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A slight breath of fresh air entered the UNFCCC climate negotiations last 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 inter-sessionals.
Instead of arguing over the agenda, negotiators got down to work, discussing ways to ramp up countries’ emissions-reduction commitments now and to 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.
The idea opened up a much-needed conversation about the concept itself and how it would work in practice. Beyond the issues of ambition and equity noted below, the first question was whether there would be any guidance or templates for how countries put forward such commitments, or would it be a more “wild west” atmosphere?
The second question was if and how the contributions would be reviewed, if at all. The United States proposed a review up-front, but did not state whether that review would result in any change in the initial offer.
Other questions included what kind of mechanism could be used to ratchet up ambition, and how developing countries could put forward contributions without knowing what kind of financial support might be provided.
Clearly one key question is how to ensure that nationally offered commitments add up to a level of action that keeps global average temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius.
While the talks yielded more questions than answers, discussing new ideas like the spectrum of commitments represented good progress in the negotiating process.
How to increase countries’ emissions-reduction commitments is clearly the key worry for just about everyone, as it should be. While in Bonn, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide approached the 400 parts per million (ppm) threshold, putting the planet on an extremely dangerous trajectory.
Delegates struggled to think through ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to prevent climate change’s worst impacts. They heard from cities, farmers and business people about what they’re currently doing to shift to a low-carbon economy. But how does that all add up? And how does one create the benefits for countries to go faster and deeper in reducing emissions?
In the context of a spectrum of commitments, the key question asked was how to ensure that collective actions would get the world anywhere close to staying below 2 degrees C of temperature rise.
Many noted that the current ambition gap exists because of the failure of the bottom-up pledge and review system. Why would this situation be any different if we pursue a spectrum approach?
The word “ratchet mechanism” was often heard, with delegates searching for new ideas and incentives to catalyse more action. This “ratchet up” process, which enables countries to increase their emissions-reduction pledges over time, may be combined with a periodic review and a robust set of accounting, measurement, reporting, and verification rules.
The issues of equity and climate justice blew through many of the sessions and dominated informal dinner table debates. Although the “e” word is not mentioned specifically in the Durban Platform, it is now abundantly clear that figuring out how to make the 2015 international climate agreement equitable is going to be one of the keys to its formation.
Some asked whether an “equity reference framework” approach could work. A number of experts have been analysing the different indicators that could help assess whether a national climate action plan is equitable.
While negotiating this set of indicators within the UNFCCC process would likely prolong the negotiations, delegates acknowledged that there is value in finding evidence-based, pragmatic ways to integrate equity into the decision-making process. It was an encouraging debate: After this inter-sessional, all subsequent UNFCCC discussions of equity will inevitably be taken more seriously.
WRI and the Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice hosted a Climate Justice Dinner one night during the talks. Stories of climate change’s real world impacts - which people in places like Bangladesh are already facing - connected negotiators with what’s really at stake for communities around the globe.
These stories and the open feeling of the meeting were clearly needed to inspire delegates to roll up their sleeves and think hard about how to address ambition, equity, and other issues. Negotiators made some progress and started asking the right questions.
Now it’s time to start answering these questions to ensure that the 2015 agreement not only provides transparency, but drives a game change in the level of climate action that the world has seen to date.
Jennifer Morgan is the director of the Climate and Energy Programme at the World Resources Institute.