4 Of The Most Controversial Issues At The Paris Climate Talks, Explained

CREDIT: AP Photo/Christophe Ena

PARIS, FRANCE — On November 30, heads of state convened in Paris for the opening day of the 21st U.N. climate summit, which is set to produce a new international climate agreement. They spoke about the urgency of creating an ambitious pact to limit carbon pollution and build resilience to the effects of climate change. President Obama, for example, said:

For I believe, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that there is such a thing as being too late. And when it comes to climate change, that hour is almost upon us. But if we act here, if we act now, if we place our own short-term interests behind the air that our young people will breathe, and the food that they will eat, and the water that they will drink, and the hopes and dreams that sustain their lives, then we won’t be too late for them.

On Wednesday, the country delegations to the summit produced a new draft of the Paris agreement. There is a palpable feeling that this summit could come to mark the beginning of a global commitment to clean energy. Several controversial issues remain to be resolved, however, in order for countries to come to a final agreement by the end of the week.


There are 195 country parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), each with its own level of responsibility for climate change and its own level of development and capacity. The topic of how to set expectations and obligations for countries given their divergent circumstances is known as differentiation.

When the UNFCCC was established in 1992, it created two categories of countries according to their level of development at the time. These categories have since been used as a means of assigning obligations. Only developed countries, for example, were required to reduce emissions under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

For the Paris agreement, however, many developed countries support the concept of differentiation but reject the idea that countries should be split into two twenty-year-old categories. “We stand by our obligations under the Convention, but the world has changed since 1992,” said Peter Woolcott for Australia. “As developed countries we will continue to lead, but we must see all parties act consistent with their national capacities.”

In response, Professor Gurdial Singh Nijar, speaking on behalf of the Like-Minded Developing Countries — a group which includes India and China — said that the per capita income in those countries is very low. “To then not proceed on a pathway of progress – of industrialization – means that the per capita income has to be reduced even further,” he said. “We cannot accept starvation as a price for the success of this agreement.”

The debate over differentiation courses through nearly every aspect of the climate negotiations, including international climate finance, emissions reporting, and the topic of loss and damage, all discussed below.

International climate finance

Until recently, only developed countries were obligated or encouraged to provide climate finance for developing countries. But several countries classified by the UNFCCC as developing — such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia — have the financial capacity to contribute. Further, many developing countries are in fact already providing international climate finance. Mexico, for example, was an early contributor to the Green Climate Fund, and Vietnam became a contributor during the first week of the Paris summit. In September, China dedicated more than $3 billion in climate finance to its South-South Climate Cooperation Fund.

Given that it will take a massive increase in international climate finance to shift the course of the global economy toward clean energy, there is a desire to encourage and acknowledge financial contributions from developing countries — without creating an obligation for them and without easing the pressure on developed countries to contribute. Several options for doing this have been under discussion for the Paris agreement. The new draft says that developing parties may “on a voluntary, complementary basis, provide resources to developing countries, including through South-South cooperation initiatives.”

A second issue on finance involves the level of support that will be provided to developing countries after 2020, when the Paris agreement takes effect. During the Copenhagen summit of 2009, developed countries pledged to increase international climate finance to $100 billion yearly by 2020. Developing country blocs such as the G77+China have proposed a post-2020 increase in climate finance using $100 billion yearly as a floor, although developed countries have been hesitant to commit to an open-ended increase.

Countries generally acknowledge the need to dramatically scale up funding for climate adaptation, which has historically trailed finance for clean energy by a large margin: only 16 percent of global climate finance flows went toward adaptation in 2014. Some momentum on adaptation finance came Wednesday, as Secretary Kerry announced that the U.S. would double its annual grant-based contribution to adaptation in developing countries by 2020. The new draft text indicates that “the provision of scaled-up financial resources should aim to achieve a balance between adaptation and mitigation.”

Closing the emissions gap

In a display of unprecedented global will, more than 180 countries covering more than 95 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions have now submitted national climate goals. But there remains a substantial gap between the emissions reductions that these goals will achieve and the emissions reductions necessary to achieve a measure of climate safety.

A strong Paris agreement would include elements that narrow the emissions gap, such as a requirement for countries to update their national commitments every five years, which is included in the new text; a long-term goal to guide the global transition to clean energy; and a system that allows for the review of national and collective progress.

Both the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) have called for limiting global warming to an increase of 1.5° Celsius. The UNFCCC-recognized target has been an increase of 2°C over preindustrial levels, but even that level of warming would be a serious threat to the most climate-vulnerable regions.

During the Paris summit, all countries have agreed to acknowledge the 1.5-degree target in the agreement, with the notable exception of Saudi Arabia, which speaks for the Arab Group. Countries also continue to debate whether and how to include a long-term emissions reduction goal. The CVF has called for decarbonization by 2050. The United States has also supported a long-term emissions reduction goal, taking a page from the G7 declaration and calling for decarbonization over the course of the century. Saudi Arabia characteristically has been resistant.

The countries have supported a collective review of progress every five years, as well as five-year cycles for submitting national targets, although the start dates are yet undecided. The issue of national reviews, however, is more contentious. It is important for U.S. negotiators that there be a single review system for monitoring and reporting progress, rather than separate systems for developed and developing countries. India and China, however, have reportedly been hesitant to commit to a robust review system.

Loss and damage

The topic of loss and damage is important to members of the most vulnerable regions, including AOSIS and the Least Developed Countries (LDCs). “Loss and damage” refers to the the topic of how to address the harm — economic and non-economic — caused by extreme weather events and slow-onset events, such as sea-level rise and desertification.

Although the parties to the UNFCCC support addressing loss and damage — and established a mechanism to address the topic during the 2013 Warsaw summit — there remain differences of opinion about where and how to address it in the Paris agreement, and there was no progress in Wednesday’s text since the previous iteration.

AOSIS and the LDCs have called for loss and damage to be addressed in chapters separate from climate adaptation in the agreement, in order to prominently acknowledge that climate events can overwhelm adaptation efforts. The U.S. and other developed countries, however, would prefer loss and damage to be addressed within the chapter on adaptation, perhaps concerned that a separate chapter would justify demands for them to contribute climate finance in addition to what they’re already committed to contributing.

A second controversy on loss and damage surrounds the U.S. position that the text explicitly exclude the concepts of compensation or liability. Although loss and damage is a topic that is distinct from compensation and liability, the topics are often mistakenly conflated, and discussions on loss and damage in the UNFCCC in the past have involved proposals for compensation by groups including the G77.

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Despite several differences of opinion that remain to be be resolved, most of the country delegations are committed to creating a strong agreement to confront climate change by the end of the week.

Gwynne Taraska is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Center for American Progress.