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Volume XI, Number 290

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Climate Negotiation Scorecard: How Did Africa Fare at COP 21?

The outcome of the 21st Conference of Parties (COP) of the UNFCCC, which came to a close just over a week ago in Paris, was generally a positive one for Africa. While, of course, the continent represents a wide range of interests when it comes to climate change, African countries have developed an increasingly unified voice over the years of climate negotiations. The adoption of the legally-binding Paris Agreement reflects many of the key positions of the Africa Group negotiating at COP 21 on behalf of African countries. That said, African opinions diverge on the Paris Agreement, even within governments, with some observers jubilant while others believe the treaty is too weak.

As a preliminary matter, it goes without saying that the very achievement of a legally binding treaty is, in itself, momentous, as are the decisions to limit the increase in global warming to a 2° C increase above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit such an increase to 1.5° C. The latter target is of particular importance to African countries, given the continent’s unique vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. African commentators have expressed concern not at the goals themselves, but about the compliance mechanism for achieving them: countries are not legally bound to achieve the emissions cuts that they outlined in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) they submitted prior to the COP 21. (Parties are, however, bound to ratchet up their subsequent Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) every five years.) Article 15 of the Paris Agreement does establish a compliance mechanism, but one that is non-punitive and instead relies on transparency. The decision accompanying the Paris Agreement acknowledges that there is a significant gap between the aggregate expected effect of the INDCs—which could limit average global temperature increases to roughly 2.7° C—and the treaty’s stated 2° C limit.  Many are concerned that, while the aspiration of limiting warming to 1.5° C is laudable, the rest of the treaty is insufficient to reach a limit in warming of 2° C, much less 1.5° C.

Adaptation is also more strongly embedded in the Paris Agreement relative to prior treaties—another important achievement for African countries, for which adaptation is a climate change response priority. Article 7 of the Paris Agreement establishes a “global goal on adaptation,” which had previously been proposed and pushed forward by the African Group. The global goal on adaptation aims to strengthen adaptive capacity and climate resilience through international cooperation and the mobilization of support, and should catalyze larger funding flows to adaptation efforts in Africa and elsewhere. The Paris Agreement is relatively vague on this issue—for instance, it does not mention agriculture, which the African group had been advocating—and it does not contain qualitative or quantitative climate finance targets; however, the treaty’s associated decision at least sets in motion the process by which such specificity may be determined and achieved.

Speaking of finance, developing countries managed to set the much-heralded $100 billion annual commitment from developed countries for climate finance as a floor to be ramped up after 2025. This was a key demand from developing country parties, including all African countries, and many of the mitigation and adaptation plans set out in African INDCs are contingent on the level of funding received from developed country parties. However, African commentators have noted the uncertainty surrounding who will provide these funds, and how. Article 9 of the Paris Agreement refers to the “mobilization” of climate finance from “a wide variety of sources, instruments and channels,” which means that a significant portion of climate finance may come from the private sector (although Article 9 notes the “significant role of public funds” in mobilizing climate finance. Some African commentators have also deplored the fact that there is no additional financing for “Loss and Damage” that vulnerable countries will incur due to unavoidable climate change, while others celebrate that a stand-alone article is devoted to the topic—something championed by the Africa Group—even if it explicitly rejects notions of liability or compensation.

Moreover, new funding mechanisms targeting Africa were also announced in anticipation of the conference or at sideline events. For instance, at the Climate Change and African Solutions summit on December 1, France’s President Hollande committed EUR 2 billion to fund renewable energy projects in Africa before 2020. In late November, the World Bank announced its $16 billion Africa Climate Business Plan to help enhance adaptation measures across Africa. And during the conference, North American and European governments also earmarked $150 million of funding to support the African Risk Capacity Centre, a specialized African Union agency that focuses on developing insurance models for African countries to manage the risk from natural disasters such as drought.

Aside from climate finance, another notable outcome of the Paris Agreement is Article 5’s recognition of carbon sinks, especially forests; the treaty encourages parties to support conservation, including the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation mechanism. This provision is important for Africa, given that the continent’s forests are major carbon sinks—especially the Congo Basin, which has one of the largest forest reserves in the world.

Finally, one of the significant successes of developing country negotiating blocs, including the Africa Group, is the preservation of the “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR) concept. CBDR is explicitly mentioned a few times in the final treaty text, but the notion is also embedded deep in the text. In nearly every aspect, whether it is mitigation, finance, NDCs, or transparency, the treaty distinguishes between developed and developing country responsibilities, with “least developed countries” and small island developing states often recognized as categories of their own.

Regardless of one’s position on the outcome of negotiations for African countries, it is well understood that the agreement is “just” a beginning: the Paris Agreement sets in motion an evolving process, the implementation and revision of which will depend crucially on the political will of the parties to the agreement and a range of other actors. If the Africa Group continues to lead on the parameters of climate action, it will help shape the legacy of the Paris Agreement.

© 2021 Covington & Burling LLPNational Law Review, Volume V, Number 356
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About this Author

Covington’s Election and Political Law practice is one of the oldest in the Nation.  In addition to our high-profile election law litigation and Federal Election Commission enforcement practice, we advise numerous Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 corporations, trade associations, financial institutions, political party committees, PACs, candidates, lobbying firms, and high net-worth individuals concerning compliance with the increasingly complex array of laws governing the political process.  These include federal and state campaign finance, lobbying disclosure, and government...

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