US submits views on future climate agreement

by nathan thanki

Since the Durban round of UN climate talks in 2011, governments have been struggling towards an eventual global agreement to address climate change (ideally, some say they’re just negotiating the establishment of more markets). The negotiation process, named the “ADP” (the D stands for Durban) is mandated to conclude in Paris in December 2015 with some kind of outcome. The exact language is a feat of amazing creative ambiguity: the ADP is meant to conclude with “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.”

Todd Stern of the USA

So far the negotiations have not gone well, with fundamental ideological differences being masked over by procedural fights. The most recent meeting in Warsaw didn’t result in any great progress, mostly making vague references to prior vague commitments. The Warsaw outcome mentions for the first time “nationally determined contributions” to reducing GHG emissions, reflecting a step away from a global budget approach (whereby we say that the supposedly “safe” temperature increase of 2 degrees could only be achieved if we emit X amount of carbon, and the game is to then decide who can emit what share) to a “pledge and review” approach (Whereby countries “pledge” to do what is “nationally appropriate” given their circumstances).

Generally, the text had weaker operative language than the original Convention text from 1992. There was no call to increase ambition, as there had been in previous outcomes. But with the next session coming up early March, the US decided to submit their views.

The 11 page document outlines what the US wants from the ADP talks. It’s structured to give a general sense of what that is, and is then organised by sections which detail what the US wants to be included in the agreed text, which they see as adopting the following order: the preamble; a section on definitions; sections on mitigation, adaptation, and finance; institutional provisions; and final clauses. A quick look at those sections gives us an insight into the Obama admin’s likely approach to the Paris summit at the end of next year (although so do the recent NSA leaks).

The US say that the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” (CBDR/RC) will “continue to apply to future efforts under Convention” but reiterate their notion that the meaning of CBDR/RC must change. This is in line with the excuse they’ve successfully been using for decades–that they, the world’s only superpower, will not lift a finger on climate change unless their economic competitors are legally bound to as well. They “will not support a bifurcated approach” as it is “untenable.” I’m assuming that means any talk of keeping the UNFCCC’s “annexes” (a legal distinction between historically pollutant developed countries, and the developing nations) of countries is out the window. The submissions also includes “mitigation opportunities” as one of the factors that should be considered when differentiating between nations. So if the US says that it doesn’t have much “mitigation opportunity” because its population doesn’t want to reduce their consumption, then its “national contribution” would be lower. The submissions goes on to say that “the agreement will be a component of the larger package” in Paris, making it concise and without the need to re-open (and also presumably making it extremely vague) because somehow that will promote ambition.

Describing what they would like in the preamble of the 2015 agreement text, the US has suggested saying that “Parties were guided by the principles of the Convention as applied to the post-2020 period,” meaning that we’re negotiating based on what might possibly happen in the future to the emissions of a country, rather than what the current state is or what has happened historically.

The US submissions includes 6 points on “mitigation.” The first is that all Parties should have a “schedule” “reflecting their contribution to the global effort to limit GHGs, contributions being, of course, “nationally determined” to take into account all factors said Party thinks relevant. There would be a “common timeframe” for contributions, and they would be specific (quantified) rather than qualifiable, BUT “schedules may include more than one mitigation contribution, for example, a hard cap in one sector with emissions that are easy to project, an intensity target in another sector, and policies in a third”. They also say that the contributions “will not be conditional on external support,” which goes against the grain in terms of what developing countries have been demanding in international negotiations for years. The second point is that accompanying the “schedules” would be more information (Parties are going to figure out what kind of information beforehand), including a base year of measurement, a time period over which to reduce, the various sectors covered by reductions, and the % of national emissions covered. Also, a Party would have to mention what kind of market mechanisms they’re using and say how they’d avoid double counting. Thirdly, the US suggests a periodic reporting on the efforts “based on a single system with built in flexibility.” The fourth point pertains to accounting of GHG: the requirements, in the US view, should be applicable to all. The fifth point, concerning reviews, says that a single system should be used. The last element of the mitigation section focused on what work needs to be done before the agreement is even made. In the US view, all Parties should set forth nationally determined contributions, along with clarifying information, so that other Parties can analyse, and the Party can then “adjust” their contributions (one would hope only upwards… but adjust means either way).

As the legal nature of the agreement is still an open question, the US ventures a few options in the submission. They assume that “certain elements set forth above will be internationally legally binding,” including that a Party maintain a specific commitment in a schedule, provide clarifying info, report on implementation, follow accounting provisions, and go through review, but also note that not all elements of agreement have to be international law. Other options include having contributions which are not legally binding at international level, or having them still not be legally binding, but emphasize domestic measures.

Regarding adaptation the submissions maintains a focus on mainstreaming adaptation into national planning; assessments of impacts; vulnerability; strengthening “enabling environments” (attracting private investment); and measuring, reporting, and verifying (MRV). There is a general emphasis on strengthening links to the private sector.

When it comes to finance, the US submission makes some dubious and contested claims about the history of climate finance. It goes on the point out that more attention is now paid to the private sector (by the US, Canada, Australia, Japan in particular) and parenthetically says that “the Copenhagen goal acknowledges the role of private sector finance by calling for mobilization rather than provision of funds.” The suggestions in the submission include making more requirements on MRV (saying that the $100b is “expressly linked to transparency, in addition to mitigation”) and taking steps to attract investment.

Finally, the submission indicted concern over textual provisions regarding amendments to the agreement, especially around the “trigger” that would make the agreement enter into force. The US wants it to be “just right” in terms of inclusivity.

How all of this will play out in the long run is unclear–magic 8 balls remain undecided when it comes to climate politics–but the US is the first to play their hand in terms of submitting proposals to the process. We’ll be in Bonn next month to report on the consequences, confrontations, and calamity of the next ADP round.

  1. Surya Karki

    What do you mean by the magic 8 balls?

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