02/13/2015 10:01 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Next Step on Road to Climate Agreement in Paris Wraps Up in Geneva

Today countries wrapped up the first climate negotiation session of 2015 as they work to finalize a new international legal agreement in Paris later this year. The negotiations this week in Geneva were aimed at turning ideas into the beginning details of a final legal agreement. Countries leave here with a sense of the various options for a new agreement in Paris and some greater clarity on how each country is preparing for their specific commitments that will be captured in this agreement. It will be a difficult negotiation, but some signs emerged this week on the potential shape of the agreement.

Countries spent this week proposing specific legal text that they would like considered as a part of the final agreement in Paris. Coming out of the negotiations in Lima, countries pulled together an "elements text." This elements text wasn't in the form of a legal text, so this week countries proposed specific legal language that they would like included for each aspect of the potential Paris agreement. The length of the text increased to 86 pages, but that is to be expected at this point as countries each proposed their ideas. (Remember in Copenhagen we had a more than 200 page negotiating text just hours before leaders were to arrive and finalize an agreement.) The full draft legal text is now available for countries to see the various contours of a potential agreement. Emerging in this text and the discussions during the week are several key themes that will have a large impact on the strength of this new agreement.

When will countries propose their post-2020 climate commitments and what will be in them? There wasn't really a formal discussion on the timing and content of each country's planned climate commitments for the Paris agreement -- the so-called "intended nationally determined contributions" (INDCs) -- but it was clearly a key subject of the hallway and bilateral discussions. It is clear from my conversations that most key countries are well on the path to preparing such a proposed commitment in the first half of this year. Some countries like the EU, U.S., Norway, Switzerland, and Mexico will likely propose their emission reduction targets by the end of next month, while others like India (see recent public comments from India), China, Chile, Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa may come later -- hopefully in May/June. And some countries like Canada, Australia, and Japan are giant mysteries.

What exactly those countries will propose as their post-2020 climate targets isn't clear at this point, but the recent agreements by the European Union, U.S., and China provide some initial clarity on what these countries might propose. From recent conversations there are clearly ongoing public consultations in places like India, Chile, Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa. How bold will these and others countries' next climate targets be is a key defining question for the credibility of the Paris agreement. We can't afford timid efforts to cut carbon pollution from the major countries.

What should be in the "legal agreement" and what is more appropriate for implementing "decisions"? In Geneva there was a lot of discussion about a "durable" agreement since many countries don't want to renegotiate a new legal agreement every couple of years. For many countries this means having a concise legal agreement adopted in Paris that sets the contours of how countries are expected to address climate change for the next couple of decades. At the same time we don't want such a durable agreement to be incapable of evolving over time to address the need to improve and strengthen the international system to address the greatest threat to humanity. But that doesn't mean that the agreement in Paris will formalize every implementation aspect for the next five decades as countries expect that implementation of the agreement will need to evolve over time. For example, the methods to hold countries accountable for meeting their targets will need to evolve over time as countries get more confident and comfortable in their domestic climate actions. After all, we don't want to "lock-in" a specific set of tools in 2015 that define exactly how the international system is implemented in 2050.

Given this dynamic, many countries discussed having a legal agreement that captures the broad outlines of the international system and a set of "decisions" that provide further details on how specific aspects of the international system will be implemented. The idea is that the legal agreement wouldn't be renegotiated every couple of years but the decisions could be strengthened/improved over time. There will likely be a set of decisions in Paris that accompany the legal agreement for the key issues that will need to be resolved to give countries confidence in the system they are implementing. The agreement will also likely include a means to improve/strengthen those decisions over time. The aim is to have a legal agreement that is not too vague to be meaningless but not too specific to lock us in forever on key implementation details that we know will need to be strengthened in the future.

So countries will need to decide what must be in the "legal agreement," what specific "decisions" will need to be adopted in Paris, and what "references" in the legal agreement will be needed to create the ability to strengthen the tools over time.

When does your next climate target begin and how frequently do you we update those targets? Unfortunately the agreement in Lima didn't specify that countries are supposed to propose their next to begin in 2025. After all, countries agreed in Copenhagen (2009) to targets for 2020 -- ten years later. A large number of countries such as the U.S., small-island states, South Africa, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Peru, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama support the need for countries to have a 2025 target as they don't want to lock in weak ambition for the next 15 years. Many of those countries reiterated this push in Geneva, and the draft negotiating text contains several proposals along these lines. We feel that it is critical for countries to have a 2025 target, as it sends a powerful signal that countries will act now, not wait. To show the world that we are serious about addressing climate change, we need countries to commit to action that is "more, faster, now," as one delegate put it.

In addition, there is an emerging discussion of how frequently those targets would be updated -- the so-called "cycles" discussion. There is a growing consensus around the need to have countries define their emission reduction targets every five years. So countries would finalize 2025 targets in Paris and then finalize 2030 targets sometime after Paris and before 2030. In addition, many countries highlight the need to have regular updating of commitments on financial support to help developing countries build low-carbon economies and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

How will countries mobilize resources and other tools to assist developing countries in reducing emissions and adapting to the impacts? Since Copenhagen it has been clear that a strong international response to climate change will require mobilizing resources to help developing countries reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. All countries get that capturing this element will need to be a part of the agreement in Paris, but how that will occur isn't yet clear. The draft text has various options that countries have proposed along these lines.


The climate negotiations in Geneva achieved the minimum of what is needed at this stage -- a draft of the legal text that will form the basis of an agreement in Paris, a reminder to countries that they need to prepare their draft proposed climate targets early this year, and preliminary discussions on some of the core elements of the Paris agreement.

Getting agreement in Paris won't be easy. After all, if it was easy we would have already done it. We hope that countries will take the time between now and Paris seriously and be prepared to be bold and ambitious. We can't afford failure.