Climate Conference of Madrid, Spain
Today, I got the opportunity to really jump into the thick of things. I volunteered to attend the ticketed negotiations on APA (Paris Agreement working group) agenda item 7, which were informal consultations on procedures for the committee tasked by Article 15 of the Paris Agreement to facilitate implementation and promote compliance. Here, informal doesn’t mean the ties were any looser or the suits any less expensive, but rather that the negotiations were a little more discussion-like and a little less parliament-ish, with a group of co-facilitators preparing iterations of draft decisions for the Parties to comment on between meeting sessions. All of this may sound a little bland, but this was one of my first opportunities to get to see Parties (again, not as fun as it sounds) actually getting down to business and going over the language that could eventually make it into the final documents produced by the conference.
Article 15 of the Paris Agreement deals with the mechanism that actually gets countries to follow through with their promised contributions to emissions reductions, which is important to ensuring that these goals are actually followed through with, considering the treaty is largely only as legally binding as each state wants it to be. Part of this mechanism operates through an expert-based committee which, although explicitly non-punitive, exists to help countries address issues in the way of compliance with the agreement. The exact methods available to this committee were to be discussed at these negotiations, before my very eyes!
The event was ticketed, with a few tickets distributed per constituency of NGOs, largely because it was scheduled in a smaller room with less space for observers. As such, I had to present my little paper ticket in order to be let into the room, as my yellow observer badge could only get me into so many places where anything fun was happening. I hadn’t been present for some of the other meetings of this working group, but I did follow their work from this point on through my time at the conference. It is a common piece of advice given by COP veterans that in order to get a lot out of your time here, you need to pick a specific aspect of the goings-on and focus on it, since there are about ten events happening at any given time and you won’t get as much in-depth understanding if you’re just sampling around a number of topics. Indeed, everyone you have a conversation with will inevitably ask some form of “so what are you tracking?” This was the first day I really took this advice to heart, and I quickly learned the importance of this focus as Parties started referring to paragraph numbers rather than substance and I got lost in the woods without my own copy of the draft document they were discussing. Because the RINGOs constituency asks that members attending ticketed events submit notes to their website, I did have the opportunity to really get into the weeds on implementation and compliance by finding the draft document on the UNFCCC website and synthesizing the morning’s proceedings into an organized set of notes with the other two observers following this agenda item (who had significantly more expertise than I).
What exactly went on in these meetings anyway? The morning session was focused around three questions that had emerged surrounding the contemporary iteration of the draft document. The first asked whether and how to combine a paragraph requiring the committee to take national capabilities and circumstances into account in identifying measures, findings, and recommendations with a paragraph that laid out other considerations including but not limited to “the legal nature of the provision”, the extent to which capacity contributed to challenges faced by the Party in implementation and compliance, the support received by developing country Parties, and the type, degree, and frequency of failure to meet the obligations laid out in the Paris Agreement. The second asked if the section of the aforementioned paragraph addressing “legal nature” would address the option of having a distinct subset of measures available to the committee specifically applicable to consideration of legally binding provisions. The third asked what specific recommendations the committee would be able to make to other bodies under the paragraph giving it the ability to do so concerning support, finance, technology, and capacity-building for developing country Parties. If you’ve ever discussed a set of three paragraphs for more than two hours, let us know in the comments!
On the first question, the majority of Parties speaking up were content to allow the paragraphs to merge, but St. Kitts & Nevis, New Zealand, the US, Argentina (representing Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay), and Australia insisted that specific language about national capabilities and circumstances be retained. Argentina, Norway, China, Costa Rica (representing the Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean), and Indonesia also recommended that the language be kept within the scope of the Paris Agreement. Mali (representing the African Group), Tuvalu (representing the Least Developed Countries Group), and Canada expressed preference for the paragraphs to maintain separate, although Canada’s main stance was to be less prescriptive at this stage and leave details for a later time or to the discretion of the committee.
On the second question, there was significantly less discussion, with St. Kitts & Nevis and Indonesia expressing few problems with the language of the provision as is. Mali recommended that language be revised to be more in line with the Paris Agreement and the EU, Canada, China, and the US suggested leaving discretion on “legal nature” to Parties, rather than the committee. These four Parties frequently expressed concerns about the committee being given too much power to determine which provisions of the Paris Agreement were legally binding, which, they argued, would take away from the nationally determined and differentiated nature of the responsibilities afforded each state. On the third question, even fewer Parties had anything to say, and it was nearly unanimous that it was premature to discuss this item at all.
