December 9, 2015. Paris, France. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) COP21.

Notes of optimism are emerging for an agreement on time (Friday evening) or even a bit early. However, two major longstanding issues require still resolution, according to high level sources. The first is differentiation, or the question of equal approaches to commitments by all nations. The Kyoto protocol negotiations of 1997 proceeded on a dual track following the 1995 Berlin mandate at COP1, and resulted in a bifurcation of developed and developing nation commitments that proved controversial and, in some cases such as in the US, unacceptable for ultimate approval. However, this approach was replaced by a single, cohesive approach in the 2009 Copenhagen accord at COP15 that is the basis for current negotiations. Under this approach, one commitment system will be used, but countries can pledge customized levels and types of commitments. They cannot, however, avoid commitments on a common timetable using a common format. The first critical part of this regime was secured prior to the Paris meeting through submission over over 180 pledged goals for emissions reductions by participating nations, otherwise known as Intentional Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). The second part requires adopting a cohesive and common approach for their implementation and review, including common timetables and transparency. Given that 180 nations have just unveiled goals under a common system, it is awkward to reverse course and try now to separate them into disparate groups, and hard also to imagine a politically acceptable approach to that process. More likely a common system that enables national customization (rather than regional blocs) under a cohesive regime will emerge.

The second major issue is known as loss and damage. This relates to the impacts of actions or inactions on greenhouse levels that elevate risks and subsequent vulnerabilities and impacts from climate change. Some view this as a matter of liability and compensation whereby emitters of greenhouse gases as are held responsible for climate change damages that occur in particular places and times. This raises complex and controversial issues, including cause and effect relationships between and particular damage events, the assignment of responsibility based on the timing and levels of past and future emissions and other factors of relevance, and methods for supporting disproportionately impacted parties and needs. It’s a dicey set. For instance, while some claim that a simple calculation of past total emissions by countries be an index of compensation obligations, others point out that greenhouse gas emissions were not internationally recognized as a risk agent until 1992, that the comparative level of effort by many of the largest past emitters since that time (including the US) is among the highest of all nations along with environmental aid support, that future emissions and associated damages will be driven by an emerging set of developing (not developed) nations, and that capacity support does not equal liability obligation. Like the differentiation issues, this is more likely to be approached by a recognition of the growing need for climate change adaptation support and a targeted flow of funds to priority needs that can be implemented in mutually beneficial manner to both donors and recipients. In short, payments are likely to be negotiated through need and opportunity rather than automated through a damage index. Clearly this will be patterned toward developing nations support, but driven by bottom up assessment.

However, details for resolving both of these issues are very much a live ballgame at this time. Stay posted.

Tom Peterson

Picture: Micro Windmill Tree

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