Towards Climate Change Agreements – Analysing the Global Framework

Towards Climate Change Agreements – Analysing the Global Framework


climate change“Change the atmospheric chemistry and you the change the Climate.”

This article aims to trace the journey of implementation of various protocols in chronology under a global framework to tackle climate change including their progress and shortcomings. The article also highlights the deep complexities related to implementing a protocol at a global scale. Finally, the article concludes the 2 distinct concepts of negotiations that could lead to achieving the targeted goals of the framework.

Climate change is now recognized as one of the most dangerous menaces of the twenty-first century which yields a range of threats to the environment, ecology, and social well-being. It wasn’t always the case as it seems now. Earlier there were many political thoughts attached to it and it was outrageously claimed that climate change science was a hoax. However, after several shreds of evidence and prescient warnings given by the scientists, the first-ever conference on the environmental summit was held in 1972, Sweden. This conference served to be an eye – opener for many of the governments that made them realize about the looming global-scale problem. The year 1979 marked the beginning of many experts come together to address the climate crisis, which was becoming established science, not quantifiable yet.

Realization of the extreme fragilities related to the atmospheric chemistry and greenhouse gases intensified the scientific research towards a deeper understanding of the human-induced climate change. This led to the formation of a scientific body in 1988 called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that assesses and summarizes the policymakers about the human-induced climate change.  In its first assessment round (AR1), report released in 1990, IPCC highlighted the anthropogenic climate change being real and listed the devastating impacts it could have on humanity in the near future. Hence, at this critical point, to prevent this grave danger from happening, 3 treaties were signed at the first apex environment movement, The Earth Summit, held at Rio de Janeiro, 1992. First was the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), then the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD), and lastly, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). UNFCCC, a binding framework, was established in 1992 by the governments of the world and brought into force in the year 1994 after the ratifications of the member states. Under this convention, the members were obligated to meet yearly, called Conference of Parties (COP) to further discuss the progress. The first ever COP meeting was held at Berlin in 1995.

COP3 Kyoto – First Ever Protocol

The main idea of COP 3 was to adopt the first-ever protocol under this convention known as the Kyoto Protocol, 1997. The main objective of this was to stabilize the concentration levels of all six greenhouse gases in the atmosphere due to human intervention and that the Annex 1 countries would have the first go at it as they were the major contributors of those greenhouse gases and were putting the planet at peril. In this protocol, a standard in global diplomacy was also applied called Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) i.e. Common goal for all countries but differentiated responsibilities due to vast differences in terms of incomes, resources, technology etc. between the developed (Annex 1) and developing countries (Non-Annex 1). In 1997, the Kyoto protocol was adopted with a vigilance period till 2012 to reduce the greenhouse emissions due to anthropogenic activity. The Annex 1 countries took full responsibility to reduce the emissions by 5% for the 2008-2012 period compared to the baseline data of 1990 level.

Whereas, for the Non-Annex 1 countries the protocol introduced a set of mechanisms called the Clean Development Mechanism that allowed these countries to be a part of this (not legally bound by the treaty) and voluntarily drops their share of greenhouse emissions if the Annex 1 countries paid for it. This was a fairly complicated agreement.  Following this, the United States of America, the largest burner of fossil fuel at that time and top listed in Annex 1, passed a resolution called the Byrd-Hagel Resolution. The US Senate didn’t think it was wise for them to be a signatory to this protocol and stated that,

 “The United States should not be a signatory to any protocol or to any other agreement regarding the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992 at negotiations in Kyoto or elsewhere, which would mandate new commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gases unless the protocol also mandates new specific scheduled commitments for developing country parties.”                                      (Source: Byrd-Hagel Resolution)

 As a group, Annex 1 countries were able to reduce the concentrations levels of the greenhouse gases by 5% which was majorly due to the suspension in the industrial and fossil burning activities due to the 2008 recession. However, in total, Kyoto protocol couldn’t fundamentally change the direction and failed in many aspects; to seriously address the human-induced climate change issue, to achieve its targets as per norms, and couldn’t channelize any concrete support framework for future.

