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From Copenhagen To Cancun: Formalizing Emission Reduction Pledges

Three options for formalizing Copenhagen Accord pledges in Cancún.

A key question that must be answered in the next round of climate talks in Cancún will be what to do, if anything, with the pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that countries made in the lead-up to Copenhagen and which were then incorporated into the Copenhagen Accord.

That Accord was "taken note" of by the UNFCCC and later 138 countries associated with the Accord. However, "taking note of" does not have the same formal quality as a Conference of the Parties (COP) decision or certainly that of a Kyoto Protocol target, and so those pledges formally still remain outside of the UNFCCC.

The backdrop to this piece of the puzzle is highly complex. Developed countries that are part of the Kyoto Protocol (the EU, Japan, Russia, Australia, New Zealand and Canada) have been negotiating now for years about whether there will be a second commitment period to the Protocol and if so, what their new targets should be

Adding to the confusion, major countries like the United States that are not part of the Kyoto Protocol, as well as developing countries that made pledges in Copenhagen, do not have anywhere to "place" those pledges.

What negotiators decide to do with the Copenhagen pledges in Cancún touches on the future of the Kyoto Protocol, the legal form of the outcome that will arise out of the other negotiating track (the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Collective Action (LCA), and the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” which is of great importance to developing countries.

As far as how to formalize the pledges, here are three potential options:

  1. All Kyoto Parties (developed and developing) could formalize their Copenhagen pledges within the Kyoto Protocol either through a decision or by an amendment or set of amendments to the Kyoto Protocol. The United States would then formalize its pledge under the UNFCCC either as part of a future legally binding instrument or as a decision.

  2. Developed country Kyoto Protocol Parties could formalize their Copenhagen pledges by adopting them as amendments to the Kyoto Protocol. All other Parties could formalize their pledges under the UNFCCC either as an amendment or as a set of decisions. If amendments are adopted to both instruments then there is parity of legal nature. If one adopts an amendment and the other decisions then those in the amendment instrument are under a "more" legally binding international instrument.

  3. All Parties formalize Copenhagen pledges under the UNFCCC and none do under the Kyoto Protocol. This formalization could take the form (in order of least to most formal and internationally binding) of "taking note" of the pledges, a decision that formalizes the pledges in one or two decisions or an amendment to the UNFCCC that would have to be ratified.

It is also very important to note that the current pledges on the table are far less than what the science calls for. WRI analysis found that the developed country pledges added up only to 12 - 18% reductions below 1990 levels by 2020 below what the IPCC found is consistent with staying below 2 degrees C (25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020).

It is therefore vital that whatever option Parties choose to formalize the pledges, there is a mechanism in place to strengthen the pledges as soon as possible and a formal science review put in place that is completed no later than 2015, optimally earlier.

In addition, it is very unclear what the pledges actually contain. How many offsets are included for developed countries? What are business-as-usual emissions levels (BAU) for each of the developing country pledges? A process to clarify these questions should be put in place in order to provide transparency around the pledges moving forward.

Some other core questions wrapped up in this discussion to be aware of:

  • How binding will the option negotiators choose be?: Will they adopt “decisions” (less internationally binding) or “amendments” (more internationally binding) to resolve this issue?

  • Will the mitigation pledges between instruments (Kyoto Protocol and UNFCCC) and between Parties have legal parity? For instance, the United States has stated that it is looking for legal parity between itself and China In response, China is noting the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.

  • Will there be progress towards "an agreed outcome" under the LCA track? Will they decide in Cancún to negotiate a legally binding instrument in the future or just an “agreed outcome? Will there be an end date to that negotiation?

  • What type of accounting, measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) systems will be associated with the pledges for developed and developing countries?

Since there are so many core questions wrapped up in this mitigation basket it is likely that formalizing the pledges will be one of the last issues resolved. However, it does go to the core of the "balanced package" that many Parties are calling for and therefore needs to be resolved in Cancún.

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