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The following speech by Halldor Thorgeirsson, Director for Strategy at the UN Climate Change Secretariat, addresses the compelling connections between the moral and economic imperative of dealing with climate change and how the new, universal climate change agreement in Paris in December fits in the necessary move towards a low-emission, climate resilient future. The speech was given on July 14 at the  Conference on Sustainable Innovation in Tel Aviv, Israel.

A Universal Climate Change Agreement: Convergence of Moral and Economic Imperatives

It is an honour and pleasure to be with you today.

I will first address the moral imperative of stabilising the Earth’s climate system. This is the ultimate objective of the Climate Convention and the main reason why an Agreement in Paris is needed. I will then give you a sense of the content of the emerging Paris Agreement and how national contributions will give substance to it. I will conclude by linking all this to the economic imperative of low-carbon and resilient development.

The Moral Imperative

The objective of the Climate Convention, a treaty with universal membership, is to manage the global risk from climate change. It is designed, as stated in its ultimate objective, to limit climate change to a level which avoids "dangerous interference with the climate system".

Decisions on what constitutes "dangerous interference" with the climate system are not for any one nation to make given the global implications. Such decisions have profound moral implications given that climate change has greatest impacts for exposed and vulnerable nations and on vulnerable populations within all nations.

The Climate Convention is the global platform for collective decision making on the Earth's climate with all nations at the table.

Parties to the Convention have agreed to set an upper limit on acceptable warming at 2 degrees C above the pre-industrial level by the end of this century. This decision was based on political judgement informed by science. There are significant risks associated with any level of warming and many Parties call for stabilisation well below 2 degrees C aiming to be as close to 1.5 degrees C as possible.

Because warming from carbon dioxide persists for many centuries, any upper limit on warming requires net carbon dioxide emissions to eventually fall to zero. This fundamental economic transformation, not fine tuning of existing systems, must lead to deep, and later full, decarbonisation of the global economy. This transition will bring multiple other benefits and open up huge opportunities.

Content of the Emerging Agreement

So, what are the negotiations about?

The Paris Agreement will be under the Climate Convention, driven by its ultimate objective and guided by its principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibility and respective capability taking into account national circumstances.

These complex negotiations centre in reality around the following four key words: action, finance, cooperation and long-term direction.

The negotiators are building frameworks around the following:

  1. National commitments and plans for the post-2020 period
  2. Transparency and accountability
  3. Cooperation and finance
  4. Global emission trajectory and long-term direction

National Commitments and Plans for Post-2020 

One of the first things to be settled in the negotiations was that national contributions to the ultimate objective would be determined domestically taking into account differing responsibility, capacity and national circumstances, guided by the principles of the Convention. Parties have also committed not to backtrack on earlier commitments. Each contribution will therefore represent a progression beyond the current level of effort.

These contributions will be rooted in domestic priorities and realities. They are in essence a blueprint for how Governments are planning to invest in their own low-emission and climate-resilient future.

Parties have been invited to communicate these intended nationally determined contributions or INDCs to the secretariat well in advance of Paris. Forty six Parties have done so already and many others are in advanced stages of preparation. Over one hundred developing country Parties have received bilateral and multilateral support for their efforts to prepare INDCs.

Parties are also invited to provide information to facilitate clarity, transparency and understanding of their contributions. This would include both quantitative and qualitative components. They are invited to articulate how they consider their contribution to be fair and ambitious in light of national circumstances and how it contributes to the objective of the Convention. They are also invited to consider communicating their undertakings in adaptation planning or consider including an adaptation component in their INDCs.

The Secretariat has been requested to issue a synthesis report by 1 November on the aggregate effect of the INDCs received by 1 October.

Transparency and Accountability

Negotiations on the legal nature of the specific obligations Parties undertake under the new agreement are still on-going. One thing is clear that there will be robust obligations on transparency and accountability. Parties will be expected to report regularly on their net emissions, policies and their results and to undergo international review of their efforts to deliver on their commitments.

Flexibility to tailor to national circumstances will be built into the transparency and accountability system. This will make it possible for all Parties to report and be reviewed in one common transparency and accountability framework.

Cooperation and Finance

Cooperation and support is at the core of the strategic approach taken by the Climate Convention. This is most visibly manifested in the scaling-up of climate finance. Developed countries have committed to mobilising 100 billion USD annually no later than 2020 from public and private sources to support climate action in developing countries.

A new fund, the Green Climate Fund, has been established and has achieved its initial capitalisation goal of over 10 USD billion in contributions from governments and will start investing this year. It is noteworthy that seven developing country Parties are among the contributing Parties.

Negotiators are also considering how the new agreement can best capitalize on the dramatic mobilization of climate action at all levels of government, including local governments, and by all actors most notably corporations and investors. This would potentially include explicit invitation to such actors to register their contributions, which would then be recognized with associated accountability expectations.

Global Emission Trajectory and Long-term Direction

The next 15 years are critical. The success of the Agreement will be judged by its ability to halt the rise in global emissions and accelerate subsequent decline. The window for economically feasible solutions with a reasonable prospect of holding warming to 2 degrees C or less is rapidly closing.

Governments are actively debating at the highest level, most recently at the G7 Summit, on how much clarity to provide in Paris on the long term direction beyond reaffirming the upper limit on warming. Some have called for milestones for reduction in global emissions by 2050 and explicit acknowledgement of the scientific reality that net global emissions will eventually have to fall to zero.

They are also designing a mechanism within the agreement to ramp up ambition over time in light of progress and the best available science on both the problem and the solutions.

The Economic Imperative

But stabilising the climate takes more than negotiations among States. Governments are not alone in this endeavour. Cities, civil society, investors, and innovative business are at their side ready to build the low-emission resilient future we all seek. The Green Growth Race is on and huge markets are opening up with significant early-mover advantages.

Economic policy reform is at the core of the solution. Climate change has been described as a massive market failure because the market does not see the cost associated with emission of greenhouse gases. Governments can correct this and put a proper price on carbon and more and more Governments are doing so, including China. Many corporations are calling for a carbon price including most recently several major oil companies. This will further accelerate the shift in capital towards the future energy transformation.

Over the rest of the century, global investments in energy and energy infrastructure will total many trillions of dollars. The additional investment required to transition to clean energy can be a small fraction of this amount. With smart policies, this additional cost can be an important contributor to inclusive and sustainable economic growth.

The UN Climate Conference in Paris will therefore mark the culmination of many years of effort to build the global response to climate change and open up a new phase in the global effort to secure a low-emission, climate-resilient future. Paris will not in one step put global emissions on track to where they need to be but will bring them closer and establish the strategic framework capable of bringing about the much needed transformation in time.

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