Evaluation of COP24 and Future Challenges

Consulting Fellow, RIETI

I wrote a short piece titled "Outlook on Global Climate Change Negotiations" as a New Year's column in January last year.

In that piece, I said, "2018 is a decision making year." At and then at the 24th Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) held in Katowice, Poland in December 2018, the detailed rules and modalities of the Paris Agreement were adopted, which means 2018 became "decision making year." Here, I would like to provide my observation about the outcome of the COP24 and remark on future challenges.

Successful negotiations over the detailed rules

It is fair to say that COP24 was a success. Above all, it is of great significance that the agreement on the detailed rules and modalities will set in motion the transition from the dichotomous Kyoto Protocol to the Paris Agreement with the participation of all the countries.

The current round of negotiations was characterized by two conflicts. On the one hand, there was the Like Minded-Group of Developing Countries (LMDCs), which want to introduce a dichotomy, versus developed countries that advocate a common framework for all. On the other hand, there were African countries and least developed countries requesting expansion of financial assistance versus developed countries that are cautious about further expansion of financial assistance. Given this context, the fact that common guidelines were established for nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and a transparency framework means that the spirit of the Paris Agreement with its participation of all the countries, was firmly maintained despite strong pressure from the LMDCs clinging to Kyoto-type dichotomy. In terms of the transparency framework, although developing countries were given self-determination over the granting of flexibility, it was a positive outcome that developing countries opting for flexibility are mandated to provide thorough explanations for their decision, which ensures a certain accountability. It is crucial to coordinate with other developed countries such as the US so that major emitting developing countries such as China do not abuse flexibility.

On the other hand, a certain amount of concessions were made to developing countries regarding the expansion of financial assistance sought by African countries and least developed countries, including starting consideration of long-term goals for financial assistance in 2020 and production of needs assessment reports. Needs assessment reports, in particular, will be used as inputs for the global stocktake and, in the future, the gap between developing countries' assistance needs and developed countries' assistance offers will likely come under closer scrutiny. While it is a headache for developed countries, as long as financial assistance and a common framework (i.e. elimination of dichotomy) were a package, as previously noted, the path was unavoidable but worthwhile for the sake of consensus formation.

Taking a broad perspective, the outcome can be assessed as a balanced agreement overall, with consideration given to poor developing countries in terms of financial assistance while rejecting LMDC's arguments leading to reopening of the Paris Agreement (scope of NDCs, dichotomy, etc.).

This negotiation outcome was positive from the viewpoint of the United States, which had placed a common framework at the top of its priority. However, it is unclear whether the Trump administration will change its mind over its plan to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. A statement put out by the United States Department of State mentions expressly that, "The Administration's position on the Paris Agreement remains unchanged…absent terms more favorable to the American people." Perhaps we should consider that the United States has created a foundation, based on which a "post-Trump" administration could consider its return to the Paris Agreement.

1.5°C goal causing widening gap with reality

With this consensus, the Paris Agreement structure will go into motion from 2020, but the concern is the widening gap between the "COP world" and the real world. What NGOs and other environmentalists mainly emphasized at COP24 was the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C published in October, rather than the negotiations on detailed rules. In the Talanoa Dialogue, many ministers referred to the 1.5°C Report, and a High Ambition Coalition was launched to advocate raising the NDCs in light of the 1.5°C Report, as done by Norway and the Alliance of Small Island States. On the final day of the sessions of the UNFCCC subsidiary bodies during the first week, a rift over handling of the 1.5°C Special Report came to a head between island states and the EU, which suggested "welcoming" the report on the one hand, and the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, which advocated "noting" the report, on the other hand, resulting in a failure to reach an agreement. The final COP24 document adopted the neutral wording of "expressing appreciation to the IPCC for producing the Special Report at the request of COP." However, next year's sessions of the subsidiary bodies are supposed to "consider" the 1.5°C Special Report, and the above point will likely become a point of contention once again.

There is a tremendous gap between the reduction path delineated in the 1.5°C Special Report calling for net zero emissions in the neighborhood of 2050 and the reality. And it is unlikely that China and the United States, which are the world's top two emitters, along with India and ASEAN, where emissions will increase rapidly in the future, are going to raise their NDCs to levels consistent with that reduction path. The fact is that the Marshall Island was the only country that avowed at COP24 to raise its NDC. In contrast, Germany abandoned its 2020 goal and the EU, in the face of opposition from Germany and Eastern European countries, decided not to raise its 2030 goal. Additionally, while the 1.5°C Special Report indicates the need for a worldwide carbon tax in the range of 135-5500 USD in 2030, raising the carbon tax by merely 10-odd dollars provoked the large-scale yellow vests rioting in Paris. If this is what happens even in the developed country of France, it is only natural that the acceptability of carbon price hikes would be even lower in developing countries. Environmentalists who gather at COP, however, are trying to make the 1.5°C goal the de facto standard in place of the 2°C goal. Since it was obvious that even the 2°C goal is detached from reality, the campaign to raise the motivation level based on a 1.5°C pathway will likely fail sooner or later. There is fear that arguments proceeded by slogans that give no thought to feasibility might damage the credibility of the entire process.

Prioritizing technical solutions over reduction goals based on rallying cries

There are also many challenges for Japan. As the 1.5°C Special Report gains prominent attention, there will likely be calls at home and abroad to raise the 26% reduction target for 2030 when Japan submits its NDC in 2020. However, with the restarting of nuclear power plants not proceeding smoothly, if the prospect of achieving the 26% target diminishes, it would be unreasonable to raise the goal even more. Japan's marginal abatement cost and its energy costs in the industrial sector are the highest among the world's major countries. Setting unrealistic goals in response to international rallying cries would have a significant negative impact on Japan's industrial competitiveness and economy. The 1.5°C Special Report will receive great coverage in the 2023 global stocktake and will likely have an effect during the revision of goals in 2025. While the author is skeptical of achievement of a 1.5°C to 2°C goal, if the world is to ultimately aim for decarbonization, then the path for Japan to take is to set serious goals and strategies in terms of developing and spreading technologies that could enable decarbonization in forms that are compatible with the economy, rather than gung-ho figures based on vain rallying cries and unsupported by feasibility studies. When it negotiated the formulation of the Kyoto Protocol, Japan took the lead in proposing the bottom-up framework of "pledge and review." As it turned out, the international framework ended up taking the grand detour of a top-down Kyoto Protocol, but it ultimately arrived at a Paris Agreement that has at its core bottom-up pledge and review. When it comes to the course for decarbonization, Japan should present to the world an approach focused on technologies instead of numerical targets and time-tables.

January 15, 2019

January 23, 2019

Article(s) by this author