EDF Talks Global Climate

CDM design flaws can taint CORSIA, but supply from small developing countries could provide real emissions reductions

Aruba’s Vader Piet Wind Park

Aruba’s Vader Piet Wind Park. Credit: Miles Grant

By Kristin Qui, Environmental Defense Fund Tom Graff Fellow, International Carbon Markets

Last month, the 36 countries that make up the Council of the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) adopted the set of rules that will guide the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). Known as the Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs), these rules constitute a significant step to get CORSIA up and running, and contribute to ICAO’s goal of capping net emissions from international aviation at 2020 levels.

However, much work remains to be done at ICAO between now and the end of 2018. The Council has not yet adopted some key elements, including details on CORSIA eligible emissions units, sustainable aviation fuels and criteria for both. Furthermore, the Council has yet to establish the Technical Advisory Body (TAB) that will make recommendations to the Council on which emissions units airlines can use. A transparent TAB, with broad stakeholder participation, is necessary to provide recommendations on high-quality units that represent real emissions reductions in CORSIA.

One mechanism under consideration to satisfy CORSIA demand for emissions units is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) established by the Kyoto Protocol 20 years ago. The purpose of the CDM, as specified by Article 12 of the Kyoto Protocol, is to assist rich countries in complying with their Kyoto emission reduction commitments by using emissions reductions credits from projects in developing countries, and to help the latter achieve sustainable development and contribute to the ultimate objective of the Convention, i.e., averting dangerous interference with the climate system. However, the CDM has run into a number of obstacles. In fact, several studies, including a new EDF analysis, finds that in many cases, the CDM’s methodologies and design don’t address additionality, don’t provide real and credible baselines and don’t avoid double counting. Below are some of the biggest issues with the CDM:

  1. Lack of additionality: Some CDM projects have been found to be non-additional, meaning that those projects would have happened in the absence of the CDM and its finance from the sale of CERs. Thus, under the CDM’s current design, countries can earn credits from projects for which they did not require CDM financing. This is quite alarming in a landscape where many smaller developing countries have trouble accessing the necessary climate finance to cope with the harsh impacts of climate change.
  2. Crowding out small countries: The majority of CDM projects originate in large developing countries, e.g. 85% of issued Certified Emissions Reductions (CERs) occurs in China, India and Brazil, effectively crowding out smaller countries in need of finance for low carbon development. Even further, EDF’s analysis shows that one large developing country has a potential supply of about 10 times the demand of CORSIA, when projecting the maximum potential CDM supply out to 2030.
  3. Accounting issues: Other projects like HFC-23 destruction projects have been flagged for baseline inflation, meaning that project proponents overstated the number of reductions resulting from a given project. The atmosphere therefore sees less emissions reductions than the CDM project promises, setting back mitigation progress. Using such credits to offset an increase in emissions under CORSIA means that airlines would not be meeting their goals of carbon neutral growth from 2020.
  4. Lack of Transparency: Lack of transparency in the CDM Executive Board decision-making, communication and publishing of CDM data makes it challenging to understand the CDM project cycle. Shockingly, there is no way to tell when CERs have been used by an entity to offset an emissions increase.
  5. Lack of legal basis for using CERs in CORSIA: The future of the CDM is legally uncertain. The Kyoto Protocol establishes the CDM only for the twin purposes of helping non-Annex I Parties (developing countries) with sustainable development and Annex I Parties (developed countries) to meet their Kyoto emissions reduction commitments. The Protocol does not establish the use of CDM CERs for CORSIA or the Paris Agreement. Thus, the CDM Executive board has no legal authority to issue CERs after 2020, and may not have authority to issue CERs now. To use CERs in CORSIA, ICAO and the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol must take the necessary legal decisions.
  6. Fraud: Recent analyses have demonstrated that a significant number of CERs may be fraudulent. In particular, large dams in Brazil were registered as CDM projects based on assertions that the projects depended on carbon finance for their future construction and operation. However, investors have successfully prosecuted lawsuits demonstrating that their funds disappeared in the Lava Jato corruption scandal, and the dams were built anyway. Airlines face big reputational risks if the units they use to meet CORSIA requirements are fraudulent in any way.

