A step closer to a legally binding climate agreement? - An interview with Professor Christina Voigt

By Laura Letourneau-Tremblay, Reseach Assistant, PluriCourts and Annette Hovdal, Project Coordinator, PluriCourts

Since the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, (now) 196 Parties have had the intention to put in place an effective international climate agreement. The Kyoto Protocol (1997) was only a very limited success in the sense that only developed countries committed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. For the last couple of years the parties to the UNFCCC have therefore started negotiating a post-Kyoto legal framework, to be implemented from 2020 onwards. The goal is to agree on an effective and legally binding agreement at the next Conference of the Parties (COP 21) in Paris, December 2015. An important stop on the way was the 20th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP20) and the 10th session of the Conference of the Parties serving the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP10) in Lima, 1 to 12 December 2014. How far did the parties come in making progress towards a legally binding climate agreement? Can we finally be more optimistic? Dr. Christina Voigt, Professor of Law at the University of Oslo, coordinator of the environmental law sector of PluriCourts, and legal advisor to the Norwegian delegation to the UNFCCC, just came back from Lima. We have asked her to share some reflections on the negotiations and the steps forward.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                How far have the parties come with the draft of a legal agreement? Will the draft be a sufficient starting point to reach an agreement in Paris?
COP20/CMP10 in Lima provided a space for discussing the possible elements, content and structure of a negotiating text.The Parties worked with an “elements paper”, which is a large compilation of Parties’ submissions and views. This paper will be the starting point for next year’s negotiations on a legally-binding agreement to be adopted in Paris. However, there is not yet a draft negotiation text. Such text is expected to be “on the table” in late spring 2015 (before May 2015).

40 % of the world's CO2 emissions come from China and the US, and these two major states are crucial for reaching a meaningful agreement. The climate agreement between the US and China in November has given new optimism, as one hopes that these two major powers could become a driving force in the negotiations. Has this happened?

Yes, definitely. The US/China agreement has reinvigorated the UN climate negotiations. It has shown that cooperation and commitment is possible across the “old lines” of bifurcation. It has also set the tone for conceptualizing what is now called “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) in that is has shown how the two very different countries can formulate their common commitments in very different ways and thereby reflecting the principle that states have common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. National circumstances define the scope and type of commitments – but it is no longer doubted that all states need to do as best as they can to mitigate dangerous climate change.

What are the main obstacles between the parties - which interests delay them to find an agreement?

The three main points of controversy are the following: (1) Differentiation and its reflection in the architecture and substantive content of the new agreement, (2) The question of financing: How much should be paid by whom for what?, and (3) The recognition of loss and damages in the new agreement.

However, while these are issues that will need to be discussed throughout the next year, they also were on the agenda in Lima. In the final decision in Lima, it became clear that almost all countries had to move to the very edge of their comfort zone or even beyond. This has not always been the case. The last conferences were marked by hard confrontations and incompatible preferences of country blocks such as the G77 and China on the one hand and the US on the other. Lima has shown that a weakening of the “walls” between these groups is as possible as it is necessary.

Which important countries push for an international (legal) agreement?

The strongest push comes from the Umbrella Group (a loose coalition of non-EU developed countries which formed following the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol) as well as AOSIS (Alliance of Small Island States) as well as the Least Developing Countries Group (LDCs).

Have some countries changed their attitude at this COP meeting? For example - will Canada (tar sands projects – Keystone XL pipeline) and Australia (coal mine project-Galilee basin) ever change their position?

This is difficult to say. As Al Gore says “political will is a renewable resource” and it remains possible that these countries will change their position. The same applies to emerging economies, such as India and China.

However, the emerging nature of the commitments under the new agreement will make it easier for countries to agree to a legally binding treaty. As mentioned above, at the core are INDCs – which are nationally decided contributions. It is very unlikely that the new agreement will be able to spell out substantive emissions reduction obligation a la the Kyoto protocol. Rather, what we might see, is that states commit to tell the world what their nationally determined contributions are, make them public and agree to transparency and oversight of them. However, whether those contributions sum up to what is needed to keep the world away from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius is uncertain. There will be a review system to assess the aggregate effect of the national contributions in light of the 2 degrees target, but there will perhaps be little more than peer pressure to force states to increase their ambition.

What are Norway's position and goals for these negotiations? What would you consider your main achievement as a negotiator representing Norway?

Norway is a strong supporter of a legally binding agreement in 2015, which is fair and ambitious. Norway also has a good reputation as a facilitator and mediator between different positions of states.I support the Norwegian delegation on legal issues and provide assistance on text analyses and textual suggestions. I also follow the “legal tracks” of the negotiations, such as procedural issues, compliance issues and the establishment of a non-compliance mechanism under the new agreement as a representative of Norway.

In addition to the main negotiations there have been some examples of countries making bilateral agreements, as for example Norway’s agreement with Ecuador in order to stop deforestation of the rain forest. Have there been many such agreements, and do you believe these agreements are important for the climate, and alternatively for the main negotiations? 

Norway has paved and shown the way for effective bilateral agreements on forest protection with Brazil, Indonesia, Guyana, Ecuador and other countries. Other bilateral or multilateral initiatives have been established in the wake of Norway’s example. However, more needs to be done outside the UNFCCC, in particular in the area of renewable energy cooperation. Norway has initiated ENERGY-plus, an initiative that aims at providing access to efficient energy services to all by increased development of renewable energy and energy efficiency, and to mitigate energy’s impacts on climate. The aim is to establish an international partnership open to all. This is an important example that can duplicate the effective forest cooperation in the field of renewable energy.

Bilateral and regional agreements are important, the involvement of civil society and the private sector are important. However, they are not an alternative to the UN negotiations. The need for a solution at the UN level lies in the complexity of the issue: we need a solution where all states can find their respective place whether they are major emitters of greenhouse gases that need to be reduced; whether they have strong economies and can contribute financially to poorer countries’ capacity building and adaptation needs; or whether they are those countries that have contributed the least to the problem but their mere existence is threatened by the impacts of climate change. The accommodation of all 196 states’ needs and capacities, responsibilities and expectations is to be reflected in the new agreement. Bilateral agreements are very important complements to this, but not an alternative.

In Lima, elements of a draft negotiating text took shape. This document reiterates important principles such as equity, “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” and “equitable access to sustainable development” with the aim of achieving “universal participation” in establishing greenhouse gas climate-resilient economies. It will be further negotiated throughout 2015 with the aim to adopt “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention” at COP 21 in Paris.  In Lima, the negotiations were arduous but Professor Christina Voigt seems overall positive of the outcome.  She will share more detailed information on the negotiations in Lima and the challenges of a legally-binding climate agreement during an International Law lunch on 15 January 2015.
                                                                                                                                     Time is running out and the expectations for Paris are high! 


Picture/source: Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores Cancillería del Perú



Tags: environment By Annette Hovdal
Published Dec. 19, 2014 9:21 AM - Last modified Apr. 18, 2016 1:51 PM
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