New Climate Treaty Draft Still a Tangled Mess, but Growing Clearer

With just five months until Paris, document manages to clarify guiding principles, but the most critical issues are still far from resolved.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the main international body for addressing climate change. Credit: Unclimatechange, flickr

If diplomacy is the art of keeping one's options open, then the negotiators of a new Paris climate change treaty must be consummate diplomats.

And if using brackets in a draft text is the equivalent of a diplomatic emoticon—one that signals [uncertainty] [dispute] [intransigence]— then the talks must have gone into a peculiar form of emoji overdrive.

Put forth by the co-chairs of the Paris process on Friday, a new 83-page treaty draft remains a tangle of bewildering brackets sandwiched among opaque options highlighting areas of disagreement.

Even so—as a summer of grinding negotiations turns toward a frenzied autumn of brinksmanship—the main principles that a treaty needs to convey are becoming clearer.

Just about everybody proclaims that the pact, meant to be signed by nearly 200 nations in Paris in December, needs to be based in science. It needs to set a concrete objective that would transform the world's energy economy. It needs to let nations slash emissions at their own pace, and it must enlist the power of markets to assist them.

The authors of the latest draft, Ahmed Djoghlaf of Algeria and Daniel Reifsnyder of the United States, the co-chairs of the negotiations, presented the document after a flurry of talks following a negotiating session in Bonn in June that made little progress. The next formal round of Bonn talks is in the first week of September. A final round of preparatory talks—the last before Paris—is set for October.

In a statement, the UN's climate change secretariat said, "The document provides for the first time clarity on what could be contained within the emerging legal agreement in Paris. It also clarifies what decisions with immediate effect could be taken at the moment the agreement is adopted."

In reality, all the co-chairs accomplished was to filter the muddle and sort the options into three parts.

The first contains elements so central to the treaty that they must be spelled out in the core treaty text—for example, options describing commitments countries are willing to make.

The second contains elements that would be defined separately in a decision of the Paris conference (like the world's longest footnote). These are, for instance, options that nations would try to act on before the full treaty goes into force in 2020.

The third holds many of the most contentious elements—the "issues that are central to the agreement and need to be addressed" where "further clarity" is sought.

When and how should the world bring to zero its emissions of carbon dioxide? Who should go first, and how fast? Who's going to pay for all this, and how much? The task ahead lies in rewriting these provisions to make them palatable enough to move them into part one, the core of the treaty.

The latest draft text is called a "non-paper," a term that is a kind of diplomatic fig leaf. Officially it carries no more weight than any other document that might be used to guide negotiators in the months ahead. (Outsiders have created several unofficial examples, like this and this.) So it would be unwise to put too much emphasis on it.

But for some, it's yet another cause for concern, as the Council of the European Union put it in a recent bulletin on climate diplomacy, over "the slow progress of the UNFCCC negotiations process."

Still others see glimmers of hope. "The co-chairs have cut through the clutter to make the text more coherent, clarifying the choices to be made," said Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute.

And indeed, those choices are now aimed at several clear principles. They are:

  • Scientific urgency. The science of global warming has become so clear and consistent that its main use in the negotiations is to propel the talks forward.

It is often said that "the climate negotiations are slow because the science behind climate change is so complex," Joseph Alcamo, a top UN science adviser, said recently as he presented a new in-depth report translating the latest science into more explicit policy guidance. The report was compiled from meetings of more than 70 experts and negotiators.

According to the report, the main lesson now to draw from the science is "the need to take urgent and strong action." Whether the goal is to keep warming to 2 degrees Celsius or to adopt a lower target, like 1.5 degrees— and whether the target is expressed as average surface temperatures or as other metrics such as rising sea levels—the urgency is compelling and inescapable.

  • Clarity of purpose. The second message from that new review is that the world must get quickly to zero emissions. What the science calls for, the Alcamo report emphasized, is "a radical transition (deep decarbonization now and going forward), not merely a fine tuning of current trends."

The goal of this treaty is, in effect, to end the era of uncontrolled use of fossil fuels. No matter if the limit on warming is 1.5 degrees, or 2 degrees—or even 3 or 4 degrees Celsius —any ceiling on rising temperatures implies that spewing carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere must eventually cease.

  • No malingering. The treaty's design must encourage every nation to act as ambitiously as possible.

A climate change "risk assessment" paper published in July by a high-powered international team noted that the best guess at the moment is that emissions will keep rising for another few decades, then level off, then gradually decline. In the worst case, emissions might keep rising throughout the century.

That isn't good enough, the paper said. "Governments are not making maximum use of the technologies to reduce emissions that we already have; and technology is not yet progressing fast enough to give governments the policy options they will need in the future,"  it said.

It's a conclusion reached by others, such as the International Energy Agency. The authoritative agency is not rosy-eyed; it knows emissions are currently beyond acceptable bounds. But in an exhaustive new report on energy and climate change, it spells out affordable, achievable technologies permitting "a strategy for near term action as a bridge to higher levels of decarbonization at a later stage, compatible with the 2 degree goal."

  • Price signals, market forces. One of the hardest things to include in a global treaty might be the hand of the marketplace.

It's one thing to write a treaty that allows for trading of emission credits. (That could encourage efficiency in meeting the treaty's goals, economists say, and the treaty should help establish rules for that.) But it's another thing to write a treaty that puts a tax on carbon all around the world. That's hardly an invisible hand.

So the treaty is best viewed as setting the stage for nations to price carbon — if they choose. More and more are already doing so. The treaty wouldn't demand it; common sense would. Even the most laissez-faire might say, "allons-y." Let's go!

Whether a nation is a market economy or one tightly controlled by the state, the shift that is needed will likely go beyond setting a price on carbon. It will mean breaking a worldwide addiction to carbon that until now has made fossil fuels seem worth any cost, no matter how high.

"Pricing carbon is essential, but it is not enough," said Simon Upton, environment director for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which released a study of how government policies should be re-oriented to support the treaty's goals. "Governments need to go further and address the institutional, contractual and regulatory lock-in that favors old established players and their polluting technologies, for it is those policies that are destroying our planet. If they can do that, the low-carbon transition will be achievable."

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