28 January 2016
Taking Stock of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change
Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth
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This policy update takes stock of the Paris Agreement and associated decisions adopted at the conclusion of COP 21, identifying what observers highlighted as positive aspects as well as areas where the Agreement leaves room for more attention.

The Paris Climate Change Conference, which convened from 29 November to 13 December 2015, in Paris, France, was the last stop in a process that started in Durban, South Africa, in 2011, where Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) had set themselves the task to complete negotiations on a “protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all parties.”

The four-year ride to Paris was not an easy one, but in the end, the outcome of the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 21) to the UNFCCC exceeded expectations, producing an agreement that, while some say it is not ambitious enough, represents an important step in the evolution of climate governance and a reaffirmation of environmental multilateralism.

This policy update takes stock of the Paris Agreement and associated decisions adopted at the conclusion of COP 21, identifying what observers highlighted as positive aspects as well as areas where the Agreement leaves room for more attention. It is structured around the main sections of the Paris Agreement, namely the preamble, purpose, adaptation, mitigation, REDD+, global stocktake, finance, technology transfer and development, capacity building and transparency. It also touches upon pre-2020 ambition.

On the positive side, many view the preamble as “modern,” as it includes references to human rights, intergenerational equity, climate justice, Mother Earth and the right to health. Although these terms are included, some have said the Agreement is limited because it does not operationalize these rights and omits references to gender responsiveness or a global carbon budget in line with historical responsibilities.

Many lauded the purpose of the Agreement as positive, given that it seeks to: hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, and pursuing efforts to limit to 1.5°C, above pre-industrial levels; increase the ability to adapt to climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions development; and make financial flows consistent with a pathway towards low GHG emissions and climate-resilient development. Parties ensured emphasis on the context of these objectives, including sustainable development, poverty eradication, equity, and the principle of common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR) and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.

On adaptation, the Agreement establishes a global goal on adaptation of enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change. It recognizes that adaptation is a global challenge and key to the long-term global response to climate change. Furthermore, the Agreement provides that the global stocktake, described in further detail below, shall review the overall progress made in achieving this global goal on adaptation. The stocktake is also to recognize adaptation efforts of developing country parties, enhance the implementation of adaptation, and review the adequacy and effectiveness of adaptation and support provided for adaptation.

Various parties, however, lamented the fact that rather than enhancing the Adaptation Fund, the decision on finance giving effect to the Agreement merely recognizes that the Adaptation Fund “may” serve the Agreement, subject to relevant future decisions.

The Agreement addresses loss and damage in a separate Article, which includes a list of areas for cooperation and facilitation to enhance understanding, action and support. The decision does not create a new mechanism, as originally proposed by developing countries, but confirms the continuation of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts following the review in 2016. Nonetheless, many were disappointed about the exclusion of liability or compensation from the provisions on loss and damage.

On mitigation, observers pointed to the following references as some of the positive elements in the outcome: peaking of emissions as soon as possible; holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit global average temperature rise to 1.5°C; achieving a balance between anthropogenic emissions 
and removals by sinks; and basing individual contributions on equity and in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.

Furthermore, the Agreement: obliges parties to undertake and communicate successive nationally determined contributions (NDCs); provides that parties, by 2020, shall communicate an NDC every five years, informed by the outcomes of the global stocktake; and captures the principle of no backsliding in that each party’s successive NDC will represent a progression “beyond the party’s then current NDC,” and reflect its highest possible ambition as well as the principle of CBDR and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.

The Agreement also stipulates that the first Meeting of the Parties to the Agreement shall consider common timeframes for NDCs, while the decision text specifies that parties currently having submitted INDCs with a ten-year timeframe are requested to communicate or update their contributions every five years. The decision further provides that these parties communicate midway through their timeframe where they are and whether they decide to update or maintain their contribution for the remainder of their timeframe. This was considered by many as an important element to ensure that the contributions of all parties adjust to the same timeframe overtime, with an opportunity to increase ambition jointly.

While observers welcomed these decisions regarding NDCs, they were mindful that, although the current set of 189 intended NDCs, representing 95% of global emissions, achieve significant participation, they only put collective efforts on a path to an approximately 3° C temperature increase compared to pre-industrial levels. Some also underlined that, while earlier versions of the draft agreement contained a couple of articles on bunker fuels, these are conspicuously absent from the Paris Agreement. Another area where many thought the Paris outcome could be viewed as limited was the fact that only the communication of NDCs is legally-binding, not their content and targets. According to the Paris Agreement, each party shall prepare, communicate and maintain successive NDCs that it intends to achieve, and pursue domestic mitigation measures, with “the aim” of achieving the objectives of such contributions.

Many applauded the inclusion of REDD+ as a standalone article in the Paris Agreement. However, the language on Parties’ REDD+ action is not legally binding, and while the Agreement recognizes “the importance of adequate and predictable financial resources” for REDD+, which may come from various sources, there are no specific commitments to finance REDD+.