Some CDM projects could deliver environmental benefits

A recent analysis by EDF shows that CDM activities in small island developing states (SIDS), least developed countries (LDCs) and other African countries are more vulnerable to discontinuation without support from market mechanisms, meaning that such activities are more likely to be additional. Because of these reasons, and to improve access to market mechanisms for smaller developing countries that were effectively denied access by larger countries, rules for post-2020 use of CERs should focus on a particular subset of CDM activities. EDF’s analysis concludes that the highest likelihood of delivering environmental benefits from CDM activities, would arise from limiting use of CERs to those originating from activities in SIDS and LDCs, provided that they satisfy quality and accounting standards, including the need to avoid double counting.

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Sowing the seeds of a roadmap for agriculture

Photo credit Dr Huynh Quang Tin

Low carbon rice production in Vietnam. Dr Huynh Quang Tin

At last November’s COP23 in Germany, Parties involved in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations on agriculture celebrated a notable victory after agreeing to create the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA). The KJWA marks a shift in focus from agricultural adaptation activities only, to a broader discussion of mitigation related activities. While COP23 Parties did not decide on the details of the KJWA, such as the “how” and the “when,” the outcome generated much needed momentum for the agriculture agenda of the UNFCCC.

In the lead up to the Bonn climate change negotiations that concluded last week, Parties and observers submitted their views on the “what”, “how”, and “when” of the KJWA. The Parties kept a very constructive – and even friendly – discourse in negotiation sessions, building off of last year’s positive COP23 outcome and increasing focus on implementation. The developing country group known as the G&77 + China, building off a New Zealand-led proposal, was very active in coordinating the creation of a roadmap for the KJWA. By the end of the first week, Parties agreed to draft conclusions outlining the roadmap.

Now with the UN secretariat for adoption, this roadmap provides an agenda of activities that includes workshops, topic submissions, and workshop reports every six months between now and the end of 2020. The series of workshops will cover the following topics:

  • How to implement the outcomes from the five in-session workshops on adaptation and resiliency held before last year’s COP decision;
  • Methods and approaches for assessing adaptation, adaptation co-benefits, and resilience;
  • Improved soil carbon, soil health, and soil fertility under grassland and cropland as well as integrated systems, including water management;
  • Improved nutrient use and manure management towards sustainable and resilient agricultural systems;
  • Improved livestock management systems, including agropastoral production systems and others; and
  • Socioeconomic and food security dimensions of climate change in the agriculture sector.

Submissions on topics for each workshop will be solicited prior to each session, followed by the preparation of a report after each workshop.

The first activity on the roadmap—submissions on implementing the outcomes of the five in-session workshops on adaptation and resiliency—is due on October 22, 2018. Considering that Parties in Bonn solicited external inputs for current and future discussions, organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund have the opportunity to help advance the KJWA roadmap. By providing technical assistance, content, and process inputs, EDF and other organizations will support the work of Parties under the KJWA and maintain momentum. It is imperative to use this time to determine what issues to focus on during this series of workshops and how to operationalize the outcomes.

As reflected by the nature of the KJWA itself, shifting focus to implementation and tangible actions to help actors in the agriculture sector respond to climate change is essential if we are to meet the climate goals laid out in the Paris Agreement.

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New study shows “double counting” of emissions reductions outside NDCs a bigger risk than previously thought

Air pollution in Toronto. Photo credit: Flickr/ United Nations Photo.

Delegates and advisors meeting in Bonn, Germany are hard at work hammering out the fine print for the Paris Agreement Rulebook, and a particular focus has been placed on deciding how Articles 4 and 6 will play out as the agreement comes into force.

These two articles are important because they outline rules to ensure environmental integrity in emissions reductions, particularly when nations are cooperating with others to cut emissions together, likely through international trading. Trading is an important tool in the effort to limit temperature rise, as it can lower the overall cost of reducing emissions, potentially increasing the ambition of the world’s greenhouse gas targets.

Nonetheless, having a strong standard in place to ensure that all trades of emissions reductions are high-quality and transparent is important to prevent “double counting” or “double claiming.”  This refers to a situation where emissions are reduced in one nation, traded to another to offset emissions increases, but are still claimed by the issuing nation when reporting on their own emissions cuts.  If the Article 6 rulebook were to allow such double claiming, it would make it seem like we are getting twice as many emissions reductions as actually happen – and that would be bad news for the climate.

