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Post-Paris Climate Talks: implementation at any price

COP21 photo gallery

Paris Climate Talks 2015: Briefing on 11 December for the redline 'D12' action, on Saturday 12 December, which involved 500 red umbrellas, 5,000 red flowers, and thousands of people on the streets of Paris. © Kristian Buus

The voices that celebrated the Paris Agreement yesterday sound rather less confident today, writes Simon Fischer.

Only half a year after the supposedly groundbreaking Paris Agreement on climate change was finalized by governments negotiating in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), climate policy has come back down to earth. In May, the established UNFCCC subsidiary bodies and, the rookie of the year, the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (APA) met in Bonn, Germany, to consider how to implement the agreement. However, it seems like parties who established the agreement in Paris cannot agree on how to move forward. This is the case for Article 6 in the agreement, which deals with co-operative-approaches and market mechanisms for instance. The voices that celebrated the Paris Agreement yesterday sound rather less confident today.

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The ambitious goals announced in Paris are turning out to be difficult to realize in practice. No surprise here, given that they do not go to the root of the climate crisis which is the overconsumption of fossil fuels. Shockingly, fossil fuels are not mentioned even once in the agreement. In addition, the models used to determine future greenhouse gas emission levels are built on assumptions that are highly questionable, including a blind faith that technological developments (such as Bioenergy and Carbon Capture and Storage or BECCS) can lead to negative emission scenarios, and that extensive land use change (e.g. by spreading monoculture plantations) is an acceptable way forward. In Bonn, the desired target of limiting the rise of global average temperatures to 1.5oC again came under pressure and it seems highly unlikely to be realized under the current policy approach.

This is worrying, particularly when looking at the latest trends from NASA and others. In 2016, record temperatures and other indicators of climate change such as changing patterns of rainfall and drought have been extreme. However, looking at the countries’ Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs are the post 2020 climate action commitments by parties and form the foundation of the Paris Agreement) it becomes obvious that planned mitigation action has largely been shifted to post-2030. Yet in order to prevent the worst implications of climate change, action is needed immediately, as well as real and workable solutions. Business-as-usual and reliance on risky and questionable scenarios are certainly not an option.

Implementation vs. transparency

'Accelerating Implementation of the Paris Agreement' was the theme of the mid-year conference in Bonn. The focus on implementation was evident. During her last intersessional meeting, Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the UNFCCC, announced that ‘today, the challenge is to translate intent into action…that does justice to the extraordinary ambition enshrined in the Paris Agreement.’ However, the emphasis on implementation seemed to leave little space for debate about crucial issues such as transparency and equity. Moreover, it also seems to come along with an emphasis on an even stronger involvement of the private sector in mitigation and adaptation actions.

In terms of implementation, financing seems to be crucial. Developed countries have a historical responsibility to equalize their climate debts. In the Paris Agreement, loss and damage demands of developing countries have been watered down so much that Annex I (industrialized) countries can escape that accountability almost entirely.

Sadly, cost and climate effective community conservation initiatives are widely ignored, even though they are arguably highly cost effective. The implementation-mania is tightly focused on creating a process that benefits the private sector. Public funding is scarce, but there are vast possibilities to invest in mitigation or adaptation projects. For example, several climate funds claim to provide opportunities to offset emissions by supposedly investing in mitigation programs such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) and others. However, these projects often lead to biodiversity loss and human-rights violations.

Transparency is also key when it comes to financing mitigation actions, preventing conflicts of interest on the one hand and ensuring real sustainability on the other, yet commercial confidentiality is likely to trump transparency when it comes to private sector engagement.

Furthermore, relying on private investments that are inevitably likely to be focused on generating profits over a relatively short timescale is dangerous and can seriously threaten environmental and social integrity. This collides with the concept of sustainability and often conflicts with human-rights issues and environmental integrity. Furthermore, private investments mainly come in the form of loans instead of grants. Loans lead to dependency and increase inequality between North and South.

Intended regime fragmentation?

Besides transparency and equity issues, another point where a deficit can be observed is policy coherence. Looking at recent developments, there seems to be a developing trend that agreements decided upon today are forgotten tomorrow, and this certainly seems to apply to current climate policy.

In the case of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), only two months after an agreement to halt deforestation in 2020 (SDG 15.2) came out, the Paris Agreement undermined this goal by ignoring the former agreement, even though it is highly relevant to climate change. Another example is the Aichi Biodiversity Targets agreed in the Convention of Biodiversity (CBD), which are systematically ignored by the UNFCCC.

On this point the role of the private sector is critical. Public-private partnerships (PPPs) such as the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF) rely, as the name suggests, on both public and private actors. However, elaborate research has found that public private partnerships have so far failed to fill the legislative, implementation or participation gaps in global sustainable development policies (Biermann et al, 2007; Bäckstrand and Kylsäter, 2014). One could argue that those gaps are left open intentionally to increase space for flexibility and an interpretation of the rules. If climate policy cannot ensure coherence, it makes the implementation of new agreements for the most part ineffective and leaves climate policy as unreliable instrument to overcome dangerous impacts of climate change.

Looking forward: a question of credibility and legitimacy

In the run-up to COP 22, which will take place in the end of 2016 in Marrakech, climate policy negotiations look set to shoot back up into the stratosphere, with implementation-mania taking pride of place, while crucial issues continue to be ignored. This cannot be allowed to happen.

When it comes to mitigation and adaptation measures, the focus should be put on community conservation approaches instead of large-scale mitigation projects financed by loans. Such initiatives are much more effective and can ensure environmental and social integrity. People living in and from forests have proven the sustainability of this approach since centuries. Their real interest in preserving their homes cannot be topped by actors from outside, who are much more likely to have financial interests as their top priority anyway. By involving the private sector, climate policy risks becoming the devil's advocate.

To address the climate crisis, we certainly cannot rely on (non-binding) agreements built upon false solutions and fanciful models. A set of real solutions based on leaving fossil fuels in the ground and protecting forests, implemented in transparent and equitable ways has to be the number one priority. Moreover, the implementation of and coherence with other existing intergovernmental agreements addressing related issues should be a pre-condition for implementation. Otherwise, we may find that it is the Paris Agreement itself that is the main obstacle in the fight against devastating climate change impacts. If the UNFCCC cannot find the political will to ensure equity, transparency and coherence it will end up losing its credibility and subsequently its legitimacy as the overarching body dedicated to protecting us from dangerous climate change.

Simon Fischer is Climate and Land Use Policy Advisor at Global Forest Coalition.

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