29 July 2015
Cracking the Climate Code in Time for the Paris Agreement
UN Photo/Kibae Park/Sipa Press
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In the lead up to the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the UNFCCC, it is important to understand what has come before, in order to put the future climate agreement and efforts by others into context.

At the end of 2015, the world’s attention will be focused on Paris, France, where countries are due to finalize the development of a new “protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.” This new agreement is due to be completed in 2015, and to take effect in 2020. Many recognize that action in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is only a fraction of the subnational, national and regional efforts by governments, companies and citizens to address climate change. In the lead up to the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the UNFCCC, it is important to understand what has come before, in order to put the future climate agreement and efforts by others into context.

In this push for a new agreement, underlining the need for understanding the complex world of climate change governance, the new e-course on international climate change law by InforMEA, a project of the Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEA) Information and Knowledge Management Initiative, is timely. This policy update will consider how an improved understanding of the history and provisions of the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol can help spur action to address climate change in the future.

The e-course begins with a basic primer on climate science before moving into international climate change policy. The course provides insights into the main principles, the objective, the commitments and the financial mechanism of the UNFCCC. It then outlines the key issues during the negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol and the Protocol’s architecture, consisting of emissions reductions, flexibility mechanisms and commitment periods. The last unit focuses on the negotiations toward the 2015 agreement and sketches the modern history of the UNFCCC process.

It is apparent that the key to understanding any future climate agreement will be within the context of past agreements. The current negotiations build on the provisions and principles of the Convention and some of the ideas realized through the Kyoto Protocol continue to re-emerge. Many of the unresolved historical issues are also issues to be resolved in the present. An improved understanding of previous and contemporary climate change policy, as this e-course facilitates, can help stakeholders understand the negotiations underway.

The e-course explains the principles and major articles of the Convention, which are critical for understanding the dynamics unfolding in current negotiations. Delegates use acronyms such as CBDR (common but differentiated responsibilities) or cite specific articles of the Convention as a short hand method to refer to important ideas and the provision of support to developing countries. These principles, as outlined in the course, speak to some of the roles and responsibilities of countries – for instance that developed countries are to take the lead in climate change mitigation and are to support developing countries in their efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change impacts. Whether, and possibly how, those roles and responsibilities will evolve is central to the negotiations for a post-2020 climate change regime.

Other issues in the negotiations likewise build on the past. The e-course addressed the market mechanisms under the Kyoto Protocol by explaining their function, eligibility requirements and projects. Market mechanisms remain controversial. Some argue they are a distraction from the need to increase mitigation ambition, while others argue that such mechanisms unlock mitigation potential. New mechanisms are currently proposed, and being contentiously negotiated, in the context of future climate action. The course explains the basics to empower stakeholders to delve further into the debate.

How to catalyze meaningful and sufficient reductions of emissions known as mitigation is a central question for the future. The Kyoto Protocol commits developed countries with legally-binding targets to reductions of at least 5% below 1990 emissions levels between 2008 and 2012. As the e-course states, emissions levels have risen substantially since 1990, meaning that this measure is still unlikely to stabilize human-induced global warming. Many, including those within the state-centric UNFCCC, are looking to the efforts of others, including cities and the private sector, for action on mitigation.

There is growing recognition that climate change is a unique environmental issue, which implicates us all. Greenhouse gas emissions come from an array of sources such as fossil fuel combustion, deforestation and agriculture, meaning everyone, from countries to companies, cities to citizens, can play a role in reducing emissions and increasing resilience to climate change impacts. Understanding the basics of climate science and the main ideas and issues in international climate policy can help everyone find their role in the global effort.

Social movements, international organizations, and other non-state actors are taking up this challenge. The e-course supports this effort and lowers the barriers to entry for new actors by educating them on the jargon-heavy and complex world of the climate change negotiation process. This e-course provides a helping hand to understanding what is happening in climate change policy now, and what has already occurred.

The world will continue to watch the international climate process. Some watch in order to spur leaders to greater action and others, such as cities, find ways to fill the lacuna left by the insufficiency of current commitments. The French Government predicts that 45,000 people will attend COP 21. Many countries will send unusually large delegations, civil society groups plan to send as many representatives as possible, and the public will be able to attend sessions in some areas of the venue. With unprecedented interest in engagement, the need to understand international climate change policy is needed now more than ever.

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