When it comes to multilateralism (that is, getting multiple countries together to work on an issue) it only works when everyone agrees.
There are around 200 countries in the world, and if a few disagree, the process stalls.
Climate change is a global issue.
The greenhouse gases that my country emits will affect yours, and vice versa.
A global need to get to zero requires a global agreement to achieve it.
So, when we think about responses to the climate crisis, getting countries to agree on how to do it is essential.
The political challenges of this are formidable.
All countries have an incentive to do less and point the finger at someone else.
- The wealthy countries are historically responsible for the problem and can most afford to address it, but are not today’s biggest polluters
- The emerging major economies pollute the most, but are not historically responsible for the problem
- The small emerging economies (including small islands, Africa and others) did not cause the problem, pollute the least, but are likely to suffer the most
These countries have grouped themselves into complex and overlapping climate negotiating blocs based on these arguments.
These distinct groups—all with distinct interests—must somehow come together and create a global mechanism to solve the challenge of climate change.
Another way to think about it is to imagine a group of countries coming together to agree on how to build a house.
Agreeing to build a house is complicated. Different groups of people must agree on the foundations, the walls, the roof, the fittings and the interior design.
Likewise, countries have to agree on the legal framework and a mechanism to reduce global emissions to zero by 2050.
In 1992, all countries came together and adopted what’s known as the UNFCCC. This set out the basic legal framework and principles for climate change cooperation between countries.
All 197 countries were on board.
The creation of the UNFCCC was akin to laying the foundations of a house.
With the foundations in place, it was time to design a mechanism that would reduce global emissions.
In 1997, countries agreed on a mechanism that committed some countries to achieve certain emissions targets—the Kyoto Protocol.
While 192 countries had agreed to the first part of the Kyoto Protocol (2008 to 2012), only 36 wealthy countries committed themselves to capping or reducing their emissions.
The rest participated in the Kyoto Protocol through what was known as the Clean Development Mechanism. Through this,wealthy countries provided finance to emerging economies who agreed to run emissions reduction projects in their countries. Emerging economies then handed over the credits from those projects back to the wealthy countries.
The Walls become unstable
Confidence in the Kyoto Protocol started to collapse as countries either failed to ratify the agreement or withdrew from it altogether. These countries withdrew because reducing emissions was either too difficult, too expensive, or too politically unpopular.
Canada withdrew. The United States and Kazakhstan didn’t ratify.
Then, Japan, New Zealand and Russia decided not to set targets for the second part of the Kyoto Protocol (2012 to 2020).
In all, only 147 of the original 192 countries signed on to the second part of the Kyoto Protocol.
Meanwhile in 2009 at COP 15 in Copenhagen, countries faced unprecedented public and media attention. Many hoped this would lead to a renewed global climate change agreement.
COP 15 ended in disarray as wealthy countries refused to take on emissions reduction targets and emerging economies insisted on their right to emit greenhouse gases and develop.
The walls had started to collapse.
Six years after the failure of Copenhagen, it all came together with the Paris Agreement.
How? Because the Paris Agreement addressed the 9 main problems that were preventing a global agreement:
Problem #1: Countries don’t like being told what to do
Solution in the Paris Agreement: Allow countries to set whatever targets they want
Under the terms of the Paris Agreement, countries agreed to submit nationally determined contributions (NDCs). In other words, all countries—big and small—decide what their targets are going to be.
So what stops a country from doing the bare minimum?
Countries don’t want to be left doing the heavy lifting while others get away with it.
Problem #2: Wealthy countries don’t like being the only ones reducing their emissions
Solution in the Paris Agreement: All countries set a climate target of some kind
The Paris Agreement entered into force on 4 November 2016, and 193 parties have ratified the Agreement.
Each of these countries have set a nationally determined contribution according to their country circumstances and capabilities (NDC).
Problem #3: Emerging economies have limited resources to address climate change
Solution in the Paris Agreement: the finance stream, which enables wealthy countries and financial institutions to transfer money to emerging economies so they can tackle climate change
Under the finance stream, poor and vulnerable nations appeal to wealthier, high-emitting nations for finance that allows them to address climate change.
At COP 21, countries agreed to set a target of USD 100 billion per year, taking into account the needs and priorities of developing countries.