Shortcomings felt in this were,

  • Didn’t include the non-annexe 1 countries in the action with the legal bindings, which would have propelled them to reduce their share of greenhouse emissions in whatever extent possible. Instead, they were subsumed in the Clean Development Mechanism where the Annex 1 countries had to bear the cost of reducing the emissions.
  • Didn’t define a proper metric system, whether, to measure the effect of each of the greenhouse gas or in an equivalent for the 5% reduction. Later on, the concept of Carbon dioxide equivalent was introduced that measured the effect of each greenhouse gas relative to the effect of the carbon dioxide molecule.

 Kyoto to Copenhagen – Joint Realization for Better Approach

With the realization of Kyoto protocol’s nearing expiration and a fair amount of complexities and shortcomings that lead to its failure, the focus shifted to COP15 held in 2009 in Copenhagen. This was the largest gathering on climate change since the Rio summit of 1992, with 115 heads of states and governments agreeing to work together to establish a new integrated approach. A universal agreement was in prospect for financing billions of dollars per year both by developed and developing counties to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases and applying strategies to the adapt to the ongoing climate change. All said than done, the negotiations couldn’t follow up Kyoto. However, this meeting served crucial in the sense,

(a) to reach an agreement in between the Annex 1 and Non-Annex 1 countries and jointly work to tackle this problem with effective and fair allocation of responsibilities.

(b)  Based on the scientific results, a limit was decided of not championing the 2°Celcius or 3.6°Fahrenheit rise in global temperatures and it was concluded that if we were to go beyond this limit it would serve extremely dangerous for the survival of humanity.

After Copenhagen, several meetings followed, COP16 in Mexico, COP17 in Durban, COP18 in Doha, but none were conclusive in making a concrete declaration and an agreement. COP19 in Warsaw saw the realization that the deforestation was not only damaging in its own rights but was also causing damage to the natural habitats of various species of the animal kingdom. Scientists also provided evidence that the deforestation led to release of CO2 gas in the atmosphere hence increasing the concentration levels of greenhouse gases. An agreement was reached to promote reforestation for biologically storing the CO2 in trees around the program called Efforts to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+). COP20 held in Lima in 2014 saw the development of the draft to be adopted in COP21, Paris 2015.

Paris – Great Hopes

The much-awaited COP21 in 2015 Paris, lead to the universal climate agreement called The Paris Agreement between all the 196 signatory parties to the UNFCCC. This was a significant achievement for various economies across the globe, international politics and climate science. It has been termed significant because it promotes the major economies to shift towards low emission economies. The main objective of this agreement was to establish a solid framework that thrusts collective action on climate change with both, Annex 1 and Non-Annex 1 countries making an impactful contribution. A new mechanism, Voluntary Emission Offset System, was also introduced in this agreement that replaced the Clean Development Mechanism. The Paris Agreement is likely to come into effect by 2020 and will replace the 1997 Kyoto protocol as the new international law for global emissions reduction. COP22 at Morocco in 2016 and COP23 at Germany planned a range of decisions to be implemented for The Paris Agreement. Most importantly, USA, under Trumps administration decided to cease all of its participation in the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change as it may push USA’s economy towards a downward slope and will further hamper business.

A similar situation was seen before when George W. Bush, newly elected president of America in 2001, declined any participation of the States for the implementation of the Kyoto protocol. Due to this withdrawal, a grim start to the UNFCCC was noticed that had a major impact on Kyoto protocol’s establishment. However, this time in accordance with the Article 28 signed under the Paris Agreement, USA’s effective withdrawal from the agreement won’t be possible until November 2020 and until then they have to keep submitting their emissions report to the UN.

