7 burning issues on the road to a Paris climate deal

What are the big ideas governments will have to grapple with between now and December’s UN climate summit?

Pic: photophilde/Flickr

Pic: photophilde/Flickr

By Sophie Yeo and Ed King

At last, progress. After six days’ discussion in Geneva, nearly 200 governments have revealed their demands ahead of a global climate change deal.

That’s the good news. A less enticing reality is that they have collectively created an 86-page document comprising an avalanche of options and proposals.

This is now the official negotiating text for an agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions, set to be signed off in Paris this December.

Between now and then it will need to be radically cut down to a set of practical goals that world leaders can understand.

We have picked out seven themes worth following over the coming months.

They could make the final cut – or they could vanish into oblivion.

Yet discussions on their merits could have wide-ranging impacts on a global deal and the shape of the world’s energy system for decades to come.

What price flying?

The aviation and shipping sectors keep the global economy ticking over. Aviation accounts for 2% of global emissions, but it is difficult to regulate because it is unclear who should take responsibility for which emissions.

The text to emerge from Geneva is nonetheless rising to the challenge. One option suggests that parties must set emissions reductions targets for ships and planes. Their regulatory bodies – the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Maritime Organization – would be tasked with developing a global policy framework to achieve these targets.

Climate justice

Bolivia’s proposal for an international climate justice tribunal has made it into the text and is likely to cause some fireworks come Paris. It is not a new idea – Bolivian president Evo Morales called for its establishment in 2010 – but it has previously made little headway.

According to the text, the tribunal would have the power to make sure developed countries were fulfilling their obligations under the new agreement. Considering the recent efforts to tear down the wall between the rich and emerging economies, this divisive approach is unlikely to get the blessing of the US.

Economic mechanism

The Paris agreement could end up giving carbon trading a boost, if Brazil’s proposal for an economic mechanism to regulate emissions makes the final cut.

This mechanism would include an emissions trading system and a new version of the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism – which supports low carbon innovation in developing countries – promisingly entitled CDM+.

It would mean countries with economy-wide emissions reductions targets could trade with one another in order to reach their goals in the most cost effective way. The hope is that this could incentivise emerging economies to adopt this kind of target. But the idea is likely to prove unpopular with socialist governments.

Oil tax

The text includes a suggestion for a tax on oil exports. This would be closely modeled on Ecuador’s Daly-Correa tax, which the government has promoted as an effective way to transfer money from rich, oil importing countries to poorer developing nations.

Ecuador has already paraded this idea before OPEC, where they proposed that all proceeds of the tax – around 3-5% levied on every barrel of oil – should be transferred directly into the UN’s Green Climate Fund. These smaller details are not in the Geneva text, but could be indicative of the debate to come.

Zero emissions

One of the most ambitious proposals – that countries should reduce net emissions to zero by 2050 – is still clinging on in the text.

This is strongly backed by many civil society actors, who see it as key to delegitimising the fossil fuel industry. But it is even more radical than what is proposed by the IPCC, which is that emissions should fall by 40-70% below 2010 levels by 2050 in order to stay below the 2C limit.

Another variation includes full decarbonisation by 2050 for rich countries, and a sustainable development pathway for the poorer nations.

Human rights and gender

For the first time, countries have included language on human rights. This recognises climate change is not a stand-alone topic, but also affects the people who depend on the natural environment. As the conference in Lima, Peru, made clear, indigenous people are especially vulnerable.

The text also directs all countries to be “guided by gender equality and ensure the full and equal participation of women in all climate action and decision making processes”, seeking to redress the balance in the UN talks, where women are severely underrepresented.


New language on health will also help to convey climate change as an issue which touches on all aspects of human development. The text asks parties to recognise that addressing climate change will also help their countries to attain “the highest possible level of health”.

This is not a fact that will have come as a surprise to the Chinese, for instance, where residents of industrial cities such as Beijing regularly find themselves choking on the hazardous air quality, partly as a result of burning coal.

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