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Boosting International Action on Climate Change: Over 130 Options as a Start

This post was written in collaboration with Kevin McCall.

Despite the urgency of the climate challenge, emissions are still on the rise, and countries’ pledges to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions still fall short, in aggregate, of what science suggests is necessary.

So what more can we do to bridge this ambition gap?

Ahead of COP17 in Durban, WRI and UNEP, with the support of the Government of Ireland, released an analysis that seeks to answer this question. The paper reviews proposals from governments, academics, and NGOs on the design of the “climate regime” – the set of institutions at the international, national, and sub-national level involved in addressing climate change. While we did not endorse or rank proposals, we reviewed them based on the criteria of adequacy, equity, and implementation.

WRI and UNEP hosted two initial events in Dublin and Washington D.C. to discuss how to turn some of these ideas into action.

A recurring theme among the panelists’ presentations was that despite important advances, pledges put forward by Parties to the UNFCCC to date remain insufficient to ensure the worst effects of climate change are avoided.

Phil Hogan, Minister for the Environment, Community, and Local Government for the government of Ireland, reaffirmed that there is no real alternative to the UNFCCC process, but that Parties have thus far failed to invest the ambition that is required in their pledges under the Convention. Nick Nuttall, spokesperson for UNEP, argued that the time has come for an “all hands on deck” approach, and that the paper provides an excellent overview of the rich landscape of ideas inside and outside of the UNFCCC that can provide pathways to boost such ambition globally. Professor John Sweeney from the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, highlighted the importance of the paper in outlining alternative trajectories and complementary pathways that can be leveraged to encourage international climate mitigation.

In Washington, D.C., Amy Fraenkel, Director, UNEP Regional Office for North America, spoke of the need for countries to consider all options available, and drew particular attention to the advances that can be made sub-nationally at the city or state level, where well-planned climate policies can benefit the economy, citizen livelihood, and public well-being. Jennifer Morgan, the Director of WRI’s Climate and Energy Program noted that two visions of the climate regime were in opposition and that the decisions in Durban would likely determine the future of the regime and lead us either towards a top-down or a bottom-up system. Maria del Socorro Flores Liera (from the Government of Mexico but speaking in her personal capacity) drew upon her extensive experience with the UNFCCC process to address the harsh political realities that go hand-in-hand with the negotiations. She pointed out that climate change is more than an environmental problem, and requires the cooperation of a diverse range of actors across economic interests. Despite difficult political realities, she noted that there appears to be change happening on the ground and that countries were developing and implementing concrete actions.

During the discussion, participants discussed ways to catalyze the action that is happening on the ground, for example by helping people and governments realize that the costs of inaction outweigh those of immediate and ambitious climate policy implementation.

In sum, many institutions and actors can play a part in the broader climate regime. The proposals reviewed in the paper show that we can take an all-hands-on-deck approach in which the UNFCCC and other actors work in tandem based on their respective strengths. We need to move the conversation from ‘we are not doing enough’ to ‘how can we do more collectively’. These options take us one step closer, and negotiators in Durban can begin to consider and act upon them.

Options identified in the review

  1. Options under the UNFCCC to Increase Ambition: Within the UNFCCC, new approaches could involve reducing the emissions of additional greenhouse gases, including additional sectors, and strengthening accounting rules for emissions and emission reductions. Utilizing tools within the UNFCCC can be beneficial because they minimize duplication and implementation costs while facilitating trust-building. However, other complementary options should also be considered.
  2. Options outside the UNFCCC to Increase Ambition: Beyond the UNFCCC process, approaches include multilateral, plurilateral, bilateral, and domestic strategies. These approaches could mobilize actors around shared interests like development, trade, human rights, and energy or food security. While new strategies can generate greater ambition, care should be taken not to undermine existing processes or create inefficiencies.
  3. Sharing the Mitigation Effort Under the UNFCCC: Various proposals could be used to allocate responsibility to bridge the gap between the current level of effort to reduce GHG emissions and the scientific recommendations. Possible approaches include dividing mitigation efforts based on countries’ capacity or based on countries’ contribution to the problem. Setting a global carbon budget would help ensure that the climate regime meets the adequacy standard, but it could be difficult to implement new allocations for emission obligations.
  4. The Role of Various Actors in Tracking Country Performance on Mitigation: Monitoring progress made by countries individually and in aggregate is an essential function of the climate regime. Harmonized accounting, reporting, and verification standards are fundamental to track such progress. Two options are to use tools within the UNFCCC or outside the UNFCCC. The paper discusses both options in detail.
  5. The Legal Form of a Future Climate Agreement: The issue of legally binding commitments is central to the debates ahead of Durban. The paper presents multiple options for climate negotiators: to proceed without new, legally-binding commitments; to commit to achieving new, legally-binding commitments immediately; or to strengthen the components of legal character over time to achieve new, legally-binding commitments as soon as possible.

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