Simulation of the future scene based on the current scenario

Ever since the steam engine was introduced to the world by James Watt, there has been an increasing trend in the rise of economies due to the burning of the fossil fuels which has further deteriorated the atmospheric chemistry. The graph developed by Peters et al. 2012 under the Global Carbon Project revealed that as of 2018, there are 12 to 13 billion tons of carbon emissions spread worldwide (Fig 1). The figure also illustrates the observed emissions and simulated emissions scenario at the global scale. The vertical axis represents the carbon emitted in the atmosphere in billion tons whereas the horizontal axis represents the timescale. The red curve denotes the Business As Usual (BAU) curve which signifies one of the most intense scenarios identified by the IPCC where the emissions continue to grow as the world economies continue to grow.

climate change
Fig 1. Observed emissions (black dotted line) and future emissions scenario Business as usual (BAU) (Red Curve) (Source: Carbon Project 2012).

Burning of massive amounts of fossil fuels, more exploitation of natural gas, burning of oils, deforestation and land use change lead to higher degree of emissions of the greenhouse gases. When these predictions are run with the climate models, they sketch a much scarier picture than one could imagine. If this trend continues there will be an extreme rise in temperature ranging from 4°C to 6°C (red curve). It is of critical importance that this curve be bedded (blue curve) by bringing down the emissions below 12 to 15 billion tons by stabilizing the carbon emissions before 2070 to sustain life on Earth in future. An important thing to understand is that this graph (Fig. 3) denotes the carbon emissions but not the carbon dioxide emissions. And carbon dioxide per atom of carbon weighs more than the carbon alone. To put it in perspective, if we emit a ton of carbon in the atmosphere that means we have emitted many more tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Why the paralysis then in protocol implementation?

In the coming time, the world economies are predicted to grow at a much faster rate, like China will become an even bigger economy and will continue to emit more and more carbon emissions in the atmosphere, India too is growing at a rapid rate. To normalize the effect of human activities on climate, the heads of the various governments have entered in the negotiations period. However, the nature of the negotiating process and the problem-solving process in between the signatory governments under the UNFCCC has been really grim. There are 4 explanatory reasons or elements that justify that the extreme complexities are involved in reaching to an agreement involving climate change as compared to any other agreement.

  • Long-term Process – The processes involved with climate change are not immediate but long-term as it engages the concept of transformation of the well-established world economies, energy systems and the technology deployed.
  • Present Cost for Future Gains – The cost of action taken continuously for the next 2 to 3 decades is likely to yield benefits much later in the forthcoming decades. No immediate gratification comes forth, which is certainly not the simplest of things for the politicians or governments to adjust with.
  • Ambiguous Cost and Gains – The magnitude of the uncertainties involved with the adaptation to new technology or investment about future costs or uncertain climate events, is really high. The reason is due to the fact that it has to be implemented at the global scale.
  • Asymmetric Disparities – There is nothing equal about the rank or position of the countries signatory under UNFCCC. There are huge disparities amongst them in terms of richness, power, technology, and most importantly the ownership of resources. This leads to improper involvement or participation of various small countries who know it in their gut that they had least to do with the human induced climate change.

To stabilize the emissions of the greenhouse gases is a first order technological, social and political challenge not at regional but at the global level. It’s a highly complicated and daunting task to accomplish. It’s the most difficult issue or altogether a very complex planetary dynamic for humanity to deal with as it reaches to the core notions of bringing a change in the system of power generation that could very well bring about a change in behavioural attributes of living and adapting to new technologies. The amount of uncertainties with so much monetary and social change riding on, enables doubts to be magnified or manufactured which could be termed as paralysis if it all falls short. So what’s the way to negotiate towards the stabilizing the emissions of greenhouse gases, within the laws of a protocol adopted by both, Annex 1 and Non-Annex 1 countries of the world? The answer comes down to 2 distinct concepts of negotiations i.e. Economic Efficiency and Financial Fairness. It would be wise if high emission economies set the trend by switching their primary method of energy production to renewable technology further reducing the carbon emissions in the atmosphere.