One (Baby) Step at a Time

Kok Chee Kheong discusses the Paris Agreement.
The Twenty-First Session (“COP 21”) of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (“UNFCCC”) took place against the backdrop of dire predictions by scientists that failure to reduce greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions by 40% to 70% by 2050 could result in catastrophic and irreversible climate change.
Scientists warned that if climate change goes unabated, the world will experience increasingly severe draughts, floods and storms and rising sea levels that would engulf islands and coastal areas populated by hundreds of millions of people.   
The potential disaster of irreversible climate change hung like the Sword of Damocles over the delegates as they assembled in the cold winter of Paris to hammer out a deal to save the planet. After 12 gruelling days of negotiations and horse trading, the representatives of 195 countries adopted the Paris Agreement (“Agreement”) on 12 December 2015.
The President of France, Francois Hollande, congratulated the delegates, saying that they could be proud to stand before their children and grandchildren. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Kim Moon, described the Agreement as a health insurance for the planet. Others were less euphoric and expressed their disappointment that the Agreement did not go far enough in the fight against the effects of climate change.
This article will examine the key takeaways from the Agreement.
The cornerstone of the Agreement is found in paragraph 1(a) of Article 2. It declares the objective of the Parties to the Agreement (severally a “Party” and collectively “Parties”) to hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels so as to significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.
Having done so, the Agreement then sets out the various means by which this objective is to be achieved.
Article 4 requires each Party to take steps that will rapidly reduce GHG emissions in the second half of this century, which is from 2050 onwards, on the “basis of equity” and “in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty”.
Each Party is to prepare, communicate and maintain “nationally determined contributions” (“NDC”) that it intends to achieve and to pursue domestic mitigation measures to achieve its NDC. It is also required to update its NDC every five years. Regression of the targets set out in the NDC is not encouraged as Article 4 states that each Party’s successive NDC is to represent a progression beyond the current NDC. The NDCs of the Parties are to be recorded in a public registry to be maintained by the Secretariat of the UNFCCC.
Developed country Parties are expected to spearhead the fight against climate change by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets. Developing country Parties are to continue enhancing their mitigation efforts and move progressively towards economy-wide emission reduction or mitigation targets.
Article 9 requires developed country Parties to provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties in implementing mitigation and adaptation measures. They are also expected to continue to lead in mobilizing climate financing through various sources including public sector funding. Other Parties are encouraged to provide, or continue providing, financial support on a voluntary basis.
Although the Agreement does not specify any financial targets, the Parties in adopting the Agreement strongly urged developed country Parties to scale up their level of financial support to achieve the goal of jointly providing US$100 billion annually by 2020 for mitigation and adaptation.
The Parties recognised that funding by itself is but a means to an end. The need to fully realise and accelerate the development and transfer of technology that controls, reduces or prevents anthropogenic emission of GHG in order to implement mitigation and adaptation actions is acknowledged in Article 10. To that end, the Technology Mechanism established under the UNFCCC to enhance technology development and transfer is to serve the Agreement.
The Agreement also recognises the need to enhance the capacity and ability of developing country Parties, in particular those with the least capacity, such as the least developed countries, and those which are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. Hence, all Parties are required by Article 11 to cooperate to enhance the capacity of developing country Parties to implement the Agreement.
The Agreement acknowledges that capacity-building should be country-driven, based on and responsive to national needs.
The Parties decided to establish the Paris Committee on Capacity-building. The role of this Committee is to address the gaps and needs in implementing capacity-building in developing country Parties and enhance and coordinate capacity-building activities.
To avoid the provisions of the Agreement being hollow avowals of noble intent, the Agreement built upon, and enhanced, the transparency framework in the UNFCCC. The existing UNFCCC requirements for biennial reports, biennial updates and international assessment, review, consultation and analysis are to be adopted for reporting purposes under the Agreement. Amongst others, the reporting framework will include tracking of each Party’s progress towards achieving its NDC under Article 4.
Developed country Parties and other Parties are required to provide information on financial, technology transfer and capacity-building support provided to developing country Parties. Conversely, developing country Parties are to provide information on financial, technology transfer and capacity-building support needed and received by them.
The Parties are required to carry out a comprehensive stocktake of the implementation of the Agreement to assess the collective progress towards achieving its purpose. The Agreement provides that the first global stocktake is to be undertaken in 2023 and every five years thereafter, unless the Parties otherwise decide.
An expert-based committee is established to facilitate the implementation and compliance with the Agreement. The committee is to be facilitative in nature and to function in a non-adverserial and non-punitive manner. It is to report annually to the Parties.
The Agreement is open for signature at the United Nations Headquarters in New York from 22 April 2016 to 21 April 2017 and is subject to ratification, acceptance or approval of States. Thereafter, it will be open for accession.
The Agreement will come into force 30 days after the date on which at least 55 Parties accounting for at least an estimated 55% of total GHG emissions have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession with the Secretary-General of the United Nations.
To a great extent, the success of the Agreement will depend on the willingness of the Parties, in particular developing country Parties, to compromise their economic development for the greater good of the planet by adopting more environmentally friendly technology. The willingness of developed country Parties to provide financial assistance to developing country Parties to implement mitigation and adaptation measures will also have a significant bearing on the outcome.
The overwhelming support from the Parties will be necessary in order for the Agreement to achieve its objectives. It is likely that it will be more difficult to achieve these objectives if the Agreement receives the bare minimum support required for it to come into force.
The Agreement can be criticised for not going far enough to avert the consequences of climate change. While detailed reporting mechanisms have been put in place, the fact that the setting of an NDC is entirely at the discretion of each Party and that there is a lack of meaningful sanctions for non-compliance with the NDC appear to be significant drawbacks. While it is hoped that the technology infrastructure can be put in place to help achieve the objective of the Agreement, the lack of any clear commitment by the developed country Parties to provide funding is another weakness that may result in the Agreement failing for lack of financial resources. 
On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that the Agreement involves 195 countries, many with different agendas and requirements. An uncompromising approach would have doomed the negotiations to failure. Hence the spirit of compromise would have been necessary to come up with an agreement which is acceptable to all Parties. Thus, the fact that the Agreement has been adopted by 195 countries can be regarded as a remarkable achievement.
In the final analysis, the Agreement is little more than a framework and many steps remain to be taken to implement its terms in order to avert the adverse consequences of climate change. Can the delegates at COP 21 truly stand proud before their children and grandchildren or will they hang their heads, regretting that they had not done enough for the future generations of inhabitants of this planet? Time will tell … and the clock is already ticking.