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COP17 and the Periodic Review: Putting Ambition Back at the Heart of the UNFCCC

Are our current efforts to avert dangerous climate change, safeguard the development aspirations of vulnerable communities, and catalyze the transition to a low-carbon future sufficient? One of the key results from last year’s climate talks in Cancun was the decision to periodically review collective efforts to stabilize the climate and prevent global average temperatures from reaching 2°C above preindustrial levels. At COP17 in Durban negotiators will be tasked with finalizing the scope, modalities, and other design elements of the first so-called Periodic Review, which is scheduled to take place between 2013 and 2015. With careful design this often-overlooked product of Cancun could inject urgency and purpose into the negotiations once more. Almost 20 years ago Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) identified as their ultimate objective the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” But what constitutes dangerous climate change? Since then a succession of international declarations have identified global average temperature increases of 2°C above preindustrial levels as the crucial tipping point.1 The Cancun Agreements recognize that greenhouse gas emissions reductions should be geared toward meeting this goal. However, growing evidence suggests that an array of ecosystem services will be breached before the warming reaches 2°C, resulting in substantial impacts on jobs, food, homes, and livelihoods. While this is a global concern, the specific vulnerabilities of small island developing states and least developed countries ensures that addressing the adequacy of the long-term stabilization goal is of particular importance to them.

As a result, the Periodic Review’s first goal will be to consider strengthening the long-term goal to 1.5°C. There is an emerging consensus that the Review should assess the overall aggregated effect of emissions reductions by Parties, the adequacy of current financial commitments and transfer of technology and capacity-building to developing countries, and the adequacy of efforts to build resilience in vulnerable countries. While some Parties have suggested using the Review to assess the Convention itself, this particular view has not gained a great deal of support.

What can be achieved in Durban?

In Durban, Parties should move beyond discussions of scope to determine which inputs should be used to inform the Review. The Cancun Agreements state that the best available scientific knowledge, including the assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), should underpin the Review. A number of Parties believe that the IPCC information should be supplemented with data from national communications, biennial reports, and international analysis and review. There are also strong arguments for considering socio-economic and demographic data drawn from a wider range of UN agencies and including information from peer-reviewed scientific journals. Negotiators should also agree to provide a facility to draw upon the views of civil society, local authorities, and the full range of vulnerable and marginalized groups, to ensure that observed climate impacts also feature in the Review.

In addition to finalizing the range of inputs, Durban should finalize questions on the actual process of the Review. Some Parties argue for creation of a large technical body composed of government representatives, whereas others suggest that the task could be assigned to the UNFCCC Secretariat with assistance drawn from a roster of experts. A third group feels it is important that the process be anchored in the existing Subsidiary Bodies. A potential compromise could be a hybrid approach whereby a small technical body, appointed by the Executive Secretary following nominations from Parties, would conduct the technical phase of the Review in 2013/14 before handing over to a political body in 2015 to determine recommendations for COP at the end of that year.

The dispute on which body should oversee the Review may be the largest stumbling block. It is important to draw a clear line between the technical and operational aspects of the Review. Gathering and assessing the “best available scientific knowledge” as called for in the Cancun Agreements should not become hostage to politics. There will be adequate time for the Parties to reflect upon the findings of the Review and determine how these findings should shape the process beyond 2015. At the very least, Parties in Durban need to confirm the timing for this process. The first Review should start in 2013 and be concluded by 2015. Sticking to this schedule is crucial. If coupled with the 5th Assessment Report of the IPCC, due for release in late 2014, this Review could open a new window of opportunity for effective, equitable, and ambitious climate policy.

If these issues cannot be resolved by the end of the COP, the likely compromise will be to convene an expert meeting or workshop in Spring 2012 to forge the necessary common ground.

How do we ensure that actions in Durban and throughout the wider international climate regime are adequate for dealing with the long-term and growing threat of climate change? This question is the bedrock upon which the international climate regime is built and ought to be the benchmark of success for the UNFCCC for the coming decade. In recent years there have been times when we have seemed to ignore the health of the climate in order to check the pulse of the process. As the science strengthens, and the impacts of climate change become more acute, the Periodic Review provides a timely opportunity to reinject urgency and ambition into the negotiations.

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