While Articles 4 and 6 have text to help prevent that, their focus on sectors that are covered within each nation’s “Nationally Determined Contribution” (NDC) has led some to suggest that double claiming need not be a concern if it occurs for reductions outside NDCs. Nonetheless, other provisions of the Paris Agreement, like Article 13, require Parties to develop a transparent accounting framework to track how their efforts are contributing to the goal of limiting warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius—which could very well apply to reductions in non-NDC sectors too.

In that context, it is important to consider the question: What share of the world’s emissions occurs outside of NDC coverage?  Even if emissions are covered under NDCs, are there certain types of NDC targets that still leave covered emissions vulnerable to double counting? How should the rulebook best account for this risk, given the Paris Agreement’s pre-existing integrity requirements?

EDF set out to answer these questions with a preliminary analysis to assess the overall share of the world’s emissions that are at risk of double counting—and we found it could be over a third of the world’s total emissions. That’s about as many emissions as from China and the US put together.

The study is a two-part process. First, we interpreted NDCs using a standardized classification system that determined what share of each nation’s emissions could reasonably be considered “covered” under their NDC.

Second, we crafted four different scenarios that assessed the risk profile of different shares of the world’s emissions, based on a set of assumptions that ranged from optimistic to conservative. In our scenarios, we vary the types of NDC targets that can be considered stringent enough to ensure that emissions covered under their scope will not be double counted.  In our category 1 scenarios, all target types are eligible; in the category 2 scenarios, only mitigation targets with a quantifiable cap on emissions are considered.

China and India also have assumptions that differ across scenarios. They are treated separately from other large emitters due to the fact that their mitigation targets are intensity-based (measured relative to units of GDP), rather than compared to a base year or baseline scenario level of emissions.

In all scenarios, the share of the world’s emissions at high risk of double counting was substantial. Even in the most generous scenario where all types of NDC mitigation targets were considered to entail low risks of double counting, we found that 6.5% of the world’s yearly emissions were at high risk of double counting—more than all of India’s emissions put together.  Our most conservative scenario painted a much starker picture, with about a third of the world’s emissions considered at high risk of double counting.

The estimated share of world emissions that could be at high risk of double counting rises even higher if only parties to the Paris agreement are taken into account.  According to our estimates, nations who are not Parties account for about 5 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions (that’s about 10% of world totals).  If we assume these emissions are also at high risk of double counting, given the fact that they don’t benefit from the same standards placed upon emissions exchanges as those that are governed by the Paris Agreement, the total volume of high risk emissions could range as high as 39.5% of world emissions.

In reality, emissions reductions are only at risk of being double counted if there is demand for them, and international emissions markets are still at a nascent stage. Still, coming years could bring a spike in demand for carbon credits—nearly half of the world’s nations have expressed interest in using either domestic or international market mechanisms to meet their NDC goals, and the scope of carbon markets is rising worldwide.

With more opportunities to benefit from carbon trading comes a greater incentive to double count—but only in the absence of high quality standards on such exchanges. These results indicate that the stakes are high, and parties should take every effort to ensure that double counting risk is proactively taken into account, both within and outside of NDCs, when designing the rules that nations will abide by for years to come.

This post was updated on May 16 to add a reference in the second paragraph to an analysis about the potential for emissions trading to reduce emissions and increase ambition, as well as an updated headline.

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Clouds on the horizon: The legal status of the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism

In sunny springtime Bonn at the climate talks, discussions are intensifying about the future of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

The CDM was established in 1997 by the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. The Protocol set caps on the carbon pollution of more than 30 industrialized countries for the years 2008-2012, and the caps were amended to extend them to 2020.

The Protocol provides that when industrialized countries invest in projects that cut carbon pollution in developing countries, the CDM can issue carbon credits – called Certified Emission Reductions (CERs). The Protocol then authorizes industrialized countries to increase their emissions above their commitment levels and use the credits to comply with their emissions commitments by claiming them as offsets against pollution growth.

Since its launch over 20 years ago, the CDM has been analyzed extensively – from the transparency of its institutions, to the geographic distribution of its projects, the marginal costs of CDM investments, the environmental effectiveness of these investments, their vulnerability to fraud and deregistration, and the future potential of the CDM in the context of the 2015 Paris Agreement, whose new frameworks for addressing climate change supplant the Kyoto commitments starting in 2020.

Legal status of CDM

One topic that has received little attention, however, is the legal status of the CDM and of the carbon credits issued by it.

