As the latest UN climate negotiations finally drew to a close this weekend in Katowice, Poland, negotiators finalised a new set of rules to operationalise the 2015 Paris Agreement, as well as a year-long “Talanoa Dialogue”, focused on finding new ways to enhance action and ambition. While doing so, the international community also hoped to send an urgent political signal, given the dire warnings in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report on 1.5°C and the 2018 UNEP Gap Report, highlighting just how far states are from this temperature goal.
Although deep political divisions muted the Katowice signal, negotiators did indeed deliver the bulk of the rules to operationalise the Paris Agreement — a significant diplomatic achievement in the current geo-political context. Particularly with the US’s announced withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and hearty embrace of coal, and, the newly-elected Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s equivocation on the agreement and withdrawal of its offer to host next year’s conference. While the rules on markets remain out of reach for now and the rules in general could have been more robust, the basic rules needed to implement the Paris Agreement are now in place.
The Katowice rules will perform several important functions. First, they seek to instil discipline in a process governed by “national determination”. Under the Paris Agreement, states have complete autonomy on the nature and type of climate actions they choose to take, subject to the expectation that they represent a progression on past actions. However, the rules now require them to provide detailed information of their actions. If states have absolute economy-wide targets, they need to provide quantifiable information on their reference points for measurements, the gases covered, their planning processes, assumptions and methodological approaches, how they consider their contribution as fair and ambitious, and how it contributes to the objective of the regime.
Second, the rules flesh out the obligations of states identified in the Paris Agreement, and make them meaningful. For instance, the Paris Agreement contained a general obligation for developed countries to report biennially on their provision and mobilisation of climate finance. The rules identify 15 specific pieces of information that states should submit in these reports, including “projected levels of public financial resources to be provided to developing countries”.
Third, the rules operationalise the key processes established by the Paris Agreement — a transparency framework, a “global stocktake” and a compliance regime — that seek to impose accountability and facilitate implementation. The transparency framework requires states to report on indicators for measuring progress in achieving their targets, which is significant as the Paris Agreement does not impose a binding obligation on states to achieve their targets. More broadly, the transparency rules phase in uniform reporting requirements on developed and developing countries in 2024, something India had consistently opposed. In deference to the concerns of developing countries, the rules allow developing countries to self-determine the reporting flexibility they need. Developing countries, with capacity constraints, can choose both how often and in what detail to report. They will also be provided support in addressing these capacity constraints.
The rules operationalising the global stocktake include information from a wide variety of sources, including non-state actors, and on the full spectrum of issues including loss and damage, equity and science, to assess collective progress towards the long-term goals of the agreement. Although quantitative indicators to operationalise equity in the global stocktake, advocated by many developing countries, proved unpalatable to developed countries, equity features prominently in the global stocktake. The political headwinds favouring national autonomy having proven impossible to resist, the rules specify that the results of the global stocktake will simply identify challenges and opportunities in relation to action and support. It will not have an “individual focus” and will only include “non-policy prescriptive consideration of collective progress”. Nevertheless, the steady flow of information on the “ambition gap” will generate its own pressure on states. The Talanoa Dialogue, the alarming IPCC 1.5°C Report, and various catastrophic climate events this year, have elicited promises from several countries that they will submit more ambitious actions by 2020.
Finally, the rules operationalising the Paris Agreement’s facilitative compliance and implementation mechanism seek to infuse accountability and facilitate implementation. They permit a compliance committee to consider cases where countries have breached binding procedural obligations. Thus, if a state does not submit a contribution every five years or a developed country does not submit its report on provision of finance, the committee will step in. The committee can also step in if there are significant and persistent inconsistencies in reporting. However, it can do this only with the consent of the state concerned. The committee is empowered to assist the defaulting state in identifying and addressing the challenges to implementation. The committee is also authorised to identify systemic challenges in compliance and implementation faced by many parties, with a view to addressing them.
The Katowice rules — detailed, complex and science-based — seek to instil discipline and accountability in the climate regime. While far from perfect, they strike a fine balance between competing interests, create hooks for all parties to operationalise equity, and privilege the flow of information within the system. It’s now time to take the pressure off the international negotiations to set the rules, and begin the arduous process of following them. With new rules in hand, it’s finally time to begin implementing the Paris Agreement and delivering action on the ground.