COP 24: Paris Agreement Rule Book Agreed But Is It Enough?

Alicia Nicholls

On December 15th, 2018, nearly 200 countries signed off on the rules required for translating the Paris Agreement from mere aspirational words on paper to an operable agreement. Agreement on the Paris Agreement ‘rule book’ came late on Saturday night, one day after the Twenty-Fourth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) talks were scheduled to conclude.

While there is understandable international relief and jubilation that an agreement for operationalising the Paris Agreement has been reached after two weeks of at times tension-filled negotiations, climate-vulnerable countries like Small Island Developing States (SIDS) would be justified in opining that the global political response to the climate change crisis still remains well below what is needed to stop irreversible global warming which threatens their very existence, and the future of the planet.


Over 20,000 delegates from 196 nations converged in the small Polish town of Katowice from December 3-14, 2018 with one primary objective in mind – formulating the guidelines and institutional mechanisms for giving life to the landmark Paris Agreementadopted at COP21 in 2015 in Paris, France.

While far from perfect, the Paris Agreement represents a commitment by the parties to hold the global average temperature increase to levels below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius, to increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience, to make available finance flows for climate change mitigation and adaptation, and to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.

The Paris Agreement rule book includes the modalities, procedures and guidelines for making this happen. A deadline of December 2018 was set for the rule book’s completion, which meant that negotiators were in a double race against time.

Given the need to balance the national interests of almost 200 countries, the many technical issues to be negotiated, the threat to multilateral diplomacy posed by growing nationalism and populism, and the current climate-skeptic rhetoric by the world’s second largest anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emitter (the US), the success of the talks was hoped for, but not assured. Negotiators were walking a thin rope and the negotiated outcome reflects many areas of compromise, including on areas where climate-vulnerable countries, like SIDS, would have wished more robust language to reflect the urgency of the political action needed.

What was agreed?

The majority of the rule book has been completed. The parties have decided on the rules for reporting on their mitigation, adaptation and financing efforts in a universal and transparent manner.

As opposed to a bifurcated system (separate rules for poor and rich countries), the rule book establishes a single set of rules for transparent reporting. This was one of the lines drawn in the sand by the US and the European Union (EU) to ensure, in particular, that large developing countries like China abide by the same transparency rules as they.

The rules for the enhanced transparency framework provide flexibility for “developing country parties that need it in the light of their capacities” in the implementation of the transparency provisions of the Paris Agreement. This will be on the basis of self-determination, and developing countries seeking to avail themselves of these flexibilities must clearly indicate the provision to which flexibility is applied, concisely clarify capacity constraints, and provide self-determined estimated time frames for improvements in relation to those capacity constraints.

A further flexibility comes with respect to reporting support. The rule book uses the legally binding language of “shall” for developed country parties with respect to providing information on support given, while for other parties, it uses less forceful language in the form of “should”.

Under the Paris Agreement, each party committed to progressively ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) which reflect their pledges to climate action and are to reflect their highest possible ambition. Of note is that the interim public registry developed by the UNFCCC Secretariat will serve as the public registry for parties’ NDCs. The registry will be accessible for use by the parties, stakeholders and the public. From 2031 onward, parties are to apply common time frames to their NDCs. The exact time frame is to be determined later.

One of the issues at COP24 was scaling up parties’ ambitions by 2020 because when calculated, the current ambition level in countries’ existing NDCs puts global average temperature increases on track for more than 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This was noted in a Special Report on Global Warming at 1.5 Degrees Celsiusreleased by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This temperature increase would be well-above the Paris Agreement goal and towards levels that would lead to even more irreversible global warming, and would put some low-lying SIDS under water, literally.

The IPCC further warned that restricting temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels would limit some of the more severe climate change impacts, than at 2 degrees, confirming what SIDS were arguing under their “1.5 to stay alive” campaign in the lead up to COP21 when the Paris Agreement was signed.

How these scientific findings in the IPCC report were to be treated was a major sticking point in the COP24 negotiations. In a blow to climate activists and SIDS, fervent objection by the US and the major oil-exporting nations of Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait led to a weak statement which merely welcomes the “timely completion” of the Report, but is silent on its dire findings.

