Why Paris is the beginning, not the end of climate negotiations

The meeting in Paris, in 2015 is the deadline for states to agree to a new climate change agreement. Even if states make that deadline, 2015 will likely mark the beginning of a lengthy, and technical, negotiation process.

Just 18 months before the 2015 deadline, countries did make some progress. They started to discuss what the new agreement would look like in concrete terms, rather than the vague conversations dragging on the last two years. In particular, how and what countries would put forward in their “intended nationally-determined contributions” became more clear, and many expect an outcome on this in Lima at the end of 2014.

The contributions are a pledge, or a statement, of what every country will do to combat climate change. If they will be legally-binding is unclear. As the conversation is shaping up, it looks like they will state, in terms common to all countries, the mitigation policies that countries will take. They will also include an estimate of the amount of greenhouse gases these policies will reduce.

It is also possible that these contributions will go beyond mitigation, to include adaptation, finance, technology transfer and capacity building measures. Each country would state what they are willing to do on these issues as well. This a new idea and much needs to be worked out, but such concrete thinking it is a far cry from the long-winded, abstract statements of years past.

Yet, with just 18 months to go, it is not concrete enough to lead to a complete, comprehensive climate agreement in Paris.

At best, countries will be able to agree to a relatively short, quite political agreement that builds on existing institutions, while creating new, nationally-determined contributions and contain agreement on other aspects not included in those contributions. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, that set legally-binding targets for each country, countries will set their own targets. (more later on the insufficiency of this approach)

Like Kyoto, the agreement will probably set the political goals and leave the questions of how to achieve those goals to future rounds of negotiations. There simply isn’t time, in the slow machinery of international negotiations, to come up with much more than political goal setting that everyone can agree to.

This may not be a bad thing. It is difficult to get 195 countries pulling in the same direction. The technical details, or the rulebook, of the Kyoto Protocol was the Marrakesh Accords. These were difficult negotiations. The text grew to several hundred pages before countries narrowed the agreement, which spanned a wide range of issues, to under 200 pages. These negotiations effectively operationalized the Protocol.

Similarly, the rules of how to (possibly) review contributions, (hopefully) ratchet up their ambition, and (likely) have future commitment periods will need to be worked out with a degree of technical detail. Issues of monitoring, reporting and verifying countries’ efforts are always thorny and best left to technically-minded delegates (i.e. not ministers or heads of state).

The priority now is getting everyone on the same board, and resolving looming political issues, especially the legal form the new agreement will take and “differentiation” (how to determine who does what based on their capacities, and perhaps not based on older, developed/developing country divisions).

So settle in. There will be years of negotiations following the 2015 climate instrument. Let’s just hope they are completed by 2020 when the agreement enters into force. It’s governing for the long term, and taking a long time.

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