Letter from Paris: Trust & ambition in week 1

Long-time climate campaigner and Green candidate Barry Coates writes from negotiations at Paris to explain NZ's role and what's really happening behind the scenes

The first deadline for climate change negotiators in Paris is upon us. The government officials who have been negotiating for eight long years since talks started in Bali in 2007 have to finish their work today.

During late night sessions, they have been trying to come up with a draft agreement that is ready for Ministers to take the final political decisions.

The shape of the final agreement is emerging. The commitments will not go far enough to meet the long-term goal of avoiding dangerous impacts from climate change. The most vulnerable countries, including the Pacific islands, are already suffering from climate impacts when the temperature rise is around 1°C. They want a long term goal to keep global temperature rise well below 1.5°C, but this is being resisted by many countries want a goal of 2°C. This debate is important to the integrity of the final agreement. Vulnerable countries and civil society groups are reminding negotiators that rapid decarbonisation is essential for the survival of low-lying cities, communities and many countries.

It has already been conceded that the country targets will neither be ambitious nor legally binding. The pledges announced will put the world onto a path that will result in global temperature rise of around 2.7-3.5°C1. The focus is now on the ‘ratchet mechanism’ that can successively increase the targets over future five yearly reviews. It is crucial in the last days of negotiations that these reviews will link emissions reductions and adaptation in developing countries, and to the reviews of climate science.

It has also become clear that there will be little in the agreement about protecting human rights, promoting gender equity, respecting the rights of indigenous peoples, conserving biodiversity or ensuring equity. Civil society is advocating in the corridors to ensure that these issues are put into the core of the agreement instead of being relegated to an introductory paragraph.

The agreement is likely to be short and high level, perhaps around 20 pages. A comparison with trade agreements is relevant. The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) has over 6000 pages with strong enforcement provisions. Apparently legally binding rules to create rights for multinational corporations are possible, but not rules that will protect people and the planet. It is striking that the TPPA makes no mention of climate change, even though the rules on investor-state dispute settlement will create the potential for foreign investors to challenge government laws and regulations on climate change.

The short document will mean that many of the rules will need to be added over the next few years – the agreement will not come into force until 2020. The integrity of those rules is crucial. Loopholes allowing carbon trading have created opportunities for corruption and trading of ‘hot air’; ‘flexible’ rules on forests have allowed countries to meet their Kyoto Protocol targets without reducing emissions; and a lack of definition of climate finance has allowed the rich countries to just re-badge their existing aid funding. These abuses of the rules have eroded trust and undermined the integrity of climate who.

The issue of climate finance is crucial to build trust and support future ambition. In particular, more funding is needed to protect the poorer communities who are suffering the impacts of climate change, a problem created primarily by the richer countries. It is important that the agreement

recognises that climate finance is for compensation and protection, not as a form of aid. The rich countries are not on track to live up to their commitment to provide $100 billion in finance, and new commitments to funding are needed to restore trust, together with assurances of higher levels of support in future. This is linked to the level of ambition since it will enable poorer countries to transition more quickly to renewable energy instead of coal-fired power, and to conserve their native forests.

Clever wording will paper over the substantive disputes in the text that emerges from Paris, but this will not help create the foundations for a sound agreement. The issues of trust, integrity and ambition are central to an acceptable outcome and they are inextricably linked.

So what of New Zealand’s role? John Key’s leading role in the call to end fossil fuel subsidies on the first day was well received, until it became evident that New Zealand gives out around $80 million subsidies, based on WWF NZ research, primarily in the form of tax breaks for oil exploration. Charges of hypocrisy led to New Zealand winning a ‘Fossil of the Day’ for bad behaviour in negotiations.

The positions of New Zealand in the negotiations are coordinated with the US, Australia, Canada and others and are not supportive of our Pacific neighbours or the goal of 1.5°C. The government is in favour of voluntary pledges for emissions reductions without an objective benchmark on what is an adequate and fair contribution. Analysis by research groups show New Zealand’s pledge to be ‘inadequate’. Similarly the government’s pledge on climate finance is not new funding, just shifting money around within the aid budget.

The government’s approach is to do as little as possible, continuing to regard climate change as a threat to economic growth. This is out of step with research on the advantages of an early transition to a low emissions economy and the huge potential for growth in rapidly growing clean technology businesses.

There are some positive signs emerging on climate change, not only from huge drop in the cost of solar and emergence of new technologies, but also through the new commitments from larger developing countries, notably India and China, and from the 43 countries in the Climate Vulnerable Countries group. They have undertaken to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2050, putting the rich nations to shame. This is the kind of leadership that provides hope, as well as the initiatives by cities, communities and some progressive businesses.

This past week has been the last chance for government officials to complete their task of crafting an agreement after eight years of negotiations. In the absence of political agreement on an acceptable outcome, they have struggled. Next week, we will get to see whether political leaders step up to the challenge to confront the core issues and move away from an adversarial approach towards a cooperative approach.

After all, if they fail, we all lose.