At the afternoon session of these meetings, discussion turned more broadly towards the section of the document concerning initiation and process, that is, how the committee could go about discussing issues of implementation and compliance with respect to the performance of specific Parties. Here, each Party went paragraph by paragraph addressing its various concerns, and the co-facilitators called upon Parties in turn with little discussion on each item aside from prepared statements. I won’t go into the details of every paragraph (you can read the final document at the UNFCCC website) but the large part of the discussion was centered around a few important provisions.
The first paragraph attracting a significant amount of attention gave guidelines for the committee’s operation, including respect for existing legal character of Paris Agreement provisions, taking account of national capabilities and circumstances as well as flexibility provided to developing country Parties, and consideration of publicly available information. Costa Rica, St. Kitts & Nevis, Mali, and China expressed special concern about this paragraph maintaining and reinforcing its reference to national capabilities and circumstances and flexibility, especially as afforded to developing countries. On the other hand, the US and Norway urged the deletion of the flexibility measure. The US and other developed countries would repeat their concern in a number of instances at the COP that flexibility measures went too far in terms of bifurcating the responsibilities shared by all countries in reducing emissions, that is, that there should be a more equal set of obligations between developed and developing countries. The provision on publicly available information was assailed as unclear and difficult to implement by China, the EU, Norway, and Saudi Arabia. In addition, the common call to keep the language closer to that of the Paris Agreement was heard from Norway and New Zealand.
A number of countries also took issue with a paragraph requiring the committee to undergo preliminary examination of a Party’s written submission to verify sufficiency of the information provided, relevance to implementation and compliance, and that the submission was not “de minimis” (trivial). This examination is not present in the Paris Agreement and was thus argued to be deleted (by Mali) or clarified (by China, the EU, and the US) or streamlined (by Saudi Arabia). A subsidiary paragraph requiring the Party in question to provide responses to the committee’s questions during this examination was also criticized by numerous countries. Tuvalu and Saudi Arabia emphasized the need for further dialogue of a more facilitative nature between the committee and Party, while China and the US argued for the outright deletion of this section.
As this document was still in its draft stages, some paragraphs came with a set of distinct options for a text where there was a stark lack of consensus in earlier sessions on proposed language. In one such instance of this branching, the paragraph concerning initiation of consideration of issues related to implementation and compliance by the committee met with a good deal of discussion. The options laid out here answered the question of “compliance with what?”: 1) mandatory provisions of the Paris Agreement, 2) legally binding, individual, objectively assessable obligations in the Paris Agreement, on the basis of factual information from publicly available sources, 3) obligation to communicate NDCs, to provide mandatory information, or submit a mandatory progress report, 4) a situation where inconsistencies have been found in reports as identified by technical expert review (TER). I wish I could tell you this story ended with everyone coming to a conclusion together, but that’s the kind of thing that happens in the second week, after I was already back in the States and taking my finals. No, Option 1 had its proponents in St. Kitts & Nevis, China, and Mali; Option 2 was favored by Norway and Costa Rica; Option 3 had shooters in Australia, Norway, and Kazakhstan (although each had some language recommendations); and Option 4 found its home in the hearts of Mali, Costa Rica, Tuvalu, Norway, New Zealand, and Kazakhstan. If you think you’re seeing double, it’s because some countries expressed preference for sets of options rather than just one, which seems about as useful as when everyone in your friend group doesn’t care where you’re going to eat, so you just keep asking until someone admits they only really want to go to the place that everyone else hates but look here you are for the thousandth time because nobody has the AUDACITY to suggest otherwise.
…Where was I? Oh, right: Costa Rica, Tuvalu, Argentina, and St. Kitts & Nevis also wanted a paragraph deleted which required the consent of the Party for the committee to consider an issue relating to that Party’s compliance, because it would undermine the work of the committee to have to ask for permission. This would all be well and good if not for the Party which seemed to very much enjoy undermining climate action: Saudi Arabia, which insisted the paragraph be retained. But hey, that’s Hollywood, baby!
