Coming into this year’s UN climate talks in Lima, countries were riding a wave of positive momentum generated by good news.
In Beijing last month, the leaders of the world’s two largest economies — and largest emitters — stood together to underscore their joint commitment to addressing climate change.
A few weeks prior, the European Union announced its plans to reduce emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.
As a result, the three jurisdictions that account for nearly half of annual carbon pollution worldwide have all made significant commitments to reduce or limit their emissions (although more ambitious cuts are needed to put the world on a path to climate safety).
As with many important topics, however, to get a full sense of how the UN climate negotiations are going requires also looking beyond the headlines.
As the talks enter their second and final week, some of the developments outside of the spotlight are raising concerns even as the US-China bilateral agreement continues to be the basis for broader optimism.
Tasks for Lima negotiators
To be sure, the first week of the annual international climate negotiations – known as the Conference of the Parties, or “COP” – is almost always slow going. Ministers do not arrive until the second week. In their absence, country negotiators — who are professional staff, rather than “politicals” — have little room for maneuver on issues of importance. Instead, they arrive at the COP with a set of positions, and stick to them.
The first week is an exercise in the process of elimination — finding the areas of overlap among initial positions, in order to whittle down the areas of disagreement to a manageable number. Then the ministers, with their greater scope of action and authority to compromise, arrive to try and hammer out a deal.
And these talks were never intended to yield major results. Negotiators in Lima are charged with three modest tasks:
- They are supposed to agree on the form of the intended “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) that are to be announced by countries in the first quarter of next year. NDCs represent initial pledges of what countries will do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under a future international agreement, to be finalized in Paris in December 2015 and take effect in 2020.
- They are supposed to make progress in accelerating the implementation of national actions to reduce emissions before 2020.
- Negotiators are supposed to agree on the main set of “elements” that would constitute the international agreement expected to be finalized in Paris next year.
At Lima, and indeed between now and the Paris talks, the NDCs are likely to get the headlines. That is not without reason: the ultimate objective of these climate talks, after all, is reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the pace and scale needed to avoid dangerous anthropogenic climate change. What countries commit to do in curbing their emissions should get attention.
Framework, transparency, and other nuts and bolts of a climate agreement
But while the NDCs are important, they are not all that matters — because what drives climate change is the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, not the amount emitted in one year or even one decade. Climate change is a long game. An effective international agreement is one that will promote greater and greater ambition over time — not just promises to reduce emissions at a single point in time.
If you really want to assess progress, you have to look beyond the numbers to the nuts and bolts of the agreement.
In turn, that requires a framework that not only asks countries to make commitments, but demands that they demonstrate credibly and transparently how they are making progress against those commitments. Such transparency is crucial to building the confidence and trust among countries that is a necessary foundation for greater ambition. Transparency will also help nations to understand where opportunities for emissions reductions lie in their own country, and assess and improve the efficacy of their emissions reductions over time – again contributing to greater ambition over time.
If you really want to assess progress, therefore, you have to look beyond the numbers to the nuts and bolts of the agreement: issues like consistent accounting rules for emissions, or for monitoring, reporting, and verifying emissions (known as “MRV”).
Accounting and MRV sound boring and technical, and to some extent they are. But that’s where the meat of the agreement actually lies. Indeed, one can argue that the “nuts and bolts” of the agreement are as important as the headline numbers. Impressive headline numbers won’t mean much without clarity on what emissions are being reduced, or consistency in how they are counted, or transparency to ensure that countries are doing what they committed to do.
First week sees slowdown in technical discussions
This brings us back to the signs of concern. In some key technical areas out of the spotlight, negotiators have been able to reach agreement on even less than usual.
Take the issue of “double counting.” The principle is simple. Suppose emissions reductions in country A — say, from building a wind farm instead of a coal plant — generate credits that are sold to emitters in country B and used to comply with their own emissions targets. The atmosphere doesn’t care whether the emissions took place in country A or B, so long as emissions go down overall.
Of course, in keeping track of emissions reductions, it’s important not to count the same emissions reductions twice. If country B claims the credits against its own emissions target, country A can’t do the same.
So far, however, countries have not agreed on the simple, transparent double-entry bookkeeping standards that would be sufficient to prevent such double-counting. Indeed, countries haven’t even agreed to agree that such standards are necessary. Instead, during the first week, a small but important group of major developing countries put the brakes on the discussions where these issues are being considered, insisting that there is no need to make progress on such technical points of the negotiations.
Second week begins
This result is not irrevocable. From a formal point of view, the slowdown in technical discussions has been applicable to the discussions around pre-2020 ambition rather than the post-2020 agreement. Countries pushing for more transparency may yet succeed in making progress in Lima, at the higher-level talks around the 2015 agreement that will take place in the second week. And negotiators have also kept the door open for talks to continue at a technical level next year, promising to come back and continue their conversations in the run-up to Paris.
But the delay is troubling nonetheless — both because it hinders progress on an important substantive area of the agreement, and because of what it signals about the willingness of some nations to allow work on the nuts and bolts to go forward.
Progress beyond the headlines?
Climate change is a long game. An effective international agreement is one that will promote greater and greater ambition over time — not just promises to reduce emissions at a single point in time.
Regardless of what happens in Lima this week, the US-China bilateral agreement remains a game changer. It shows that progress in international climate is possible — and will continue to provide grounds for optimism.
Even so, the UN negotiations can play an important role of providing a framework for transparency and accountability that can help ensure that countries follow through on their commitments and encourage even greater ambition over time.
Beyond the headlines, the main question for Lima is how much progress negotiators will make toward a genuinely effective international agreement for the long run. The sooner work begins in earnest on the nuts and bolts of the agreement, the better the prognosis for the planet.