The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will begin in the middle of a French winter, and hopefully end with a warmly-received equitable, balanced, and ambitious climate agreement.
Despite how close COP21 may be, there is still a long and winding road to Paris. As the UNFCCC Bonn intersessionals, in June and August, have shown, there is still much work to be done leading up to the December negotiations. The two-week Bonn conference in June was certainly an exercise in patience. The August session likewise was challenging. Next week, Parties will meet again in Bonn from October 19th-23rd to discuss the draft text for the negotiations in Paris.
In June, what was an 89-page document before negotiations was only trimmed down to 85 pages. The goal, however, is to have a 10- to 15-page global climate deal by the end of COP21. This represents a monumental task, made especially difficult by an agreement process that relies on consensus.
To help fast-track the process, UNFCCC parties finally agreed to allow co-chairs of the Ad-Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform (ADP) to streamline and condense the text subject to parties’ approval. At the end of July, ADP co-chairs released a new draft text for the upcoming sessions, now at 83 pages. The streamlined text, entitled “A Non-Paper Illustrating the Possible Elements of the Paris Package,” provides a clearer and more organized picture of what a new climate agreement could look like, with the co-chairs eliminating many unnecessary and mundane elements.
Meeting again in August, negotiators were able to make progress exchanging and clarifying ideas. However, there was consensus progress was still slow and the pace of negotiations need to be accelerated. The Co-Chairs were given a mandate to come back again with a new text, with many parties urging them to be more ambitious.
The ADP has one remaining session – a total of five negotiating days – in which to continue streamlining the current text, condensing it to a more palatable length. Despite the frustrating snail’s pace of the drafting, it does not necessarily mean that there is no progress being made both inside and outside of the Convention process.
Inside the Convention, negotiators and observers at the Bonn intersessionals last June were surprised to find that parties had managed to agree on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) after ten years of talks. While none of the delegates were completely satisfied, consensus on safeguard guidance was reached, and all outstanding mandates under the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) were completed. The draft decision, which is considered one of the key elements in the new global climate deal, will be formally agreed in Paris at the end of this year.
Outside the Convention, while the conference was ongoing in Bonn, G7 leaders met in Krün on the other side Germany and agreed to transition to a zero-carbon world by the end of the century, reaffirming the target of most developed countries to limit the average global temperature rise to only 2° Celsius (C). While this announcement was both welcome and seen as a positive step towards an ambitious COP21 climate deal, the G7 leaders were criticized for their inability to commit to immediate binding emissions targets, which many observers following UNFCCC talks see as the heart of the new climate agreement.
The G7 summit did take a full step forward on climate finance, though, by finally outlining concrete actions to secure $100 billion annually from both private and public sources. Further, by calling for 400 million of the world’s most climate vulnerable people to have access to disaster insurance by 2020, G7 leaders acknowledged the importance of the COP’s Loss and Damage Mechanism.
Not to be outdone by the G7 countries, China also made climate news by submitting its intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) barely three weeks after the end of the Bonn conference. The world’s largest emitter, China plans to peak its emissions by 2030 and by the same year cut emissions 60-65% below 2005 levels. Additionally it will increase renewable energy sources in its national energy mix by 20%. China is currently the world’s largest investor in renewable energy, and contributes almost one-third of the world’s total renewable energy investments. Such commitments and actions send an encouraging signal to fellow big emitters, and create an environment of optimism moving towards the Paris conference. In recent days, China also has committed funds to help other developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Of all these, however, perhaps the most anticipated pre-Paris climate document has been Pope Francis’s papal encyclical Laudato Si’, or “Praised Be.” Subtitled “On care for our common home,” the encyclical gives an unforgiving and no holds barred account and criticism of the times. The Pope describes the stark reality of our world’s environment in vivid colors, and humbly suggests ways to move forward. As COP21 later this year draws ever nearer, the Pope’s encyclical could not have come at a more perfect time.
In his just concluded visit to the United States, in his addresses in the White House, the US Congress, and the United States, the Pope referred to Laudato Si’ several times as he called for action on climate change.
It is clear that Laudato Si’ is more than just a theological document – it is a rousing 184-page discourse meant to inspire everyone from all walks of life to action. It is also an admonition of the economic and political structures that have hindered growth and action against environmental degradation and climate change. This is not just the document for the spiritual, but for the political as well. It would do leaders well to heed the encyclical’s message and to discern their country’s positions going into Paris.
Laudato Si’ sets the stage for the December COP21, pointing out that “international negotiations cannot make significant progress due to positions taken by countries which place their national interests above the global common good.” (LS 169) Pope Francis is unapologetic in his multiple remarks on what is now considered to be a controversial UNFCCC principle, saying “there is a need for common and differentiated responsibilities.” (LS 170) He also makes it clear that the burden of emissions reductions lies with the biggest polluters: “Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most.” (LS 169) Reaching an agreement in Paris will undeniably be an uphill climb of epic proportions, and world leaders must put their money where their mouths are and take appropriate action. After all, “what would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?” (LS 57)
Yet despite the difficulties ahead, hope is alive and well. Civil society has exerted an unbelievable amount of effort in calling for a balanced, equitable, and ambitious Paris agreement. Pope Francis praises the movement, saying: “Worldwide, the ecological movement has made significant advances, thanks also to the efforts of many organizations of civil society.” (LS 166) The fortitude and determination of young people who have dedicated their lives to this advocacy is truly inspiring. If our fate should be that we leave behind a damaged world, then at least history will reward this generation and call them martyrs. As the encyclical says, “although the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history, nonetheless there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the twenty-first century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities.” (LS 165) The international community has truly been a force to be reckoned with in this process, and it is highly unlikely that they will back down even after the Paris summit.
In the lead-up to Paris, the Philippines is in a unique position in the UNFCCC negotiations. It currently holds the Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), a collaboration of countries vulnerable to climate change impacts that aims to elevate their voices to the international arena. By holding CVF chairmanship at what could be one of the most crucial times in history, the Philippines has the privilege and responsibility to ensure that the agreement in Paris does right by those who are most affected by climate change.
It is also a call for the Philippines to act accordingly and set an example for all countries, especially the major emitters. UNFCCC parties have only one month remaining until the INDC deadline at the beginning of October, and the Philippines has not yet finalized their submission. More important than making a submission in time is the content of the submission itself – the Philippines must heed the teachings of the Laudato Si’ and the needs of its people by making ambitious mitigation and adaptation commitments, telling the world that it is serious in living up to its principles.
Challenges lie ahead for the country, but these challenges can be a welcome opportunity to lead and strengthen cooperation. The world is at a crossroads, and the Philippines has all the potential to help keep UNFCCC parties on the right path towards – and more importantly, beyond – the negotiations in Paris. Its advocacy of the inclusion of human rights and ecosystem integrity is specially note-worthy.
It is no doubt that the Paris conference will test the patience and optimism of many, and the leadership and determination of the Philippines. The need for an ambitious, equitable, and balanced climate agreement is greater and more urgent in this age of increased climate vulnerability. However, there is certainly more and bigger action on all fronts – civil society is fearless in pushing governments to do better, and governments are trying to keep up with such a rousing and deafening call. The Philippines must be one with these voices.
While it is likely that the December agreement will only be a shallow of the actual work needed to be done post-Paris, there will be no shortage of continuous on-the-ground grassroots actions, actions that the Philippines can champion. Thus, even if Bonn may not have been an encouraging show of progress, there is still hope for Paris, and the world.
This article was co-written with Mima Mendoza.