Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action

Conference of the Parties, COP, 25: Discussion

Dr. John Sweeney:

Thank you very much, Chairperson. I would like to thank the members for giving us the opportunity to talk to them today about the Conference of the Parties' process. I have attended eight of the last ten Conference of the Parties, COPs, so I am probably a bit of a veteran or maybe a bit of a nerd when it comes to attending COPs. I find them a very worthwhile experience. For those who may not be too familiar with the COP, it emerged from the United Nations Convention on Climate Change as part of the Rio Convention, which was signed in 1992. There were two other sister conventions at the same time. The Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention to Combat Desertification have not really attained the same level of status in the public consciousness as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, itself.

The first Conference of the Parties took place in Berlin in 1995. It was chaired by a relatively youthful Minister for the Environment for Germany, called Angela Merkel. It decided at that meeting to progress matters in terms of climate change on the basis of the now first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, assessment report, which had been published in 1990. It emerged then that the Kyoto Protocol would come out of the UNFCCC, and other significant agreements were made in Copenhagen, in Durban and of course the most important one for us, the Paris Agreement itself.

The venues rotate around the continents to minimise travel for the participants. Over time, the COP has become a very largely well attended meeting. The peak attendance was in Paris, but even last year in Katowice attendance exceeded 22,000 people. Obviously, one cannot have 198 countries all saying their piece in a meeting like this, so countries tend to break up into negotiating blocks. The big division is between the developed and the developing countries, and within the developed countries, the European Union is a separate entity, with an umbrella group comprising many other developed countries. Within the developing block, which is led traditionally by China, there are also blocks for the less developed countries and the oil exporters: Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. An important component of the developing countries of course is the small-island developing states, which are particularly vulnerable to the problems of climate change.

The COP is supposed to be led by the science and especially from the science of the IPCC, to which it pays great adherence normally. Following the Paris Agreement, when the 1.5°C figure emerged as a key component of the Paris Agreement, the COP requested a special report from the IPCC on the impacts of 1.5°C warming above pre-industrial levels. Within the last 13 months, the IPCC has published three special reports. These are interim reports between the big bang reports of the assessment reports themselves. The COP usually starts its meetings by welcoming the IPCC reports, and this has been a tradition since 1995. It was broken this year when the conference did not welcome the IPCC reports. Saudi Arabia, the United States, Russia and Kuwait objected to this. It left a pretty bad taste in the mouth of many delegates and many participants for the remainder of that period.

The COP in Katowice had heard from the IPCC that the pathway for avoiding a 1.5°C warming entailed a global reduction of about 45% from 2010 levels within the next 11 years and reaching net zero at a global scale by 2050. The COP has also adopted a principle called the Common But Differentiated Responsibility principle, which means that countries which have historically contributed more to the problem should bear the brunt of actually tackling the problem. This of course means that the developed countries are envisaged as taking the lion's share of the burden in terms of solving this problem. In terms of the last COP, it was also quite clear that there was a finite carbon budget, which once burned would condemn the world for the next century or more to 1.5°C and even 2°C warming. That finite carbon budget has become a key component of the negotiations in recent years. It is estimated by some Irish scientists, for example, that Ireland will have used up its fair share of that remaining carbon budget within the next five to ten years.

The other aspect of the Paris Agreement was the concept of nationally determined contributions, where the UNFCCC changed its tack from a top-down approach to a bottom-up approach around about the time of Durban. This meant that countries were obliged under Paris to come back every five years with a more strict pledge in terms of their mitigation responsibilities. For Ireland, this means that before 2030, for example, there will most likely be two if not three further ratcheting up of the European Union's requirements for mitigation. Stock-taking cycles are also built in, the first of which will be in 2023.

It is not surprising that in anticipation of that, the Vice-President Designate of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, recently stated in the European Parliament that he would be extremely surprised if the new Commission does not decide on an emissions cut of least 55% by 2030 in the next 11 years. That represents a considerable increase in where we are at the moment.

