If there are two things certain in this world, the first is that climate change is an extremely complicated issue. The second is that achieving unanimous international agreement on any complex issue is extremely difficult - if not impossible. Welcome to the world of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the conferences of parties (COP) which signed it.
International negotiations around climate change have been going on for as long as I have been alive. Starting with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero in 1992, and still continuing today here at COP21, which I attend as an Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute delegate. Over these years, I have seen reports of 'failed' international climate negotiations and felt let down by political figureheads, my hopes for the future shattered and scattered among the press releases, international handshake photo-ops and protest marches.
From the outside, the failure of these negotiations seemed to show irresponsible, cowardly and even selfish global leaders. Yet as a civil society observer on the inside of the talks this year, I have a different perspective. Over the last few months I have had the immense task of learning some of the history and complexities of the perhaps most complex negotiations in human history. I now begin to understand the negotiations for what they are - and aren't. I write this because the insights into negotiations are important for you understand, too. To move towards a just, climate safe future, we must have hope. To have hope, understanding the negotiations is crucial.
The first thing to realise is that no-one knows what they are doing. Humanity has never before had to organise itself on such a scale, to combat such a far-reaching global threat. There is no textbook or guide to tell us how to do it. We are now over halfway through the negotiations, yet the same issues that have plagued them from the start continue to emerge. While there are many ambiguities and points of argument, I will limit myself to a brief summary of key barriers to progress within the UNFCCC.
Perhaps the most revealing is that the rules of operation have never been agreed upon. It hasn't even been determined how decisions will be decided. Some countries objected to a majority-focused voting system; it could lead to certain interests not being represented in a tyranny-by-the majority situation. Others did not support consensus, because it is extremely slow and messy. By default, consensus decision making and the draft rules of procedure are being used. Consensus, however, has not been defined. In the midst of difficult negotiations blocked by Bolivia at COP16, the Chair for the first time declared that consensus did not mean unanimity - and passed the decision despite Bolivia's objections.
We haven't defined our process, and we also haven't decided where we're going. The goal of limiting warming to below 2°C has been widely talked about since the 1990s. This has been considered the "safe" level of global surface warming to avoid runaway climate change. Science now disagrees and many put the "safe" limit lower - to 1.5°C or even 1°C. Those countries most vulnerable to climate change call for a 1.5°C limit goal, while those more well off do not consider this to be necessary.
All-in-all, the negotiations could be considered as a sort of extended blame game. Who is responsible for climate change? Who should pay the biggest costs? Within the negotiations, the concept of "common but differentiated responsibilities" (CBDR) is widely agreed upon. While climate change is the common responsibility of all nations, different countries have different responsibilities in addressing and mitigating it. This is based on a number of different factors, depending which government you ask.
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As a general rule, Global South countries often argue that Global North have a greater responsibility to reduce emissions due to their historic emissions that catapulted them up to a developed status, while Global North nations argue that they have a lower capability to reduce their emissions - their existing infrastructure is expensive and harder to change than that of developing countries. Global South countries require finance to transition to a low carbon economy, as well as "Loss and Damage" finance to help with the costs of climate impacts that are already crippling some countries. Truth and justice seem positional affairs.
This issue of differentiation has caused a deadlock tension throughout the 20 years of COPs. Initially, the UNFCCC listed two sets of countries based on their development status. Yet "developed" versus "undeveloped" is a false dichotomy; the truth is nearer to an evolving and subjective spectrum. To circumvent this tension, this year's Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) process has allowed countries to submit their own pledges of emission cuts, rather than having their targets set depending on their development status. This process has so far worked a lot better towards reaching a deal. However, the deal itself may be worthless without increased ambition - the combination of pledges on the table currently adds up to about 2.7°C.
Lastly, the intersection between domestic and international policy is troublesome. Even if a good deal is reached, it is meaningless until enough countries ratify it, by passing it into law within their state. The USA's Byrd-Hagel Resolution prevents any international deal with binding emissions target reductions being passed by congress. This effectively puts this form of legally binding deal off the table for the entire world, as the USA is such a significant global emitter and congress continues to be republican dominated. While some countries still call for legally binding targets, the outcome is likely to be voluntary targets with perhaps some other areas that are legally binding.
The COP21 in Paris is not a silver bullet, but it may be a silver lining in a lifetime of negotiations. In short, we will probably get a deal, but it will most likely not be enough. International conventions are just one part of the puzzle. This deal is still immensely important - it might complete the edgepieces on the puzzle towards a safe climate future. Yet the road through Paris is what matters most. Communities, local governments, business, and individuals will fill in the voids that international agreements could never reach. From my mayor creating more cycle lanes, to my mother fixing carbon through burying compost, we will act. Because we know that climate change is not just about making sure the world doesn't end up destroyed; it is about together laying out the pieces of the future we want to live in. We have to believe and hope, for without hope there is no action. Without action, the future will be bleak.