As mentioned above, the Agreement includes a separate Article on a global stocktake. This five-year periodic stocktake, beginning in 2023, aims to assess the collective progress of achievements and needed efforts. It will inform Parties in updating their actions and support. This comprehensive and facilitative stocktake is to consider mitigation, adaptation and the means of implementation, in the light of equity and the best available science. While most welcomed the establishment of this stocktake, many lamented the absence of a clear link on how the outcome of the global stocktake could increase ambition and enhance action and support, which remains to be nationally determined.

On finance, the Agreement differentiates between developed countries, which “shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation” while other countries “are encouraged to provide such support voluntarily.” It stipulates that developed countries should continue to take the lead in the mobilization of climate finance from a wide variety of sources, which should represent a progression beyond previous efforts. Developed countries furthermore “shall biennially communicate indicative quantitative and qualitative information” regarding the provision and mobilization of finance, “including, as available, projected levels of public financial resources to be provided to developing country parties” and that “other parties providing resources are encouraged to communicate biennially such information on a voluntary basis.” While this language does not create additional binding obligations on developing countries, it recognizes the increasing level of South-South financial support and partly accommodates developed countries’ desire to broaden the donor base.

Some lamented that the Agreement lacks increased ambition and a replenishment process for scaled up post-2020 finance. The decision merely stipulates that developed countries intend to continue their existing collective mobilization goal, of US$100 billion per year by 2020, through 2025 in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation. It leaves for future negotiations “a new collective quantified goal from a floor of US$100 billion per year, taking into account the needs and priorities of developing countries.”

Some worried that the decision to recommend that the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Agreement “provide guidance to the Convention’s Financial Mechanism on the policies, programme priorities and eligibility criteria related to the Agreement” could lead to the establishment of criteria for countries to access finance. Many viewed as a positive development the establishment of a technology framework, to give guidance to the technology mechanism under the Convention. It is worth underlining that this framework provides a legal basis for support of indigenous capacities and technologies of developing countries. However, it does not yet provide a clear linkage to financial support and does not address concerns around competitiveness. Furthermore, some expressed concern that the framework created under Paris Agreement may issue guidance conflicting with that from the existing technology mechanism under the Convention. In addition, some observers highlighted as a lost opportunity the fact that the five voluntary “Principles to Mainstream Climate Action” signed onto by financial institutions did not lead to a stronger outcome on technology development and transfer.

Many welcomed the launch of a work plan on capacity building for the period 2016-2020 and the establishment of the Paris Committee for Capacity-building, to address gaps and needs in implementing capacity-building in developing country parties and further enhancing capacity-building efforts. However, some also pointed to another lost opportunity, namely that the COP 21 discussions did not include aspects of the Addis Declaration on financing for development. The Addis Ababa Action Agenda recognizes, inter alia, that domestic public resource mobilization can benefit from strengthened international cooperation to build capacity in developing countries for tax reform, and, that integrated climate change policies are often devolved to the sub-national level, which lack adequate technical and technological capacity, financing and support.

Agreement on a transparency framework was seen as a positive outcome by most parties. It includes legally-binding reporting requirements for all while recognizing developing countries’ need for support and the special capacity-building needs of small island developing States (SIDS) and least developed countries (LDCs). Through monitoring actions, the transparency process sets in motion a beneficial focus on implementation, a learning process and attention to needs. It also provides signals to markets to redirect investments to low- carbon and climate-resilient development.

COP 21 also dealt with pre-2020 work. Positive outcomes include: the new TEP on adaptation; the strengthened TEP on mitigation that strives to involve more developing country experts and other actors, and formalizes the role of existing technology and financial mechanisms in the process; a facilitative dialogue at COP 22 to assess progress in pre-2020 implementation; and a high-level event at each COP from 2016-2020 that will build on the Lima-Paris Action Agenda (LPAA) initiative.

As noted by many speakers at the closure of COP 21, the Paris Agreement “is not perfect,” but the real test of the success of the Paris outcome starts now. While most agree that the Paris outcome contains the necessary structure of the future climate regime, it remains to be seen if and how the upcoming negotiating sessions under the UNFCCC will “put the flesh” on these bones. In this respect, key elements include how Parties will use the tools enshrined in the Agreement, whether the promised funding will be allocated and support the transition of developing countries to a low-carbon economy, and whether this colossal challenge can be met without putting the right price on carbon. Work to catalyze climate action before 2020 is pressing, as is the substantial technical and methodological work that is needed to prepare the many modalities to support the Paris Agreement for when it enters into force.


This policy update is adapted from an article originally published in French in the seventh issue of the Francophone Bulletin on Climate Change Negotiations. The Bulletins were produced by IISD Reporting Services, in collaboration with the International Organization of La Francophonie (OIF), through its subsidiary body, the Institute for Sustainable Development of La Francophonie, in partnership with Médiaterre and Senghor University, in the lead up to COP 21.

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