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At Bonn, stay the course (.hindu)

Renegotiation of the Paris Agreement on climate change is not a viable option

Between November 6 and 17 this year, world leaders, delegates from various countries and others from business, along with media and other representatives of civil society will gather at Bonn for the 23rd Conference of Parties (COP-23) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The meeting will primarily concentrate on various aspects associated with the implementation of the Paris Agreement (PA), which was negotiated at COP-21 and entered into force, or became legally binding, on November 4, 2016.

COP-23 will be presided by Frank Bainimarama, Prime Minister of Fiji. It is fitting that a Pacific island nation chairs this year’s COP as the very existence of low-lying islands is threatened by sea level rise due to climate change. The meetings in Bonn will cover a wide range of issues, including adjusting to living in a warmer world with the associated impacts, known as adaptation to climate change and reduction in greenhouse gases, referred to as mitigation. They will also include sessions on loss and damage, or the means of addressing economic and non-economic forfeitures and potential injury associated with climate change. Finally, the discussions will be about the implementation of targets that were decided by each country ahead of the Paris meeting, referred to as the nationally determined contributions (NDCs), and the finance, capacity building and technology transfer required by developing countries from rich nations.

According to the procedures of the UNFCCC, the meetings in Bonn will include the session of COP-23, the 13th session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP 13) and the second part of the first session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA 1.2). The decision-making bodies for the Convention, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement are the COP, the CMP and the CMA, respectively. In addition, the Bonn meetings will include the 47th sessions of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA 47), which assists on science and technology, and the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI 47), which supports the work of the three bodies through assessment and review. Also, the Ad Hoc Working Group of the Paris Agreement will meet and is tasked with important issues such as NDCs, adaptation, transparency, and global stocktake.

Warming target
At the Paris COP, countries agreed to try and limit global warming to 1.5°C but since previous discussions had centred on the Lakshman rekha of 2°C, this required renewed understanding of the policies and actions required to stay within a lower target. Half a degree reduction may seem really small, but in terms of the impacts on ecosystems, geophysical cycles and diverse life forms on earth, this is a substantial difference. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has therefore undertaken the task of preparing a special report on the impacts of a warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and the global response needed to achieve these.

Many scientists who research climate change, however, believe that we are on our way to a world that is 4°C warmer and that limiting warming to less than 1.5°C is a pipe dream. A recent paper in Nature Geoscience by R.J. Millar and colleagues analyses scenarios to demonstrate that limiting warming to 1.5 °C is not yet a geophysical impossibility. But this would imply continuing to strengthen pledges for 2030, deepening the mitigation targets rapidly and deeply, and based on the current conditions in global discussions and national targets, it is not clear that emissions can drop precipitously.

Article 14 of the Agreement provides the details on the targets, taking stock and reviewing them and the progress made towards long-term goals. The first such stock-taking covering all aspects such as mitigation, adaptation communications, and support for implementation is expected to take place in 2023, but meetings to prepare for this have already begun and have to conclude by 2018. Adaptation is increasingly also expected to become central at the COP meetings, which for the most part have focussed on mitigation. To learn more about the implications of the stocktaking, see the policy brief on the Centre for Science and Environment website.

Countries and challenges
This is the first COP after the United States pulled out of the PA and the implications of this at a global platform are likely to become more evident. Several states and cities within the U.S. along with thousands of businesses and celebrities have used this chance to initiate voluntary actions across the country. For instance, billionaire and former Mayor of New York city, Michael Bloomberg, and California Governor Jerry Brown launched America’s Pledge, an initiative that is expected to report on the efforts of U.S. states, and sub-state entities to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) of the nine northeastern states has proposed another 30% drop in power plant emissions from 2020 to 2030.

Moreover, it has been reported that a U.S. delegation will in any case attend the Bonn COP and all PA-related meetings until 2020, while other major signatories have reaffirmed their commitment to the PA. Nevertheless, there is speculation whether the formal withdrawal of the U.S. would alter the stance taken by Europe, Australia, and large countries at the COP and what role, if any, the U.S. would play behind the scenes.

According to earlier reports from the UN and other groups, the NDCs, when added up, fall short of what is needed to keep global temperature rise below 2°C and will likely take us about a degree higher. Further, most NDCs are conditional — they depend on financial and technological support from rich countries for their full implementation.

James Hansen, the distinguished climate scientist, writes in his blog that carbon dioxide and methane are increasing faster than a decade ago and that efforts being made now at the global and state levels are “half-measures”, and “soothing and baffling expedients”. As a result, young people will be “entering a period of consequences”. As disheartening as his remarks are, it is also evident that the political conditions prevalent today are not favourable to renegotiate the Paris Agreement. Since the planet and its inhabitants will still have to deal with the impacts of climate change, our only hope is to see a greater readiness on the part of all nations to compromise on their erstwhile hard positions, and sincerity to make progress in reducing emissions and building climate resilience in their development.

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