Financing for developing countries’ mitigation and adaptation efforts is critically important, especially for SIDS whose climate vulnerability far exceeds their ability to self-finance their mitigation and adaptation efforts. It was agreed that the Adaptation Fund, which was established under the Kyoto Protocol, will serve the Paris Agreement. Some countries have also made additional pledges to the Green Climate Fund, another multilateral fund. Another nugget of good news is that parties have agreed to increase the collective climate finance goal post 2020 beyond the current goal of 100 billion USD per year. However, it is not yet decided by how much.

While the parties recognise the importance of capacity-building, they put off adoption of a decision on the initial institutional arrangements for capacity building to COP25.

Loss and damage due to climate change’s irreversible and adverse impacts remains a sensitive issue for developed countries, but one on which climate-vulnerable countries, such as SIDS, are particularly concerned. Indeed, climate change impacts have cost some SIDS like Dominica after Hurricane Maria in 2017 the equivalent of 226% of GDP, at a time when that country was still recovering from the devastation of Tropical Storm Erika in 2015.

SIDS fought hard for the inclusion of loss and damage in the Paris Agreement, and although ‘loss and damage’ is also included throughout the rule book, the language is less robust than desired. The transparency rules provide that countries “may, as appropriate” report on loss and damage, and the global stocktake rules “may take into account, as appropriate..efforts to avert, minimise and address loss and damage”.

Another example of compromise is in the weak compliance mechanism provided for. Under the Paris Agreement, this mechanism is “to facilitate implementation of and promote compliance with the provisions of the Agreement”. The rule book makes clear that the committee is to “neither function as an enforcement or dispute settlement mechanism, nor impose penalties or sanctions, and shall respect national sovereignty”. This mechanism, therefore, will have to rely on moral suasion for ensuring compliance.

The compliance mechanism will consist of an elected 12-member committee which is to function in a manner that is “transparent, non-adversarial and non-punitive”. In a nod to developing countries, the committee membership is to have “2 members each from the five regional groups of the United Nations and 1 member each from the small island developing States and the least developed countries, taking into account the goal of gender balance”. It “shall pay particular attention to the respective national capabilities and circumstances of Parties.”

A critical area which remains incomplete is that of voluntary market mechanisms. Agreement on this was held up as Brazil objected strongly to rules preventing double counting. This issue has been deferred to COP25 which will be held in Chile.

What next?

The rule book is a welcomed achievement given the swirling headwinds it had to face leading up to its negotiation. But the reality of balancing varying political interests meant that the text features many areas of compromise, with the net result that the political response and ambition do not adequately reflect the urgency needed to confront the magnitude of the climate crisis.

The Global Carbon Project released a report noting that global carbon emissions are to reach an all-time high in 2018. While SIDS are undoubtedly at the frontlines of the climate change battle, natural disasters, such as the impact of Hurricane Harvey (2017) and Hurricane Katrina (2005) in the US, show that large countries are by no means immune to climate change’s most disastrous effects. Climate action is, therefore, in all countries’ interests.

Political headwinds, however, still threaten the global climate response as powerful fossil fuel interests now have climate deniers in the highest positions of political power. Brazil has withdrawn its offer to host next year’s COP25. Its incoming President Jair Bolsonaro, a climate change denier, has already signalled his support for increased agricultural production in the Amazon – the world’s largest green lung. The Trump Administration has re-emphasised a commitment to so-called ‘clean’ coal, rolled back many Obama-era emissions-cutting initiatives and has indicated earlier this year that the US is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. Under the Agreement, the US cannot withdraw until 2020 and its delegation played an active role in the COP24 negotiations, especially on the issue of transparency. However, should President Trump be re-elected in 2020 and the US make good on its threat to withdraw, this will have implications for the Agreement and on global climate action more widely.

The next few years will be critical for climate action. At COP25 in Chile next year, the parties will seek to finalise the final details of the rule book. However, before this, a special climate summit will be convened in September 2019 to mobilise ambition. The deadline for current emissions commitments is 2020 and new targets will have to be set. Failure to scale up ambitions puts SIDS and future generations at risk of climate disaster. More ambitious political action will be needed to ensure a transition to a low carbon and climate resilient world which ensures that the most deleterious climate change impacts are averted.

The informal text may be found here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.