Barriers to Progress on Climate Change Agreements Still Ahead

By Siobhan Kelly
Editor, Undergraduate Economics Student

There is now little doubt that climate change is occurring, and that human activity is the primary cause. Empirical evidence for the greenhouse effect has mounted, whereby the build up of Carbon Dioxide and other Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is leading to global warming and other important climate effects.

This year the Mauna Loa observatory recorded its first annual mean of CO2 concentration above the 400 PPM mark. Clearly the problem is severe and calls for significant action from the international community, but so far we have seen minimal success in any agreements significantly reducing CO2 emissions. While there are many difficulties involved in negotiating international agreements on climate change, one of the most significant is the issue of ‘climate justice’, referring to the equity and fairness considerations in negotiation of agreements.

Putting aside these difficulties, there has been a clear willingness from the international community to work together to combat climate change. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was the result of negotiations in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, with the goal of stabilizing CO2 emissions. With the 22nd conference of the parties coming up, last years Paris Agreement enters force on the 4th November. Although this agreement is weak regarding legally binding obligations on countries, it is a symbol of this global willingness to reduce CO2 emissions.

Perhaps the biggest game changer is the recent global deal to limit use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), key climate-change causing pollutants. It is a large step in the right direction for keeping global warming below 2° C, the target set out in the Paris Agreement. Anything beyond it marks a ‘point of no return,’ where climate change damage becomes irreversible. The HFC deal is an amendment to the earlier 1989 Montreal Protocol, which required countries to cut out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), due to evidence of their ozone depleting qualities. But most CFCs were simply replaced with HFCs, leading to similar climate problems.

Now, countries must reduce their HFC use. Developed countries must freeze their use by 2018. Some developing countries such as China have agreed to peak their use by 2024. Others like Pakistan and India have pushed for a later date (2028), citing the fact that their economies need more time to grow. But it is this growth that has contributed to the increasing use of HFCs, as China and India install air conditioning units in their new offices and homes. And here lies the most significant problem in reaching climate change agreements. Industrialised nations like the US have so far had little/no costs involved when using CO2 and so enforcing nations like China and India to commit to emission reductions now is essentially penalizing them for their later progress.

Industrialised nations like the US have so far had little/no costs involved when using CO2 and so enforcing nations like China and India to commit to emission reductions now is essentially penalizing them for their later progress.

This is where the issue of ‘climate justice’ comes to the forefront. The UNFCCC stipulates that climate negotiations should minimize cost and distribute the burden of reducing emissions equitably. This issue of equity and fairness in agreements is an important one, as countries will simply not ratify an agreement they believe to be unfair, or of no benefit to them. The problem stems from the public nature of CO2 abatement, presenting a ‘free rider’ problem, due to every country benefitting from a lower CO2 atmospheric concentration.

The issue is made more difficult by the fact that the burden of impacts is distributed to poorer nations by natural processes, whereas the majority of emissions arise from activity in richer nations. Indonesia for example, as a multi-island nation with a diverse range of natural resources, is likely to be at the receiving end of negative climate impacts. So countries like Indonesia dispute being subjected to the same targets as developed countries like the US. But as these poorer nations develop, they are set to contribute more and more to global emissions, and so an agreement with their cooperation is critical.

Equity issues are dominating the discussion and we are yet to see an agreement regarded as universally beneficial for all committing countries.

Perhaps the answer lies in compensation from rich countries. The notion of ‘loss and damages’ advocates providing aid to countries that are most vulnerable to the damages from climate change, but have contributed negligibly to emissions compared to industrialized nations. The damages include destruction of infrastructure or loss of land from rising seas. Incorporating this notion into agreements is seen by many as vital for combating climate change in a fair and just way.

The debate led to the Warsaw Mechanism on Loss and Damage and further success has been achieved in the Paris Agreement, where loss and damage was acknowledged as a standalone element, recognizing the fact that finance is required to deal with it. Furthermore India have pushed for the principle of ‘Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities’, essentially demanding more action from developed countries. It seeks to be a voice for the developing nations, ensuring climate justice is at the forefront of the discussion.

The problem stems from the public nature of CO abatement, presenting a ‘free rider’ problem, due to every country benefitting from a lower COatmospheric concentration.

Developed countries counter with the fact that they have already pledged $100 billion for adaption and mitigation of climate change. Essentially they have agreed to put money into a Green Climate fund, to support programmes, policies and other activities in developing countries. U.S Secretary of State John Kerry has also noted that if loss and damage was framed as a legal obligation, congressional opposition would have hindered the enforcement of the Paris Agreement. Clearly the issue is a contentious one, with little consensus on how to move forward in dealing with it.

This lack of consensus means the discussion of ‘climate justice’ is likely to remain a key part of climate negotiations, particularly with the next conference coming soon in Marrakesh. Equity issues are dominating the discussion and we are yet to see an agreement regarded as universally beneficial for all committing countries.

The UN must focus on ways to move beyond words to action on this hugely significant aspect of climate change. There has been a gain of momentum by the climate justice movement, but the challenge in Marrakech is to keep it going.


Featured image by NASA/GSFC 

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