In between these two sessions, I attended a side event organized by the Secretariat of the UNFCCC, titled “2050 Strategies — Planning towards a resilient and prosperous future”, which showcased the efforts of a handful of countries in developing long-term emissions reduction strategies. The first speaker on the panel was Jeanette Mani, the National Communications Project Co-Ordinator in the Climate Change and International Cooperation Division of the Ministry of Economy of Fiji. She emphasized Fiji’s leading role in global climate action, wherein it had been one of the first to ratify the Paris Agreement and submit its first NDC to the UNFCCC registry. Following in these first steps, it was also one of the first to submit its Low-Emissions Development Strategy (LEDS) for 2050, which coupled its emissions reductions to its economic development in a symbiotic way. Fiji’s LEDS consists of sector-specific plans with 5-year targets (coinciding with NDCs) and specific project information for total private-sector decarbonization by 2050. It also addresses projects for enhancing carbon sinks and promoting island resilience (Fiji is naturally one of the most vulnerable countries to sea-level rise) with options for finance and policy programs that will augment this capacity.
Next was Mauro Petriccione, Director General for Climate Action in the European Commission. The EU also has rather ambitious emissions goals, with options ranging from 80% reduction to net zero by 2050, depending on domestic policy action. Petriccione emphasized the compatibility of the existing need for the EU to invest in modernization of its industrial structure and economic model with the need for decarbonization of these same processes and institutions. He addressed a number of economic positives expected to result from transitioning away from fossil fuels, including the conversion of an existing trade deficit to a surplus as imported fossil fuels are replaced with domestic renewables. The areas most important for realizing these outcomes are reduction of energy consumption, by increasing public- and private-sector energy efficiency; improved energy transmission; carbon capture and storage for residual emissions which are more difficult to eliminate; and further research and innovation in scaling up existing technologies for commercial viability. Petriccione’s report placed special emphasis on channeling finance into local use for energy-minded renovation of public works by regional branches of national governments.
Addressing the domestic policy required to meet the EU’s goals, Quentin Deslot, Policy Officer for the Ministry of Ecological and Inclusive Transition in France, gave an overview of the low-carbon strategy being implemented there. It includes sections for sector-specific recommendations and carbon budgeting on the short (five years) and medium (fifteen years) terms. While the French government was in the process of revising this strategy to raise ambition to the level of the European Commission’s goals and to include a new portion of the carbon budget dedicated to sinks, the new version (now released at the time of this writing) was said to address four key pillars of environmental policy: increasing sinks (forests, agricultural lands, carbon capture and storage) sustainably, reducing non-energy emissions (from industry processes, agriculture, waste) to the capacity of sinks, decarbonizing energy production entirely, and decreasing energy consumption by 50% by 2050.
Similar to Fiji, Costa Rica is also working on climate change in conjunction to its economic development efforts. Felipe De León Denegri, Advisor to the Climate Change Director in that country’s Ministry of Environment and Energy, also described a low-emission resilient development strategy, with special emphasis applied to the added word, as adaptation is a key element of facing down climate change for small island nations, which are already dealing with its negative effects. This plan incorporates a number of policy instruments to achieve the goal of sustainable development. First, the decarbonization plan is structured to reconcile the problem of misalignment in timing between NDC submission, which occurs every five years, and the production of domestic government strategic plans, which occurs with the election of new governments in Costa Rica. In addition, there is significant work on modeling efforts that accurately represent decarbonization’s synergistic and codependent effects in the energy and transport sectors. Furthermore, the Costa Rican government is building these efforts on stakeholder engagement which informs scenario-based policy-making. One key takeaway of Denegri’s presentation was that although Costa Rica has exceedingly small emissions, it brings value as a testing ground for problems that will come later in the decarbonization process. It is able to experiment with policy and determine best practices in a shorter amount of time and with smaller direct impacts. These best practices can be taken up by larger countries when they reach similar stages of climate neutrality, expediting the process and reducing failure on the broader global scale.
The final presentation at this event was given by Tony Ripley of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy of the United Kingdom. He leads on ambition issues at UNFCCC negotiations and described the UK’s work in implementing The Climate Chance Act 2008, one of the world’s first legally binding domestic emissions targets. The UK has a statutory goal of 80% emissions reductions by 2050, which is carried forth by frequent public consultation; expert review of five-year carbon budgets; annual committee reports on progress, adaptation strategies, and risk assessments; and incorporation of the best available science into review of targets. Implementation is also divided into sector-specific emission targets that aim for economy-wide decarbonization.
This day’s ventures through the nitty-gritty of negotiations and policy at the domestic and international levels gave a much brighter view of climate action than we usually receive at home in the US. Other countries are setting ambitious targets and often reaching them with dedicated strategy and facilitative methods for mutual implementation. It is notable that although the US intends to withdraw from the agreement as soon as possible (a few days after the 2020 presidential election), the nation was still present in a very technical, although not political role. Indeed, we are still in for the moment, but if the IPCC report is any indication, the time for effective climate action may only consist of a few more precious moments.