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Mohamed El-Ashry and Najib Saab - 2 December 2015

Strong climate deal good for Arab countries

Mohamed El-Ashry and Najib Saab

Climate change, once considered an issue for the future, has now moved firmly into the present. Few days before a new climate change deal is due to be agreed next week in Paris, the question is no longer whether there will be an agreement but what shape and how strong it will be. Compared to the debacle in Copenhagen in 2009, the negotiations for Paris, while still contentious at times, seem to be on track toward a deal.

The Kyoto Protocol divided the world into rich and poor. Rich countries (Annex 1) would pursue emission cuts while developing countries (non-Annex 1) were not obligated to take action. Since then, it became clear that carbon emissions of rapidly growing economies, like China and India, were increasing at a pace that would offset emission cuts by developed countries. In fact, China replaced the US as the world's biggest carbon dioxide emitter. As a result, no progress was made toward controlling global warming and it became clear that all countries need to contribute to the solution.

For the new agreement, almost 180 countries, representing about 95 percent of global Greenhouse Gases (GHG) emissions, have submitted national climate action plans known as "Intended Nationally Determined Contributions" or INDCs. Those cover the period between 2020 when the agreement will enter into force, and 2030. Almost all Arab countries submitted their pledges, though late in some cases, conditional on receiving compensation and technology transfer. The INDCs will make up the core of the final agreement.

The current draft of the agreement is a little over 30 pages, with more than 30 core issues unresolved yet. Here are five major contentious issues:

1. Long-term Global Target: In Cancun in 2010, the international community agreed that temperature rise to the end of the Century should stay below 2 degrees Celsius. Since climate change is a long-term problem, it cannot be addressed successfully through short-term voluntary actions. The draft agreement contains a number of proposals for a long-term mitigation goal, ranging from "de-carbonization" of the global economy by the end of the Century to 100% renewable energy by 2050.

2. Establishing a Carbon Price: Putting a price on carbon is an essential foundation for the transition to a low- or zero-carbon, climate resilient economy. It would create incentives to save energy and promote a shift to greener investments, especially in renewable energy. Removal of inefficient subsidies on electricity and fuel not only would promote efficiency, but would also give certainty and predictability for long-term investment in climate friendly development. Carbon pricing policies already exist in about 40 countries, including China, and 23 cities, states, and regions. Oil exporting countries have embarked, at different levels, on energy efficiency programs and revamping of subsidy systems, but are still resisting the idea of carbon pricing.

3. Monitoring, Review, and Assessment: A critical element of a climate agreement's effective implementation is an independent and transparent framework for tracking progress in implementation of the INDCs as well as financial pledges. Developing countries, led by China, had objected to a formal, independent mechanism for monitoring and reviewing implementation of national plans as well as progress in achieving long-term goals. However, last month China announced that it would now accept 5-year reviews of overall progress toward agreed goals and to strengthened action as needed. Arab negotiators are generally opposing independent monitoring, while Europeans are leading the drive for binding agreement.

4. Climate Finance: Finance is the most contentious issue for finalizing an agreement in Paris. Developing countries want wording that clearly establishes the responsibility of developed countries to achieve the goal of $100 billion annually by 2020. Developed countries on the other hand have proposed language that is short on details with less focus on their responsibilities. It is yet to be seen whether the statement of President Barak Obama in COP21, in which he clearly accepted the leading responsibility of the United States in global warming, will be translated into more action. In the meantime, pledges by developed countries to the Green Climate Fund amount to a little over $10 billion, just one-tenth of the pledged target. It is interesting to note that one-fourth of the proposed emission reductions by some developing countries are conditional on receiving finance and technology from developed countries.

5. Loss and Damage: Equally contentious is the issue of loss and damage from climate change. Island states and other vulnerable countries, like in sub-Saharan Africa, are currently experiencing adverse impacts from extreme weather events that experts say are worsened by carbon emissions already in the atmosphere. They want a binding agreement with high targets and provisions that would allow them to seek compensation. This is a major point of difference among African countries as well as within the Group of 77, since oil-exporting countries and fast-growing economies, led by China, are still opposing a binding agreement.

While many national pledges (INDCs) sound ambitious, they in totality fall short of what is needed to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the Century. Two reports recently released, one by the UNFCCC Secretariat, and the other by UNEP, show that even if countries fully honor their INDC pledges, temperatures will still increase beyond 2 degrees Celsius. This will be to 2.7 degrees according to the UNFCCC and to 3 degrees according to UNEP. Nevertheless, the Paris agreement will be a key step for collective action on climate change. That is precisely why it is essential as part of the agreement to periodically review implementation results and for nations to commit to new emission reduction plans every 5 years.

Reports of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) have repeatedly shown that the Arab region is most vulnerable to the diverse impacts of climate change, especially drought, dwindling freshwater resources and sea-level rise. Those findings were confirmed recently in a study by researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which warned that, if increase in global temperature is not halted, Arab region, especially Gulf countries, will suffer by 2070 heatwaves beyond the limit of human survival. This is enough reason for Arab countries to support a strong climate deal, as they have a lot to benefit from it.

Mohamed El-Ashry is senior fellow at UN Foundation, deputy chairman of Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED), and former CEO of Global Environment Facility (GEF). Najib Saab is Secretary General of AFED and editor of its annual reports on the state of Arab environment.

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