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The Paris Agreement – maintaining momentum into 2017

Posted: 25/01/2017

Following the conclusion of the 22nd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP22) talks in Marrakech, this third and final instalment in our series of articles on the Paris Agreement looks to the future, examining the directions which action under the agreement may take, and identifying developments to watch over the next few years.

The COP22 talks, broadly intended to begin the process of implementing the pledges in the Paris Agreement, resulted in a plethora of documents, serving perhaps more to narrow down the questions to be asked, rather than providing many answers. While the documents are too multifarious to analyse here comprehensively, a number of key points have emerged.

On the third day of the conference, Donald Trump was announced as President-Elect of the US. Throughout his campaign, Trump had famously expressed concerns that the restrictions imposed by the agreement would put the US at a commercial disadvantage to other states, notably China, and had said that he would seek to remove the US from the agreement altogether. This uncertainty over the participation of such a major world economy, and the second-largest global polluter, posed an immediate challenge to the agreement, especially given the lack of concrete enforcement mechanisms. Mindful of the importance of international pressure in keeping the agreement on track, it was surely no coincidence that the gathered parties produced the Marrakech Action Proclamation in which they reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris pledges, and called for ‘strong solidarity’ and ‘strengthening cooperation’. Now Trump is in the White House, and early indications are that he is taking a more isolationist view of the US’s place in world politics than the previous administration, with a strong emphasis on rebuilding traditional industry and a cabinet of climate change sceptics, what he does next will be a key development to track.

The proclamation also reinforced previous promises on climate change, notably the developed countries’ promises made in Cancun in 2010 to mobilise $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing countries achieve their climate goals. One of the concrete outcomes of COP22 was that the developed countries were actively encouraged to increase their financial contributions to work towards this goal.

The developing countries made a pledge too. The Climate Vulnerable Forum, a partnership of countries particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, pledged in their Marrakech Vision to ‘strive to meet 100% domestic renewable energy production as rapidly as possible, while working to end energy poverty and protect water and food security, taking into consideration national circumstances’. The first step towards this will be for the parties in the CVF to amend their NDCs as ambitiously as possible by 2020.

How will Brexit affect the agreement?

The UK has ratified the agreement in its own right, as has the EU as a bloc, so when the UK leaves the EU, we will still remain bound independently. We also have our own emissions targets and ‘carbon budget’ enshrined in domestic law, notably the 2008 Climate Change Act, which, although it informs and feeds into our contribution to the Paris aims, precedes our ratification of the agreement and is legally quite separate. Domestic provisions will not be automatically affected by Brexit.

However, some of our legislation relevant to the agreement is enmeshed in a tangle of EU provisions; for this, the future is more uncertain. While we remain a member of the EU, we along with all member states are jointly responsible not only for our own NDC, but for the EU’s NDC, notably the EU pledge to reduce emissions by at least 40% across all 28 member states by 2030. If we left the bloc entirely tomorrow, we would theoretically cease to be responsible for the EU’s Paris targets, but in reality it is likely that any negotiated Brexit deal would include provisions which keep our approach somewhat harmonised with the rest of Europe, not least because the UK has been a key driver of EU climate change policy. The Committee on Climate Change recommended in its October 2016 report that the UK should enshrine many EU climate change provisions into domestic law, ensuring they continue to have effect post-Brexit. The manner of the UK’s contribution to the agreement post-Brexit is therefore likely to be informed not only by domestic commitments, but also by which EU laws continue to have effect.

What are the next milestones to look out for?

There has been an ongoing debate in the Philippines as to whether the country will ratify the agreement; incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte has been a firm opponent in the past, voicing concerns that with ratification would come restrictions on fossil fuels that would cripple industry. However, he is now coming under pressure from others in government who believe that support of the developed nations through the agreement could spark a cleantech revolution. Although the Philippines is not one of the largest polluters, the persuasion of a vocal detractor would be a great victory for the agreement, especially as a project which relies so heavily on international pressure and co-operation. This will therefore be an interesting barometer to watch over the first few months of 2017.

The parties have also agreed 2018 as a date for a ‘facilitative dialogue’ on progress under the agreement. This is intended to be a precursor to the five-yearly global stocktakes which will occur from 2023 to assess progress and hold parties to their NDCs and other pledges. It is hoped that these discussions will set a concrete agenda for the global stocktakes, and provide answers to some of the questions offered in Marrakech. They are also touted as the best chance to mark concrete progress towards curbing global emissions before 2020 and so should offer more certainty as to whether the agreement is succeeding. 

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