Many countries have recognised the need for this, and in Katowice about 27 countries signed up to increasing their ambition quite radically. The list the committee has will show that they are not just developed countries, but there are underdeveloped countries. There are countries like Ethiopia and the Marshall Islands, which would be expected to bear the brunt of climate change but have really limited means to cope with it. They were quite happy to sign up to it. Countries like Spain, the United Kingdom and France, of course, were very much climate leaders in this area.

Eight member states wrote to the Commission in the course of the last week to urge an increase in the European Union's 2030 target from 40% to 55%. In both of those cases, in the case of the 27 countries and in the case of the signatories to the European Commissioner, sadly, from my point of view, Ireland was not included and did not sign up to that increased ambition. For a country which aspires to climate leadership, this is something that the committee might seek to flesh out a little with the Department when it comes in.

Climate finance will be dealt with by my colleagues. In the budget, there was a doubling of Ireland's contribution to the Green Climate Fund, which is one of the funds that is not in any way tied to other activities but is solely for helping countries to cope with climate change. While a doubling of that fund was desirable, it takes Ireland's contribution up to just over $8 million per year or a per capitacontribution of $1.73. Now that compares with a per capitacontribution of $86 from Luxembourg, $62 from Monaco and $60 from Sweden. We are about a tenth really of where we would be expected to be on the basis of our GDP for our contribution to the Green Climate Fund. That is something that is not doing Ireland's international reputation particularly well abroad.

In terms of what civil society does, some countries register their civil society groups and individual scientists as members of their party delegation. Ireland traditionally has registered a small number of individuals and NGOs as party overflow. This enables such people to be observers. It does not enable them even to observe the negotiations that go on. When one attends the COP, one gets the story of what Ireland was up to second-hand from other delegations, such as from European Union officials, who are often very helpful in telling us what has transpired.

The Minister meets the small Irish delegation usually for about an hour at each meeting, which is very welcome. It is usually in the second week of the conference. For party overflow, the accreditation is given on the basis of an undertaking by the individuals that they will not engage in any event contrary to Irish Government policy. Sometimes it is not quite clear to the delegates or the observers what Irish Government policy actually is, but it has been interpreted in recent COPs as being, for example, critical of oil-producing countries at side events, and accreditation has been withdrawn in some cases. Civil society is only informed of its accreditation quite late in the process. The next COP is in four weeks. Nobody has received any indication of accreditation yet, and as one can appreciate, that makes for great difficulties, especially as people were trying to get accommodation in Santiago, fly to South America and so on. All of the NGO sector travels at its own expense. It is not funded in any way.

It is fair to say that the five years since the Paris Agreement have been wasted. The increased efforts which were intended to occur in 2015 have not really taken place. There have been a lot of obviously global political changes since then, but there has been a lot of hedging going on for individual country pledges.

I will highlight three countries at which I have been looking in some detail to give an indication of the kind of problems they have in meeting the nationally determined contributions, NDCs. I looked at Jordan first, which has offered an NDC of a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 14% by 2030. However, this is conditional in receiving finance, and without the finance the commitment is 1.5%. Another Middle East country, the Palestine state, has made a very positive offer of 24.4% by 2040, but it will be only 12.8% unless the political problems are resolved in the meantime. Israel offers another seemingly quite attractive NDC at first sight to reduce its per capitaproduction by 26%, but when one looks at the population increases envisaged over that same time period, it is quite clear that an increase rather than a reduction is the most likely outcome.

One has economic, political and accounting methods whereby the NDCs are really often not going to be realised, and this is a problem which bedevils the current negotiations and different baselines as well.

The European Union NDC drives the effort sharing regulation at member state level, and the European Union has recently confirmed that its overall NDC will be achieved. It will achieve a 20% reduction for 2020, because it is currently about 23% below the target level, with only a small number of countries - Malta, Germany, Ireland and Austria - unlikely to meet their obligations, which they signed up to over a decade ago. Now as we all know, Ireland is currently on target maybe to achieve a 5% or so reduction but has now exceeded its binding on its limits for emissions for the past three years. At the next COP in Madrid, it is quite likely, I am afraid, that Ireland will be identified once again as a climate laggard.