Is there a legal basis for the CDM’s institutions to continue after the Kyoto Protocol’s commitments expire in 2020? If so, is there a legal basis for the CDM to issue carbon credits after 2020? And is there a legal basis for using CDM credits to meet emissions reduction obligations after 2020?

There’s a legal uncertainty hovering over any prospective post-2020 use of Certified Emission Reductions (CERs) to meet emissions obligations.

Initial legal analysis indicates that while the Kyoto Protocol may provide a legal basis for the CDM’s institutions to continue, there is no legal basis for using CERs to meet any other emissions reduction obligations after 2020. Article 12.3(b) of the Kyoto Protocol authorizes one use, and only one use, for the CDM’s carbon credits: it provides that industrialized countries may use CERs to contribute to part of their compliance with their emissions commitments under the Protocol.

That means there’s a legal uncertainty hovering over any prospective post-2020 use of CERs to meet emissions obligations, whether in the context of the Paris Agreement or the market based mechanism known as the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), which was adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in 2016.

This legal uncertainty has many practical implications. One is that as nations move to implement their emissions reduction commitments (known as “nationally determined contributions," or NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, some hope that the CDM’s institutions and tools could unleash investment in emission reductions in sectors not covered by NDC pledges.

The volume of emissions in those “non-NDC” sectors may be quite significant: a new analysis indicates that up to one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions of the Paris Parties might lie outside the NDCs. Failure to adopt rigorous rules for monitoring and accounting for carbon credits in these sectors could create perverse incentives to let non-NDC pollution balloon. Whether the CDM is up to this task remains unclear.

What would clarify the situation is the following: If Parties to the Paris Agreement – and the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol – want the CDM and its carbon credits to serve new purposes after 2020, the Parties will need to take key legal steps before 2020 to adapt them to the new realities of the Paris Agreement.

The good news is that these legal steps – which may include amending the Kyoto Protocol – are fully within the authority of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol (CMP) and the authority of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA) to undertake. But if the CMP and CMA fail to act, then the future of the CDM, from a legal perspective, will remain a cloudy one.

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Carbon Credit Shell Game: the Clean Development Mechanism in New Climate Accords

Belo Monte Dam under construction on the Xingu River in the state of Pará, Brazil in 2013 | Photo credit: Letícia Leite-ISA

In the middle of terrifying weather headlines – mega-forest fires in California, serial super-hurricanes slamming the Caribbean, heat waves in the Arctic – it’s more important than ever to achieve large-scale reductions in carbon pollution, fast.

Two new international accords are starting to move industry and governments in the right direction – the UN Paris Agreement, and the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) Carbon Offsetting and Reduction System (CORSIA), which this week launches a series of regional seminars to inform aviation stakeholders about the system’s implementation procedures. President Trump’s refusal to face the climate challenge has really only mobilized everybody else to move ahead.

But other dangers lurk. A shadowy lobby is pushing hard to revive the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) – a relic of an outdated, failed attempt at climate action.

Contrived under the Kyoto Protocol, the CDM was supposed to let industrialized countries buy carbon credits from emissions-reductions projects in developing countries. These credits were supposed to represent real, verifiable emissions reductions that wouldn’t have happened without the CDM projects. The last part part—“additionality” — is key. Otherwise, developed-world power companies and cement factories just pollute more without actually making any real emissions reductions anywhere.

Twenty-one years and almost 3 billion tons CO₂e of purported “offsets” later, we know it didn’t work. Fully 85% of CDM projects are “unlikely to be additional,” says the most comprehensive, up-to-date study of the CDM. (It’s only “unlikely” because it’s typically very hard to tell what would have happened if the projects didn’t get done). The corruption has become systemic, especially in the biggest CDM countries – China, India and Brazil – where 90% of the credits come from. A US State Department analysis of wind power projects in India that could generate as much as 500 million tons of CO₂e credits found that project developers routinely keep double books. They do one term sheet showing the project is viable to get financing, and another term sheet for the CDM, showing that the project is inviable without CDM credit, i.e., is “additional”. A project that needed carbon credit to work would be far too risky for a bank to finance, investors said.

