Nations gathering this week in Katowice, Poland, for the annual UN climate negotiations are working to conclude a set of rules that will chart the course for implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement. Although greeted with great fanfare in 2015, the Paris Agreement left many operational details for subsequent negotiation. These seemingly arcane details — the subject matter of the ongoing negotiations — are crucial for delivering on the promise of the Paris Agreement. And, success at the Katowice conference will depend on how well states craft these operational details.
The Paris Agreement — centred on “nationally determined contributions” — relies on elements that comprise an “ambition cycle” to incentivise progressively ambitious contributions over time. The design of the Paris Agreement is premised on the idea that nationally determined contributions from all states, however weak these may initially be, are preferable to stringent commitments solely for developed countries.
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol contained internationally negotiated greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation targets for developed countries, covering 24 per cent of global emissions in its first commitment period and 12 per cent in its second. The Paris Agreement, on the other hand, has elicited contributions from states representing 99 per cent of emissions. These targets are, for now, inadequate to meet the “well below 2°C” temperature goal the Paris Agreement identifies. Indeed, the UN climate secretariat estimates that current contributions place the planet on a 2.6°C to 3.2°C pathway.
This initial shortfall, however, is to be expected given the design of the Paris Agreement. These inadequate contributions will, if the promise of the Paris Agreement comes to fruition, be scaled up over time. First, because elements of the Paris Agreement’s “ambition cycle” will generate the pressure and momentum necessary to scale up ambition. And, second because states will “learn by doing” and create the policy environment, epistemic communities and institutional architecture to trigger and implement ever-more ambitious contributions, and shift investment patterns.
At Katowice, states are expected to flesh out elements of the Paris Agreement’s ambition cycle. This ambition cycle includes a series of provisions that require them to submit increasingly ambitious contributions every five years, provide accompanying information necessary to ensure the contributions are clear, comprehensible and transparent, and submit information to track progress in implementing them. In addition, these provisions create a “global stock take” process to assess collective progress towards the purpose of the Agreement, and a compliance and implementation mechanism to facilitate states in implementing and achieving their contributions.
There are many open questions in relation to this ambition cycle. For instance: What form should nationally determined contributions take or what information should accompany it? States currently enjoy tremendous discretion on these, reflected in the breath-taking variety of contributions on display, and information accompanying them. Of the 180 nationally determined contributions submitted under the Paris Agreement, about a third are absolute economy-wide GHG mitigation targets, 45 per cent reflect a deviation from business as usual, 20 per cent are policies and actions, and 4 per cent are emissions intensity targets (including India’s). The reference points for these targets vary — for instance, the EU has committed to a 40 per cent domestic reduction in GHG emissions by 2030 compared to 1990, while Australia has committed to a 26 to 28 per cent reduction below 2005 levels by 2030. The scope and coverage of greenhouse gases also varies — while most include carbon dioxide, and many include methane, only some include other gases. Moreover, several contributions are conditional — for instance, on the use of market mechanisms or on the availability of support (such as India’s). All these variations make it challenging to aggregate the efforts of countries, assess how individual countries are doing, and compare them to each other.
There is thus a clear need to assert some discipline through an agreed rulebook. The rules could, for instance, require states to provide quantifiable contributions. It could list the informational elements that must accompany a contribution, and elaborate information relevant to how a state considers its contribution, “fair and ambitious, in light of its national circumstances,” of particular concern to India. Currently, “fairness and ambition” narratives presented by states are self-determined, largely unsubstantiated and entirely self-serving. A whole host of other such possibilities exist in the ongoing negotiations to strengthen the climate change regime, fill its gaps, and take equity and differentiation into account, issues of particular interest to India.
The Katowice conference comes in the wake of the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, characterised by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as “an ear-splitting wake-up call to the world’. The report underscores the catastrophic climate impacts likely beyond a temperature rise of 1.5°C, as well as the need for rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented transitions and deep GHG reductions across sectors. Meanwhile, the 2018 UNEP Gap Report released this week highlights the radical inadequacy of current contributions.
In this context, it is tempting to judge the Paris Agreement solely on the strength of its current commitments, and the Katowice conference on the extent to which it extracts stronger ones. However, it is worth keeping in mind the entirety of the Paris regime, the political imperatives that shaped it, and the dynamic processes that it has and will continue to unleash within nations around the world.
Although the Paris Agreement’s prosaic processes and procedures have limited headline-grabbing potential, they may well have the ability, if well crafted, to quietly deliver on the promise of the Agreement. Nations have the opportunity at Katowice to negotiate a robust Rulebook to encourage ambitious climate actions, catalyse increasing levels of support, generate accountability and facilitate implementation. It remains to be seen how well they will do this.