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Linking trust, ambition and integrity in Paris climate talks

By Barry Coates, Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand

The first deadline for climate change negotiations in Paris is fast approaching. The government officials who have been negotiating for eight long years since negotiations started in Bali in 2007 have to finish their work by Saturday. Late night sessions have already started trying to come up with a draft agreement that is ready for Ministers to take the final political decisions.

The shape of the final agreement is emerging. The commitments will not go far enough to meet the long term goal of avoiding dangerous impacts from climate change. The most vulnerable countries, including the Pacific islands, are already suffering from climate impacts when the temperature rise is around 1°C. They want a long term goal to keep global temperature rise well below 1.5°C, but this is being resisted by many countries want a goal of 2°C. This debate is important to the integrity of the final agreement. Vulnerable countries and civil society groups are reminding negotiators that rapid decarbonisation is essential for the survival of low-lying cities, communities and many countries.  

It has already been conceded that the country targets will neither be ambitious nor legally binding. The pledges announced will put the world onto a path that will result in global temperature rise of around 2.7-3.5°C. The focus is now on the ‘ratchet mechanism’ that can successively increase the targets over future five yearly reviews. It is crucial in the last days of negotiations that these reviews will link emissions reductions and adaptation in developing countries, and to the reviews of climate science.

It has also become clear that there will be little in the agreement about protecting human rights, promoting gender equity, respecting the rights of indigenous peoples, conserving biodiversity or ensuring equity. Civil society is advocating in the corridors to ensure that these issues are put into the core of the agreement instead of being relegated to an introductory paragraph.

The agreement is likely to be short and high level, perhaps around 20-30 pages. A comparison with trade agreements is relevant. The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) has 6194 pages with strong enforcement provisions. Apparently legally binding rules to create rights for multinational corporations are possible, but not rules that will protect people and the planet.

The short document will mean that many of the rules will need to be added over the next few years – the agreement will not come into force until 2020. The integrity of those rules is crucial. Loopholes allowing carbon trading have created opportunities for corruption and trading of ‘hot air’; ‘flexible’ rules on forests have allowed countries to meet their Kyoto Protocol targets without reducing emissions; and a lack of definition of climate finance has allowed the rich countries to just re-badge their existing aid funding. These abuses of the rules have eroded trust and undermined the integrity of climate negotiations.

The issue of climate finance is crucial to build trust and support future ambition. In particular, more funding is needed to protect the poorer communities who are suffering the impacts of climate change, a problem created primarily by the richer countries. It is important that the agreement recognises that climate finance is for compensation and protection, not as a form of aid. The rich countries are not on track to live up to their commitment to provide $100 billion in finance, and there need to be new commitments to funding and assurances of higher levels of support in future. This is closely linked to the level of ambition since it will enable poorer countries to transition more quickly to renewable energy instead of coal-fired power, and to conserve their native forests.

The danger in these final days of negotiations by government officials is that clever wording will paper over the substantive issues. This will not help create the foundations for a sound agreement. The issues of trust, integrity and ambition are central to an acceptable outcome and they are inextricably linked.

There are some positive signs emerging, particularly with new commitments from India and China, but also from the 43 countries in the Climate Vulnerable Countries group. They have undertaken to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2050, putting the rich nations to shame. This is the kind of leadership that provides hope, as well as the initiatives by cities, communities and some progressive businesses. This week is the last chance for government officials to complete their eight years of negotiations. Next week, we will get to see whether political leaders step up to the challenge.

Barry Coates is a Green Party candidate from New Zealand, next on the list to get into Parliament, and a Councillor on the Asia-Pacific Greens Federation. He has been a campaigner on climate change since the Earth Summit in 1992.

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