Mark Radka: “COP21: will there be a reason to celebrate?”

Zorba with Mark Radka, Chief of the Energy, Climate, and Technology Branch, UN Environment Programme (UNEP) 

cop21Paris.- Two weeks before the beginning of COP21, we had the opportunity of talking with Mark Radka, who heads UNEP’s Energy, Climate, and Technology Branch, based in Paris. With so much hype about this year’s climate change conference, we wanted to get some clues to understand the COP. How will success look like and how likely that is to happen? We knew it would not be an easy topic to understand just over one dinner. “Few people understand climate change negotiations unless they have spent hundred percent dedication for a long time,” –was Mark’s opening line– “what becomes important to follow is the dynamics, and the changes in countries’ positions”.

Countries are meant to achieve in Paris what wasn’t achieved in Copenhagen’s 2009 conference that is, reaching an agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol –which was agreed in 1997 and should have expired in 2012. In order to avoid failure, this Conference of the Parties –or COP– brings about two key innovations: the methodology to set commitments and the sequencing of the conference. Each country is setting their own objectives, called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs. The expected advantage is that such a bottom-up approach should make it easier to reach an agreement; by definition, if each country determines their own goals, they should be willing to commit to them. The disadvantage is that it risks producing an agreement with commitments that are unable to reduce emissions to the level science indicates as relatively safe, although a means of periodically ‘ratcheting up’ ambition should reduce this risk. The inclusiveness of this approach alone is notwithstanding significant, given that it will cover all countries, therefore those that matter to have any meaningful impact on climate change, as opposed to Kyoto, which left out many of the major GHG emitters, particularly those in which emissions were growing the fastest.

The other innovation is the sequencing. This COP starts with the participation of heads of state, which should find a high level political statement about the imperative of reaching agreement in the beginning of the meeting. The following days would allow the technical experts to “clean up the text”, which should be finally agreed on by the ministers at the end of the two-week process.

In essence, we should keep an eye on whether the agreement is legally binding, what is the financing package agreed and other enabling mechanisms associated with it, and which are the public commitments made by the parties. Overall, there might be space to be optimistic after all.

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