Paris and beyond
The Paris climate negotiations are seen as the international platform where the climate of the future will be decided. In preparation, countries are right now publishing their climate action plans (officially known as INDCs). Some of the world’s major emitters have just submitted their strategies, and we now know the plans of the US and Russia, which collectively account for one quarter of the world’s current emissions. The US has made bold plans to reduce emissions by 28% by 2025, effectively doubling the tempo of its emissions reductions. Russia plans to cut its emissions by 2030 to 25-30% of 1990 levels. The EU, responsible for 13% of global emissions, submitted a target of at least a 40% reduction by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. All countries were encouraged to submit their climate action plans in the first quarter of 2015.
But contrary to most public expectations, the Paris conference isn’t about negotiating the best (or worst) deal for our climate. It’s about international law, and politics, and how politics can use, drive, and manipulate international law. The unusual thing about the Paris conference is that an agreement – if any legally binding agreement is concluded at all – will be based on these climate action plans that have been developed at the national level. In international law-making, it’s generally the other way around: countries come together, discuss issues important to the international community, and then jointly design and create a legally binding agreement. Representatives return to their nation with the new agreement, and the law is implemented. Where is the involvement for civil society in this top-down approach? Well, aside from electing a government that takes part in these international talks, there is traditionally little opportunity for involvement.The Kyoto Protocol was an example of this: the heads of state agreed (or didn’t agree) on binding emissions reductions targets, which was then administered by an international body that monitored and supported the reductions. Ordinary citizens had very little to do with the whole process.
The Climate Action Plans are very different to the top-down Kyoto Protocol. The failures of Kyoto to achieve meaningful emissions reductions led countries to choose a so-called “bottom-up” approach. This is what we are seeing now. Each country is preparing its climate action plan for how to reduce national emissions to a level of its choosing, and in a way that suits it best. Countries then submit the plan to the international community. Obviously this allows for countries to pledge lower reductions targets than would otherwise be reached under an international agreement. But it also allows them to make more ambitious pledges. And it allows for a more equitable system: developing countries face different constraints than industrialised countries. The flexibility of the Climate Action Plans also means that all countries, not just industrialised nations, will participate in emissions reductions. This is a step forward from the Kyoto mechanisms.
Negotiations at Paris will decide what to do with these climate action plans. Perhaps the international community could play an administrative role, monitoring the implementation of climate action plans, facilitating action, and providing financial support. Although it might sound mundane, administration is important and could create a framework that facilitates ambitious climate action. Under this scenario, the international community may decide that countries should be legally bound to submit reports and updates for review – or not. But whatever the outcome – legally binding or not – the focus of attention has shifted. Paris is not going to be about international legal agreements imposed on states. It will not be where the future of the climate is decided. It will be based much more on a national focus. And this is where the process opens up for participation.
Civil society at the national level will have a bigger role to play in holding national governments to account, and in pushing for more ambition. Citizens will now be more powerful in demanding action.
So in the lead up to the Paris negotiations, we need to readjust our expectations. And get active.
[The climate action plans (or INDCs) are available on the UNFCCC website: