On December 12, 2015 the Paris Agreement was adopted by 196 parties at the 21st Conference of Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The agreement went into force on November 4, 2016. Among the handful of countries that opposed the agreement was Nicaragua - because it was too weak. The core of the treaty is built around “nationally determined contributions,” or voluntary emission reductions decided by individual countries. The failure to adopt binding requirements led Nicaragua to refuse to sign the accord - the person who made the case for rejecting it was Paul Oquist.
Oquist’s argument rested on two ideas. The first was that the intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) that were being put forth in December 2015 were not sufficient to keep average global temperatures in the range of 1.5 to 2 degrees celsius that was being debated. As Estafanias Jiminez summarizes the argument,
Nicaragua calculated that the INDCs submitted for December, 2015 will generate 55 gigatons of CO2 by 2030, which implies a global temperature increase of 3 °C. Oquist highlighted that the current form of the [Paris Accord] will lead the world to a 3 °C increase in temperature and this would mean, in most developing countries, a dangerous increase of 4 °C. His government does not believe the INDCs will be better in 5 years. He explained that the low ambition of 1.5 °C wanted by developing countries and 2 °C wanted by developed countries is leading to less execution of the commitments. Nicaragua wants another mechanism based on historical responsibilities.
The second problem for Oquist was that the countries most responsible for emitting greenhouse gases were getting off too easy. In an interview, Oquist explained:
The 10 largest emitters are responsible for 72 percent of the emissions. The 100 smallest are responsible for 3 percent of the emissions. If you’re the CEO of a company and you have an overrun that you reckon is in the range of 2.7 to 3.5, let’s say billions of something, and you want to bring it down to the 1.5 to 2 range that’s acceptable: are you going to work on the hundred cases that have 3 percent or on the 10 cases that have 72 percent? It’s a no-brainer. The only way you can get that reduction is out of the big emitters.
The Paris Agreement was thus a “path to failure” according to Oquist, and so Nicaragua did not sign (initially). Ortega later changed course, and Nicaragua agreed to be a part of the process in 2017 “out of solidarity” with other developing countries. At the table, Nicaragua continues to press for stricter emissions standards, and equity in the assignment of responsibility and funding for adaptation. Following 2017, Oquist remained an important influence over the process as a co-chair of the board of the multilateral Green Climate Fund. The fund oversees distributions to impoverished countries seeking to make adaptations to meet emission reductions.
Nicaragua is way ahead of most other countries. Over the last 13 years the government has adopted a series of reforms, and made a determined effort to direct investment to renewable forms of energy. Nicargua is now approaching the goal of having 90% of its energy come from renewable sources. So, Oquist’s hesitations had nothing to do with commitment on the part of the country he was representing. He was addressing the system of global inequality.
Paul Oquist died on April 12, 2021. He will be sorely missed for his wisdom and tenacity, as well his generosity and kindness.
Some remembrances of Paul Oquist:
Letter to Paul Oquist from Saul Arana, reprinted Alliance for Global Justice
“Tribute to Dr Paul Oquist, tireless advocate for social, economic & climate justice” Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign
Isabelle Gerretsen, “Climate watchers pay tribute to Nicaraguan envoy Paul Oquist, who died on Monday,” Climate Home News
“Paul Oquist ha partido”, Nicaragua Sandino