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Blue-sky promises? The Paris climate deal is unlikely to be legally binding. Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

Paris has already given us a modest climate deal – now to ramp it up

Today, in a renovated aircraft hanger in northern Paris, climate negotiators representing some 195 countries start to hammer out a new international climate deal.

Their attention is focused on a 54-page draft document, produced in Bonn last month ahead of this summit. This key paper contains a forest of bracketed text which captures states’ competing aspirations. These differences have to be resolved over the next fortnight if a final climate deal is to appear.

Targets, money and rules

Three clusters of key issues – around targets, finance and legal form - will dominate the talks.

The new agreement will aim to hold average global warming below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels, although this goal is itself contentious. Such warming will lead to devastating longer-term impacts, is especially dangerous for least developed countries, and constitutes a death knell for low-lying island states which are arguing for 1.5℃ or less.

With this in mind, two years ago parties agreed to submit their voluntary 2030 targets ahead of the Paris meeting. So far 177 countries, including all the major emitters, have done so. Their pledges – made in the form of non-binding “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs) – cover some 94% of global emissions.

This conference will accept these INDCs but will also determine a process for regularly reviewing them, probably every five years. Given the urgency of emissions reduction, an effective review will not only look at progress towards meeting pledges, but also increasing effort.

The summit will probably also agree to a generic statement about the long-term goal of decarbonising the global economy.

Second, there is the matter of climate finance – meeting the costs of mitigation and adaptation, and loss and damage, for poor countries. In 2009, the Copenhagen conference was partly saved from collapse by the rich countries pledging to find US$100 billion each year, by 2020, for poor countries to build resilience against the impacts of global warming. A Green Climate Fund was created for this purpose.

So far, according to the OECD and the Climate Policy Initiative, developed countries collectively provided US$52.2 billion in 2013 and US$61.8 billion in 2014. Without more progress in Paris, the COP is in danger of collapse. There is an expectation that Australia, which has just become a co-chair of the Climate Fund, will increase its own contribution; others will hopefully follow suit.

Last, there is the matter of legal form – the question about whether the final agreement will be a legally binding treaty, or an agreement with legal force, or some hybrid of these two. While this was a vital issue some years ago, there seems to be less interest in it now – perhaps in recognition that any attempt to create a binding agreement will likely have a chilling effect on the cooperation of big players such as the United States and China.

Why Paris is not Copenhagen

The long shadow of the Copenhagen climate talks still falls across the Paris meeting. The failures in 2009 have already disciplined these negotiations, which are an attempt to finish the business of that earlier conference.

Copenhagen was marked by stratospheric hopes and then profound disappointment. A flock of national leaders went to bask in the outcome of a tough, comprehensive, legally binding deal. The talks stalled and almost collapsed, only to be rescued by some deft drafting by the leaders of China, Brazil, India and the United States. The experience almost destroyed the climate treaty itself.

Expectations have been greatly and deliberately lowered for Paris. The biggest shift has been away from the search for a rigid, legally binding treaty with “top-down” targets and solutions like those featured in the Kyoto Protocol. The outcome rescued from Copenhagen was an approach that is voluntarily cooperative, defined by a “bottom-up” approach in which countries determine their own targets, submitted to the conference but no longer dependent on an international legally binding agreement.

Critically, this approach has breached the previously impermeable divide between developed and developing countries, allowing major emitters in both camps to engage in ways that reflect their own capabilities and circumstances.

This is most visible in the collaboration between the United States and China, which together account for some 40% of global emissions. Joint US-Chinese climate announcements, made while developing their own national positions in 2014 and 2015, have sent a powerful message about their commitment to an outcome at Paris. This contrasts with the standoff between the two carbon titans which almost broke the Copenhagen talks.

Can it all go wrong?

Together, these developments – and the prefabricated result built into the INDCs – promise that, at a minimum, the Paris summit will package the pledges and sell them as a positive step forward.

So can it still all go wrong? There are still pitfalls. Unlike in the early days of the UN climate treaty, some two decades ago, there are now multiple states and blocs with their own agendas and ambitions. The least developed countries, small island states, and importantly India, may yet cause turbulence over climate finance and mitigation processes.

Rather than outright failure, we face the problem of dangerously lukewarm success. Being the result of an uncoordinated, unnegotiated effort, the aggregate outcome of these current INDCs – if they are in fact achieved - will still lead to global warming of at least 2.7℃ by 2100.

A high certainty of holding warming to 1.5℃ or less – a target still not on the agenda – would require a rapid decline of emissions from 2020 at the latest.

There is also no clear commitment to global economic decarbonization at the scale and intensity, and within the timeframe, required to avoid dangerous climate change.

While China, Brazil and South Africa have committed to seeing their emissions peak by 2030, India remains a wild card in this pack of major industrializing states. A weak INDC review process and poor coordination of national efforts may see global emissions continue to rise substantially until and even beyond that date.

Small island states and least-developed countries in particular are increasingly fraught about the consequences of this lack of ambition. They talk about the 2℃ global goal as a suicide pact, and are less and less inclined to accept deals – including finance – that will lead to their extinction.

Climate finance itself is a major hurdle. The lack of a beefed-up finance deal could conceivably scupper the entire talks. However the associated discussion about rich countries paying poor countries for climate-related loss and damage will probably be deferred, as will the hot-button issue of compensation.

Last, there is the problem of domestic implementation. Already Republicans in the US Congress – who almost derailed the UN climate process in 1997 by refusing to allow ratification of the Kyoto Protocol – are talking about blocking US contributions to the Green Climate Fund. If a Republican wins the White House next year, this could lead the world back to the arid space of parallel negotiations, and stalling and wrecking, which marked the tenure of President George W. Bush.

It is against the strength of commitment to push past insufficient and inequitable INDCs and to engage in mitigation and fund adaptation in the next five years, that Paris should be judged.

A triumphant conclusion would be strong commitments to tighten targets, fund climate resilience, and decarbonise the global economy before 2050.

With time running out and the planet’s carbon budget almost exhausted, this meeting is one of our final chances to tackle the extraordinary dangers of global warming.

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