International climate negotiators meeting last week in Geneva, Switzerland, started their journey toward establishing a new international climate agreement in Paris at the end of the year. As in the early stages of the Tour de France, they focused on getting their feel for the road. It was a positive start, with a constructive tone to it. Yet much of the road—including some likely mountain passes—still lies ahead.
Here are some of the key takeaways from the Geneva talks:
A Constructive Discussion: As I noted before the Geneva session began, two new co-chairs, Ahmed Djoghlaf of Algeria and Dan Reifsnyder of the United States, took on their role facilitating the negotiations. Although there were occasional bumps in the road, the co-chairs succeeded in creating an open atmosphere in the negotiating room. By inviting countries to share all of the language they would like to see in the negotiating text for a climate agreement, the co-chairs ensured that all parties felt their voices were heard. The text grew in length as a result, but the sense of constructive engagement was far more important than the increased number of pages. Now negotiators must draw on that reservoir of good will as they take on the task of honing and focusing that negotiating text, which will now form the basis for the next round of talks to be held in June in Bonn.
A Focus on Increasing Ambition Over Time: The concept of “cycles of action”—regular intervals at which countries will ramp up their domestic climate action plans on a predictable schedule, such as every five years—became a focal point in the negotiations. The question was no longer whether to have these cycles—there is a rapidly emerging consensus that they are essential. Instead, countries discussed the details about how the cycles would be structured, and exactly what they would address. How often should the commitments be scaled up? What kind of review process should occur around such commitments? Should there be a support cycle for adaptation as well as for mitigation? If so, how should they inform each other?
Support for a Long-Term Emissions Goal: More countries also joined in support for a specific long-term mitigation trajectory in the agreement that would reflect the goal of keeping global average temperature rise below 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F). In Geneva, the European Union made clear its support for a phase-out of greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the century. Some African countries also expressed support for a long-term mitigation goal, though only initially for developed countries. To address these countries’ concerns, a phased approach to implementing a globally applicable goal may be needed, along with capacity building and financial support for implementation.
Next Steps: Submitting the “INDCs” and Focusing the Agreement
Perhaps most important, negotiators and other policymakers went home from Geneva with a critical task at hand– developing their countries’ national climate action plans, known as intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs). The United States, European Union, Norway and Switzerland are expected to submit their INDCs by the end of March, while other countries—including Japan, China, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa and India—will likely do so over the following months.
One key question discussed during the Geneva negotiations was whether countries’ commitments should be for 2020-2025, 2020-2030 or some combination. South Africa, Brazil and a number of Latin American countries supported a hybrid approach—countries would commit to a mitigation target for 2025 while also submitting an “indicative” target for 2030. It will be important that all countries use the same dates in their INDCs in order to create internationally comparable plans.
Meanwhile, a number of developing countries made clear their plans to include adaptation in their INDCs or submit a separate INDC for adaptation. This creates an opportunity for countries to describe the national processes they are putting in place to assess vulnerability and develop adaptation and climate resilience plans, enabling the international community to draw on lessons learned to build more effective approaches to adaptation globally.
Countries left Geneva with some momentum on their ride toward Paris, but there is still tricky terrain ahead. The next stop along the journey will be the Bonn negotiations in June. The key task will be significantly paring down the negotiating text, focusing and honing in on crucial elements. Negotiators will have to approach this meeting and the subsequent negotiations with their sights set clearly on their destination—an ambitious, effective outcome in Paris.