Last week, International climate negotiators started their journey toward establishing a new international climate agreement.
After two weeks of difficult negotiations and a nail-biting finale, delegates in Lima laid the groundwork for a successful international climate agreement in Paris next year.
This paper reviews past practice in the UNFCCC and examines some of the most promising options to improve the effectiveness of the UNFCCC.
Delegates at the April UNFCCC intersessional in Bonn, Germany made some encouraging progress. As negotiators gather again this week, it’s important that they build on this progress and take action on two key topics: raising ambition, and establishing core elements of the 2015 international climate action agreement.
Indeed, there’s an even greater sense of urgency since delegates met for the April intersessional. The world crossed a perilous and alarming threshold, with atmospheric carbon dioxide levels exceeding 400 ppm, a level that has not been experienced in at least 800,000 years and possibly not for millions of years. Plus, this may be the last intersessional before COP 19 in Warsaw in November. Negotiators must move forward on raising ambition and establishing the 2015 Agreement if COP 19 is to have a successful outcome.
Raising Ambition Now
The need for countries to make more ambitious emissions-reduction commitments remains self-evident—even more so, now that the world has exceeded 400 ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide. In Bonn, negotiators are set to focus on the transformation of the energy system.
A slight breath of fresh air entered the UNFCCC climate negotiations this week in Bonn, Germany. Held in the old German parliament—which was designed to demonstrate transparency and light—the meeting took on a more open feel than the past several COPs and intersessionals.
Instead of arguing over the agenda, negotiators got down to work, discussing ways to ramp up countries’ emissions-reduction commitments now and move toward a 2015 international climate action agreement. Reaching these two goals is imperative. It was encouraging to hear delegates make progress across three key issues involved in achieving them:
1) "Spectrum of Commitments"
This idea—put forward by the United States—is that every country should determine its own national “contribution” to curbing global climate change and present it to the international community. A “spectrum” of various commitments would thus emerge, which could be included in some sort of formal agreement.
It’s been almost four months since the last UNFCCC negotiations in Doha, Qatar (COP 18). Countries decided in Doha to finalize the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, wrap up a series of decisions on the Bali Action Plan, and outline a plan to establish an international climate agreement by 2015. Countries will gather this week in Bonn, Germany, for the first formal conversations since the Doha meeting.
This week’s intersessional is a low key, but important session. Negotiators will discuss two critical issues: How to substantially step-up the level of ambition by countries, companies, cities, and civil society; and how to ensure a strong international climate agreement by 2015. Progress on these two issues could bring the world one step closer to strong, international action to curb climate change.
The final decision by all countries at COP 17 in Durban recognized that current GHG-reduction pledges are not adequate to keep global average temperature below 2 degrees C (the limit science says is necessary to prevent climate change’s most disastrous impacts). In Bonn, experts will put forth new ideas on how to ratchet up ambition in the short-term. Country representatives will also highlight best practices and success stories, in particular, the role that land use could play for enhanced mitigation and adaptation policies.
This piece was co-authored with Tara Shine, head of research and development at the Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice.
We recently travelled to Santiago, Chile, a sprawling city of six million people just beyond the Andes. Our purpose was to attend the first sub-regional workshop of the Climate Justice Dialogue, a new initiative led by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Mary Robinson Foundation—Climate Justice (MRFCJ). But before we even made it inside the conference center, we were confronted by a poignant, real-life example of climate justice.
Upon arrival in Santiago, a taxi took us to a charming and quirky family-owned hotel. As we were welcomed at the concierge desk, we were surprised to find Chile’s Second National Communication among the tourist books and magazines.
National communications are reports submitted by countries to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). They provide scientific information about national climate mitigation and adaptation measures, as well as project proposals that help increase a country’s resilience to the impacts of climate change. They’re important documents for climate negotiators and policymakers because they hold countries accountable for their commitments under the UNFCCC. They are not, however, something you would expect to find as recommended tourist literature.
We asked the hotel owner why he displayed this document so prominently . He responded with a wise smile, “Because it is important.” He then explained how climate change is already affecting Chile’s tourism industry: The retreat of Andean glaciers affects the availability of freshwater for irrigation and domestic use, mountain recreation, and for the animals and plants that depend on glacier-melt for survival. It also makes the glaciers—as well as the related fauna and flora—less accessible to tourists, affecting his revenue. He also expressed his concern over the inadequate response to climate change from the international community, the national government, and a Chilean middle class that’s engaging in unsustainable consumption patterns. He concluded that climate change is part of Chile’s current and future reality, and therefore should matter to anyone who cares about his country—including tourists.
After a year of extreme weather events and recent studies outlining climate change’s impacts, it’s become increasingly clear that we must understand what emissions reduction pathways are necessary to avoid these risks. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) last Assessment Report, for example, outlined the emissions reductions needed from developed countries to stabilize concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG) consistent with limiting warming to 2°C. Further research has continued to examine the global GHG emissions reductions necessary to avert dangerous climate change. And as countries implement existing policies and consider new ones, the scale of required emissions cuts is a fundamental question. In fact, it’s one of the most pressing questions facing the international climate change community.
One new study shows that we have to reduce emissions even more than scientists initially thought in order to avoid climate change’s worst impacts. A paper published in Energy Policy on February 20th by Michel den Elzen and colleagues examines new information on likely future emissions trajectories in developing countries. This includes recent clarification of assumptions and conditions related to developing country pledges. In addition, countries have also come forward with further information on their emissions projections. As a result, the report finds that developed countries must reduce their emissions by 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 if we are to have a medium chance of limiting warming to 2°C, thus preventing some of climate change’s worst impacts.
This level of reductions is considerably higher than what the scientific community thought was necessary to meet the 2°C goal. The most recent IPCC Fourth Assessment Report laid out a recipe for a medium chance[^1] of limiting warming to 2°C. This report—compiled by the world’s leading climate scientists—stated that developed countries would have to reduce their emissions by 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and developing country emissions would have to be reduced substantially from their business-as-usual emissions trajectories.
I spent the recent U.N. climate negotiations in Doha trying to reconcile two injustices. The first is captured by Nicholas Stern’s “brutal arithmetic.” This is the simple, unavoidable fact that bold greenhouse gas emissions reductions will be needed from all countries to hold global temperature increase to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, thus preventing climate change’s most dangerous impacts. Developing nations, many of which are battling crippling poverty and inequality at home, are being told that the traditional, high-carbon pathway to prosperity is off-limits, and that they, too, will need to embrace aggressive mitigation actions. This is a glaring injustice – the product of two decades of missed opportunities in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), inadequate domestic action in industrialized countries, and substantial geopolitical changes in major emerging economies.
But the second injustice is even greater – one that is manifest and which must be avoided. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has illustrated, breaching the 2°C threshold would seriously degrade vital ecosystems and the communities who depend on them. This, itself, is an issue of justice, as climate change undermines the realization of human rights, including the right to food, health, an adequate standard of living, and even the right to life. Those same developing countries who are home to the poorest and most vulnerable members of our global community—and who are now compelled to act on reducing emissions—will be hit first and hardest by climate change’s impacts.