Problem #4: Reducing emissions is great, but what about the need to adapt to a new environment caused by climate change?
Solution in the Paris Agreement: A dedicated focus on climate adaptation
The Paris Agreement calls for a balance between different types of climate finance—between stopping emissions and adapting to climate—but currently it is skewed towards stopping emissions. For example, starting renewable energy projects, which are often seen as better investments.
All nations will need to adapt to global warming. This could mean building flood defences to cope with rising sea levels or installing more air conditioning as summers become unbearable.
However, this is a concern for emerging economies that disproportionately face the most extreme impacts of climate change, but often lack the resources to prepare for them.
Problem #5: Wealthy countries are historically responsible for a problem that emerging economies are forced to pay for
Solution in the Paris Agreement: Dedicated work on ‘Loss and damage’
The term ‘loss and damage‘ refers to unavoidable impacts of climate change that cannot be adapted to, from flooded villages to drought-struck farms. It is sometimes framed as “climate reparations”.
Vulnerable nations want money and support for people threatened by such impacts. However, wealthy countries have resisted this idea, fearing that they will be forced to pay compensation due to their historical responsibility for climate change.
Problem #6: All countries need to agree to set time periods for action to reduce emissions
Solution in the Paris Agreement: Common timeframes
Ahead of Paris COP 21, countries submitted their NDCs in an ad-hoc fashion, covering a range of timeframes from 2020 out to 2025 or 2030.
At COP 24 in 2018, countries agreed that all NDCs should cover a common timeframe from 2031, with the length of the timeframe to be decided later.
Countries at COP 25 in Madrid were unable to reach agreement on what the common timeframe should be. They failed to narrow down a lengthy list of 10 options that included five-year timeframes, 10 years, a choice of either, or hybrids of the two.
At COP 26, countries agreed to provide regular five-year updates to NDCs, with each lasting for ten years. In other words, countries will submit new NDCs in 2025, that will have an end date of 2035, and, in 2030 to submit NDCs with an end date of 2040, and so on.
Common timeframes are critical because measuring progress becomes more difficult if countries are allowed to pick and choose.
Problem #7: How do we know if countries are going to do what they say they will?
Solution in the Paris Agreement: Rules to ensure transparency
Transparency rules are about ensuring countries report enough information to determine whether they are meeting their pledges. It also allows us to see whether the world is on track to reach its climate targets, and whether this information is reliable.
This is seen as key to the Paris process, which relies on countries keeping their promises. Transparency allows for peer pressure to help this happen.
Prior to COP 26, only certain (wealthy countries) were required to report regularly, leaving big holes in the availability of data for some major emitters.
At COP 26, countries agreed to a new enhanced transparency framework.
Problem #8: Countries are making pledges against climate. How will we know whether its enough?
Solution in the Paris Agreement: The global stocktake
As part of the Paris Agreement, nations agreed that they would periodically track the different aspects of climate action to ensure the world was on course to achieving its targets.
The first stocktake is set to take place in 2023.
Problem #9: It might be cheaper for a country to reduce emissions in another country rather than its own
Solution in the Paris Agreement: Markets and trade
Carbon markets can lead to cost-effective emissions reduction.
Article 6 of the Paris Agreement sets rules for carbon markets and other forms of international cooperation. In some ways it is the continuation of the Clean Development Mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol.
To its proponents, Article 6 offers a path to raising climate ambition or lowering costs, while engaging the private sector and spreading finance, technology, and expertise into new areas.
To its critics, it risks undermining the ambition of the Paris Agreement.
It’s easy to be sceptical about these conferences, but the steady, incremental progress achieved each year builds towards a more perfect global agreement to get emissions to zero.
With the foundations, walls and roof in place, attention now moves toward the finer details—the fittings, the interior—as well as making sure the structure remains sound.
In 2017, the United States became the first and only country to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. This is akin to tearing down a structure because of how it looked. But the strong reaction from other countries, business and civil society demonstrated that the Paris Agreement was strong enough to withstand, and that it would be a minor setback rather than a repeat of the Kyoto Protocol’s failures.
From the outside, the Paris Agreement is just a 16-page document. But it also represents hope. It shows almost 200 diverse countries with diverse interests can come together and build something that encourages greater ambition and drives climate policy development around the world.