Setting the rules: can COP24 deliver on 1.5°C?

Date
11 December 2018

Written by
Claire Fyson

COP 24 is about more than a set of rules. It’s about designing a system that can deliver climate action in line with the IPCC’s clear message: that we must do everything possible to limit warming to 1.5°C, and that we need to act fast. COP24 in Katowice, Poland, is the first time that countries have come together in the wake of SR1.5 to discuss climate change. But will governments listen to the IPCC’s findings and act with the urgency and unity that the report tells us are indispensable for preventing the most dangerous levels of climate change?

©Kiara Worth, IISD

Talanoa Dialogue

First, we can’t talk about increasing climate action without mentioning the Talanoa Dialogue. This process was kicked off at the start of the year to get countries talking about their experiences of climate change and their vision for the future. It is framed around three questions: where are we, where are we going, and how do we get there? At COP 24 ministers will discuss the last question in greater depth, and of course the SR1.5 will be a key input for this

Ultimately the Talanoa Dialogue outcome should help countries as they update their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in 2020. The SR1.5 has made very clear that accelerated near-term action by all countries will be critical for achieving 1.5°C, so the importance of a much more ambitious set of NDCs in 2020 cannot be understated. It’s now up to the Polish Presidency to ensure that the Talanoa Dialogue is included in a COP decision, providing a formal outcome that ties the discussions on ambition that have taken place this year with the need to update the NDCs.

But this is not enough to secure higher levels of climate action. Let’s assume that the Talanoa Dialogue is successful, and that countries update their pledges in 2020. How will we ensure that they will result in faster emissions reductions? This is where the Paris Agreement rule-book comes in. If we don’t have a clear set of rules, assessing national and collective ambition will become very difficult. Worse, we may open the door to countries to conceal low ambition behind complicated and asymmetric accounting rules. So let’s step through some elements of the rule-book that have the greatest implications for climate action.

Guidance for NDCs

The NDCs are, by name, nationally determined. But in Paris countries agreed to develop guidance for the featuresof NDCs, the informationneeded to ensure that mitigation targets are clear, transparent and understandable, and how to accountfor them. If this guidance is not adequate, the NDCs will be very difficult to compare and to aggregate.

Features are the attributes of the NDCs – for example, whether they are economy wide, and whether they represent the highest possible ambition. For a number of countries (such as the Caribbean islands), a mandatory minimum set of features would be critical for bringing the widely differing set of NDCs closer together and for encouraging a shift towards more quantifiable, economy wide targets, for which the level of ambition is easier to track. Without such guidance, it is difficult for governments to know what they should be aiming for as they put their NDCs together.

Accounting rules are used to determine how measured emissions and removals contribute to a target. These are particularly important for the land use, land-use change and forestry sector, where it can be difficult to determine which emissions and removals are human-made, and which are the result of previous activities (i.e. legacy effects). However, poorly designed accounting rules can lead to hot air, asymmetric accounting (i.e. accounting that does not match what the atmosphere sees), or emissions going uncounted. This has been a big problem under the Kyoto Protocol, and has allowed some countries to use land sector credits generated from complex accounting rules to conceal a lack of ambition elsewhere. Under the Paris Agreement, a robust set of land sector accounting guidance will be essential for closing loopholes and increasing the comparability of NDCs. Worryingly, the current draft guidance has shown little evidence of such a system – a concerning situation as this would severely hamper our ability to monitor ambition. Even more worryingly, the door may be open for Kyoto Protocol countries to roll over surplus credits from their pre-2020 commitments to use towards their first NDCs.

Markets

Market mechanisms are used to achieve cost-effective mitigation by allowing countries to trade emissions reductions. The rules for two such mechanisms are being developed at COP 24, but a key challenge designing a robust market system when each country’s mitigation target (NDC) is different, covering different sectors and gases, and using different metrics and methodologies, which leaves many open questions.

Should trading be limited to emissions reductions or can other metrics be included? Can emissions reductions be included if they do not fall within the scope of an NDC? Should NDCs be adjusted to illustrate that a trade has taken place? And can a market be designed to go beyond just offsetting emissions – to contribute to an Overall Mitigation in Global Emissions (OMGE)? How these questions are answered will determine how effective the Paris Agreement market mechanisms are for achieving realemissions reductions.

Common timeframes

A rather vague instruction from COP 21 in Paris was for countries to “consider common timeframes” of NDCs. There is broad agreement that the time frame of an NDC refers to its implementation period, and the current set of NDCs apply over either 5-year or 10-years, or 10 years with a marker target after 5 years. If all countries could move to a common timeframe, this would facilitate their aggregation and the ratchet-up process.

Some – including the Least Developed Countries – have called for a 5-year timeframe to avoid lock-in of less ambitious mitigation targets and take full opportunity of a rapidly evolving clean technology revolution. Others prefer a longer period for planning and implementing their mitigation policies, while others still would rather choose their own timeframe. It seems that this issue won’t be resolved at COP 24 – a disheartening signal that not all governments take the message of the SR1.5 seriously.

Transparency framework

The prize for the longest draft decision goes to the transparency framework – over 40 pages. This is designed to help countries to show what they are doing to implement the Paris Agreement. For mitigation, the transparency framework includes the reporting of greenhouse gas inventories and the development of indicators to track progress against mitigation targets.

It is a technical topic, but in a world of bottom up action the requirement for countries to report information in a common format, with common metrics, will be crucial for tracking collective progress. The small islands and least developed countries are looking to include loss and damage experienced and support needed to address it, which would signal to the world the need for more ambitious mitigation and more support to the most vulnerable.

Global stocktake

The Paris Agreement acknowledged that the current NDCs do not take us to where we need to be by 2030, hence the design of “ratcheting up” system in which NDCs are regularly aggregated and scrutinised at the global level. At COP 24 countries are agreeing how these so-called “global stocktakes” will work, right down to the details of how long they will last, and what inputs they will draw from. Key questions include how loss and damage – a barometer of global mitigation action – will be included, and whether non-Party stakeholders will be able to contribute.

The efficacy of the global stocktake in measuring and ramping up emission reductions will depend on other rule-book elements, including whether NDC guidance leads to more comparable NDCs, whether near-term NDCs can be effectively updated following each global stocktake, and whether there is sufficient information coming in from the transparency framework to illustrate global progress in bringing emissions down and limiting loss and damage.

COP 24 is about more than a set of rules

All in all, COP 24 will have big ramifications for how quickly we can get on a 1.5°C pathway. With SR1.5 fresh out of the printers and a surge in public awareness about the urgent need to address climate change, 2018 could be a key moment for governments – including Poland – to show the world that they are taking climate science and its calls for urgent, multilateral action seriously.