjected to such trials and uncertainties. Because our agreement is a partnership for life, which allows a Small Island nation like mine to take a leap of faith to ensure that we honor our obligations willingly and happily without coercion – so that Samoa is not waiting to be led, but to lead at every available opportunity.”
Similarly, Maldives on behalf of the AOSIS at the closing plenary of the UNFCCC COP21 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, the 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 Samoa/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’s process and outcome of Paris offers hope for the AOSIS and low-lying atolls in 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 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 1.5ºC. Whether it is 2 or 1.5ºC, what is clear is that getting countries to aim for 1.5ºC will require a lot of pressure in the coming years.