Ministers, nations set the stage for the final act of a new climate pact

By Lisa Friedman | 07/20/2015 07:59 AM EDT

The Republic of the Marshall Islands, a string of low-lying atolls in the Pacific Ocean whose share of global greenhouse gas emissions is so low it barely registers on data charts, vowed yesterday to slash a third of its carbon pollution within the decade.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands, a string of low-lying atolls in the Pacific Ocean whose share of global greenhouse gas emissions is so low it barely registers on data charts, vowed yesterday to slash a third of its carbon pollution within the decade.

The pledge, which will be formally submitted to the United Nations, comes as ministers meet in Paris and elsewhere for high-level talks on preparing a global climate change agreement. According to agenda documents obtained by ClimateWire the discussions today and tomorrow will focus heavily on ramping up ambition for the final deal expected to be signed in the French capital in December.

A new draft text of that deal is anticipated Friday. With just 10 formal negotiating days left, supporters of a global agreement said this week of ministerial discussions — which kicked off over the weekend with a Major Economies Forum (MEF) meeting in Luxembourg — could be key.


"These meetings provide an opportunity for ministers to really grapple with the issues and scope out points of convergence," said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES).

"This is really challenging," Diringer said. "They’re trying to develop a new system of climate governance. The challenge is how to build some rigor into that system, to provide accountability in a way that respects the very real differences among countries — and that is not easy."

Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony de Brum, who has been pressuring the biggest polluting nations to boost their emissions targets ahead of the Paris deal, said his country wanted to show the world that even the smallest and most vulnerable countries are taking steep action.

"We’re not just talking the talk. We’re walking the walk," de Brum said.

The Marshall Islands’ intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) is the first of its kind from a small island developing nation. It includes a commitment to cut emissions 32 percent below 2010 levels by 2025, and then 45 percent by 2030. The government hopes to reach net-zero emissions by at least midcentury.

"We are also the first developing country to take an absolute economywide target. We’re proud of this," de Brum said. "We hope it’s an inspiration to others that feel they cannot do it."

A list of unresolved issues

The Paris agreement is being designed to usher in a new era of climate change action. Under it, all countries except the poorest will be expected to curb emissions — a major shift from the current system that only demands cuts from the wealthiest industrialized nations.

Those pledges will make up the heart of the deal, but there is no agreement yet on dozens of other core issues. Among them: whether the targets will be legally binding; how to ensure that countries make good on their promises; whether and how countries should routinely bump up their pledges; and how to ensure developing countries see a $100 billion in annual climate aid that they were promised by 2020.

Perhaps the most volatile open issue is known by the relatively bland term "differentiation" — that is, deciding how much responsibility countries of different levels of emissions and wealth should bear.

Those political questions will be top priorities over the next two days in Paris, according to a background paper and a tentative agenda. It notes that parties have already made "significant progress" in agreeing on how to develop a fair agreement — but then spends more than a page of a five-page missive detailing the sensitive and unresolved points.

Ministers, it notes, will have to consider what obligations developed and developing countries should meet when it comes to monitoring and reviewing targets; and if so, should countries of all sizes adhere to the same requirements? And should there be as strong a monitoring system for ensuring wealthy countries pony up climate aid as for checking mitigation pledges?

Meanwhile, the briefing paper notes that developed countries are currently taking absolute emissions reduction targets while developing countries, for the most part, are scaling back intensity levels, setting peak years and reducing from business-as-usual levels.

Pressure for economywide targets

"Going forward, and for the next mitigation contributions, it is also expected that countries will have to progressively converge towards more stringent types of mitigation contributions, ultimately to the point of taking an absolute emission reduction target," the note says.

While the Paris deal will likely not address the issue in detail, it says, ministers should decide if the agreement should include language indicating that all targets from all countries will eventually be economywide. They also need to discuss "potential incentives" for getting developing countries to move toward more stringent targets.

The ministers are also expected to put a heavy emphasis on how to build a durable agreement that boosts ambition over time — particularly since the INDCs currently rolling in are not expected to be enough to keep global temperatures from rising to dangerous levels.

The Paris deal is expected to reaffirm a long-held goal of keeping temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, or possibly strengthening it to 1.5 degrees. But ministers are also under pressure to spell out how the world needs to get there, possible by "laying out the consequences for global GHG emissions," the briefing paper says.

Meanwhile, leaders will also try to design a deal that lasts beyond the targets countries have pledged out to 2025 or 2030.

"There is a common understanding that the Paris agreement should be flexible, because it will need to adapt to changing circumstances; and therefore that the new legal instrument should be short and concise, and include only core provisions, while the detailed rules will be established in separate decisions. There is also a shared recognition that Parties should not have to negotiate a new agreement every five or ten years," the briefing notes.

A plan for five-year upgrades

A key political issue for ministers, it says, will be "How to make it clear that the Paris agreement will not stop after the first contributions, while recognizing that some of its provisions will have to evolve?"

De Brum said part of that question may be on its way to being settled at the Major Economies Forum held over the weekend in Luxembourg. The Marshall Islands has been pressing for countries to boost their targets every five years — something the United States is agreeable to, but China and others have not been. But, he said, something appears to have shifted.

"I think I am getting a signal that the resistance that used to be there against the five-year signal has dropped," de Brum said. "I really felt some movement."

While the Major Economies Forum is made up of 17 permanent countries and a handful of observers, the two-day ministerial in Paris will include leaders from 45 nations. U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern, who co-hosted the Major Economies Forum, will attend as well as China’s special representative for climate change Xie Zhenhua and the European Union’s climate and energy commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete.

Diringer, whose group has informally convened negotiators over the past year and emerged last week with a report outlining what they believe could be the contours of a deal, said he is seeing countries sincerely looking for areas of common ground as they approach Paris.

"It’s encouraging to see that happening at the ministerial level at this stage," he said. "What’s needed is strong alignment at the political level to signal to negotiators that it is time to move from their opening positions, and I think we’re beginning to see that."