Expert cautiously applauds Paris Agreement

Frank Neufeld // Western News

Radoslav Dimitrov saw the results as a time of “collective euphoria” – even though the agreement which closed the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in December was far from perfect in the eyes of the Western Political Science professor.

“This agreement has been in the making for a long, long time. We’ve been in negotiations for the last eight years, and those talks failed – over and over and over again. In this context, the achievement in Paris is significant, even though it has some weaknesses,” said Dimitrov, who attended the conference as a representative of the Republic of Bulgaria, serving the European Union (EU) as a delegate and part of its active negotiating team.

“This was the apex of a very long process that involved several dozens of rounds of negotiations. There was a tremendous degree of suspense. We really did not know what was going to happen. Usually, you get a sense of where things are going, but this time, everybody kept their cards close to their chest until the last, literally, the last hours of the conference.

“Even experienced diplomats had no idea what was going to happen,” he added.

Attendees at COP21 negotiated what became known as the Paris Agreement, a global agreement on efforts to mitigate climate change.

The deal commits countries to keeping the rise in global temperatures by the year 2100 compared with pre-industrial times “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, and says they will “endeavor to limit” them even more to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Scientists say the world has warmed by about 1 degree Celsius since pre-industrial times.

When the deal was announced on Dec. 12, the Associated Press reported that loud applause erupted in the conference hall after French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius gaveled the agreement. Some delegates wept; others embraced.

Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna tweeted:

The text of the agreement represents a consensus of 196 parties at the conference, one Dimitrov called a “mammoth event,” with more than 37,000 people in attendance, including 150 heads of state. The agreement will become legally binding if joined by at least 55 countries, representing at least 55 per cent of global greenhouse emissions. The ratification window will open in April 2016 in New York, and will remain open for parties to accept until April 2017.

Having participated in UN climate change negotiations since 2004, Dimitrov is a consultant on climate diplomacy for the World Business Council and specializes in global environmental politics, international climate change negotiations and UN diplomacy. His award-winning research introduced the concept of ‘non-regimes’ to the field of global governance, through studies on coral reefs policy and global forest negotiations.

With his insider’s vantage point, Dimitrov can speak of the political dynamics in Paris, the positions and maneuvers of key players such as China, the EU, India and the United States, as well as the contributions Canada made to the negotiations. Dimitrov said a number of issues preoccupied minds at the conference:

  • What would be the long-term agreed-upon temperature goal?
  • What agreement would come for a long-term goal in terms of policies surrounding emission reductions?
  • Would the final agreement make a distinction between developed and developing nations – as is the case with the Kyoto Agreement, wherein developing nations are exempt from action? Or would this be a universal agreement?
  • What would be the legal outcome of the agreement?

“There’s nothing abstract about climate change. Countries, including Canada, are trailing so far behind. It is very, very real. Those involved understand where we are heading,” Dimitrov said, noting one of the primary expected outcomes at the conference was an agreement on setting a new limit on global warming.

“For the first time in history, the majority of nations wanted the limit to be 1.5 degrees Centigrade – 2 degrees was agreed upon in 2009 in Copenhagen. But 2 degrees is too late, and it would be absolutely apocalyptic for everybody who lives on this planet. We know we’ve got to constrain this to 1.5, but the West was not ready to accept that. But because the majority of countries wanted it, it was politically necessary to give some lip service, some respect to that majority view. So the exercise for the Western countries, including the EU, was how can we craft a language that recognizes 1.5 without making it the official goal of the treaty,” he explained.

The end result, Dimitrov noted, was linguistic artistry, as is the case for much of the Paris Agreement. According to the agreement, participating countries are to “pursue efforts” to ensuring a global warming temperature increase limit of 1.5, making this merely an official recommendation, not an obligation or legally binding clause.

Political Science professor Radoslav Dimitrov attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in December as a representative of the Republic of Bulgaria, serving the European Union (EU) as a delegate and part of its active negotiating team.

Western News file photoPolitical Science professor Radoslav Dimitrov attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in December as a representative of the Republic of Bulgaria, serving the European Union (EU) as a delegate and part of its active negotiating team.

“It was poetry, linguistic gymnastics. Before it was presented, the tone was, ‘Yes, we have it (an agreement).’ This made it extremely difficult for anyone to oppose it,” Dimitrov added, noting it took hours at the close of the conference for the text of the agreement to be presented.

“This was a deliberate tactic. You give people as little time as possible; you push them to the very edge. You don’t give them time to negotiate. It’s either take it or leave it. It was arm twisting, and it was the price to pay.”

And consensus, he added, was just the absence of active opposition. There was no vote to agree on the terms, but there were no voiced objections, either.

One last-minute change in the Paris Agreement was the language surrounding obligations of participating parties. The word “shall” pertains to developed nations, whereas the word “should” pertains to developing parties. Developing nations should make efforts towards absolute emission reductions, whereas developed nations have a stronger obligation towards net zero. The agreement allows individual nations to determine what it wants to do domestically, but goals must be declared internationally. Once declared, they become binding.

“The agreement is an historic step forward. It is stronger than anyone expected, and stronger than we’ve had before. It’s universal. Kyoto exempted developing nations. It’s comprehensive. And, it is substantive,” Dimitrov said.

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Here are four things you need to know about the Paris Agreement:

  1. DEGREE DIFFERENCE: The long-term objective of the agreement is to make sure global warming stays “well below” 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 and to “pursue efforts” to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. To achieve that goal, governments pledged to stop the rise in heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions “as soon as possible.” By some point after 2050, the agreement says, man-made emissions should be reduced to a level that forests and oceans can absorb.
  2. ON TARGET: Countries agreed to set national targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions every five years. More than 180 countries have already submitted targets for the first cycle beginning in 2020. Canada has yet to set targets.
  3. LOOK INSIDE: The agreement includes no penalty for countries that miss their emissions targets, but it does contain transparency rules to encourage countries to actually do what they say they will do.
  4. PAYING UP: The agreement says wealthy countries should continue to offer financial support to help poor countries adapt to climate change. Actual dollar amounts were kept out of the agreement, but wealthy nations previously pledged to provide $100 billion annually in climate finance by 2020.

Source: Associated Press / Canadian Press / CBC