Brazil is a major offender. Its biggest CDM player, state power company Eletrobrás, told the CDM Executive Board that its Amazon mega-hydroelectric dams needed CDM credit to attract investors. At the same time, it told investors that the dams were fully viable on their own. We know this in part because the same dams (all registered, validated, and generating CDM carbon credit) are under investigation in the gigantic, Brazil-wide corruption investigations nicknamed “Lava Jato” (Car Wash). They are also prime exhibits in a lawsuit for fraud in US federal court brought by investors in Eletrobrás stock. The dams are, of course, socio-environmental nightmares too.

In short, there are excellent reasons why the EU Emissions Trading System no longer accepts CDM from Brazil, China and India, as well as whole categories of projects, and why California’s carbon market categorically rejects international credits from anything resembling the CDM. This in turn is part of the reason that CDM credits have effectively zero value in the market. They will go on having zero market value unless the CDM lobby (led by Brazil) in the Paris Agreement and CORSIA succeeds in foisting them onto the new markets.

If they get away with it, both the new, promising agreements to lower atmospheric carbon will be irrevocably tainted.

Environmentalists and government negotiators should keep fake CDM carbon credits from high-emissions emerging economies out of Paris and CORSIA, at risk of increasing rather than decreasing GHG pollution. There are much better – real – ways to control emissions, which I’ll be addressing in a future post.

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U.S. subnational leaders enjoy banner event at COP 23

America's Pledge event at COP23 | Photo: UNClimateChange

COP 23 has been a banner event for subnational actors, and especially for California. Between events and breaking news, our EDF California team has enjoyed visiting informally with representatives from around the world.

One theme from these conversations is “we’re so glad you are here!”

The presence of American states and NGOs, and the leadership of states like California, has not gone unnoticed, especially when the absence of U.S. leadership on climate is so obvious.

Some have asked if we have received backlash from the United States about being here (so far so good!), and there’s universal enthusiasm for the US Climate Action Center (or “igloo” – nicknamed both for the big white tents and chilly temperatures).

It is clear from these announcements and conversations that the leadership of California is more critical than ever.

Here’s a quick round-up of key state-level news:

America’s Pledge – California Governor Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg shared the first report of their joint initiative, America’s Pledge. A reaction to the United States’ dismissal of the Paris Agreement, this project demonstrates the power of collective action and aims to spur greater climate ambition. If they were one country, the signatory cities and states would have the third largest GDP in the world, and would be home to one-third of the American people. This is a significant rejection of the Trump Administration’s rhetoric on climate, and a testament to Governor Brown and Mayor Bloomberg’s leadership.

Under2 Coalition Signing – A joint initiative of Governor Jerry Brown and the German state of Baden-Württemberg, the Under 2 Coalition commits ambitious states and regions around the world to making commitments on emission reductions consistent with the Paris Agreement and to keeping global warming below 2°C. Virginia became the latest partner in the Under 2 Coalition, solidifying its climate leadership and the state continues to works toward greater electric vehicle infrastructure and reducing carbon emissions from the power sector.

California’s Progress and Promise – Governor Brown, CalEPA Secretary Matt Rodriguez, Assembly Member Cristina Garcia and others have each had speaking engagements at COP 23, and across them all two themes emerge. First, California is leading the way on reducing emissions, cleaning up pollution, and striving for equitable climate policy. But the second theme is that there is much more to do. While celebrating these achievements, the state has further to go de-carbonizing the economy and improving local air quality.

California-Acre Luncheon – One of the most exciting things about COP23 is the opportunity to build connections across countries and cultures on issues of mutual importance. The California Legislative Delegation had the opportunity for lunch with the delegation from the state of Acre, Brazil. They discussed deforestation and its impact on the climate and local communities, as well the need for global partnerships to go further and faster stopping climate change.

2018 Global Climate Action Summit – Want your own COP-like experience? Governor Brown invited attendees to join him and sub-national leaders from around the world at the 2018 Climate Summit in San Francisco! Described as the “COP for subnationals,” one key goal is to establish a San Francisco agreement on sub-national climate action. Businesses, cities, states, investors, and civil society will explore how much more we can do together on climate action, learn from each other, and build positive momentum for COP 24 in Poland.

It is clear from these announcements and conversations (not to mention Governor Brown’s rock star status at COP 23) that the leadership of California is more critical than ever. This is especially true now that the United States is the sole country opposing the Paris Agreement, now that Syria and Nicaragua have joined the agreement.

California’s role as climate champion, success in reducing greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining economic prosperity, and concerted efforts for greater climate equity are all stories we are proud to be sharing with the rest of the world.

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