National climate laws help pave the way for new UN deal

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 6 June 2014 08:44 GMT

A flower blossoms in front of the Reichstag, the seat of Germany's lower house of parliament, on a sunny spring day in Berlin, March 16, 2012. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

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Legislators dedicated to tackling climate change want a global agreement that puts domestic laws at its heart

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Bangladeshi parliamentarian Saber Hossain Chowdhury is no stranger to U.N. climate change negotiations - he was at the big summits in Copenhagen in 2009 and in Cancún the year after. He believes it's important for elected politicians to attend because they're able to put a much-needed human face on the numbers and complicated jargon that dominate the process.

"The point you make is that I am someone who is actually representing the people, and you have no idea of the extent and amount of suffering they will go through even at a 2 degrees Celsius rise (in global temperatures)," he told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

His own constituency in the capital city Dhaka is vulnerable to flooding. But across Bangladesh, the full spectrum of climate change impacts is evident, from droughts and storms to rising seas and melting Himalayan glaciers, Chowdhury said. That is why the South Asian nation has been so proactive in pushing forward efforts to help poor communities adapt, and finding ways to pay for those efforts.

It helps that there is cross-party consensus on climate action in Bangladesh. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Climate Change and Environment, which Chowdhury chairs, gives advice to the substantial Bangladesh delegation before the U.N. talks, which strengthens its position, he said.

Legislators “are the ones who will actually ratify any agreement that Bangladesh signs ... so you are in the process from the beginning rather than being given something you have absolutely no idea of," said the politician, who is also president of the Bangladesh chapter of the Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE International).

Lawmakers from 86 countries have participated in GLOBE International’s efforts to advance laws on climate change, forest protection and natural capital accounting.

BETTER UNDERSTANDING

Adam Matthews, secretary general of the London-based body, says there is room for improvement in boosting the scrutiny parliamentarians exercise over their country's negotiating positions at the U.N. talks, which are due to agree a new global climate deal late next year in Paris. Some countries - among them Britain - still don't send legislators as part of their team, for example.

But overall, the situation has improved greatly since the current international emissions reduction treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, was negotiated in 1997.

Back then, there were only 47 climate-related laws in the 66 countries studied in the latest GLOBE report on climate legislation around the world. At the end of 2013, there were 487. Sixty-one countries had passed laws to promote clean energy sources, 54 had legislated to increase energy efficiency, and 52 had developed legislation or policies to improve their resilience to climate impacts.

The momentum in climate change legislation and regulation has shifted from industrialised countries to developing nations and emerging markets, like Mexico and China, where much of the progress was made in 2013, the report noted. 

"More countries have got engaged at the national level through development of national laws, and you've got much greater understanding of what that means for their economies," Matthews said.

Parliamentary debates in countries like the UK, which passed a Climate Change Act in 2008, have dispelled the worst fears that cutting greenhouse gas emissions and promoting clean energy would slash growth - and that opens up space for governments to make commitments on curbing climate change, he added.

As well as creating political confidence and knowledge about the risks and opportunities of climate action, moving early on domestic laws can also spur international competition, pointed out Terry Townshend, GLOBE's deputy secretary general for policy.

"If you're investing in low-carbon industry, it's in your interest that everyone else follows suit because you're going to get an economic advantage" by being ahead, he said.

‘NEW GENERATION OF AGREEMENT’

An international summit of some 400 legislators being held in Mexico from June 6-8, organised by GLOBE, is due to agree a resolution calling for "a new generation of U.N. climate agreement" that would recognise commitments contained in national laws, and require governments to put into domestic legislation the pledges they make in Paris next year. The new pact will take a more bottom-up approach that demands action from all states, unlike the Kyoto Protocol.

How it will happen in practice remains unclear. Townshend recommended a time limit of perhaps two years for enshrining commitments under a new global climate deal in national law. "That will strengthen the likelihood of implementation," he said.

At the same time, any legislative requirements will need to be flexible, he noted, given that one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters, the United States, has found it impossible to pass new climate change-related legislation in recent years, due to fierce opposition from lawmakers aligned with business interests. For Washington, it may be possible to link new pledges with the existing Clean Air Act, for example.

U.S. President Barack Obama has had no choice but to make regulation a centrepiece of his climate change strategy, with the White House announcing plans this week to cut emissions from power plants by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

But a report from a group of scientists warned this target would not even ensure the United States meets its existing national goal, set in 2009, of a cut of 17 percent in emissions below 2005 levels by 2020.

In fact, all nations will need to significantly step up actions to curb global warming if the world is to keep to an agreed ceiling of an average 2 degrees Celsius (1.4 degree Fahrenheit) temperature rise above pre-industrial times, said the Climate Action Tracker report.

ROOM FOR MORE AMBITION?

To allow that to happen, a new global deal - due to kick in only from 2020 - may well need to incorporate a review process allowing emissions-reduction goals to be ratcheted up, and related domestic laws would have to reflect that, said Jennifer Morgan, director of the climate and energy programme at the World Resources Institute.

Government negotiators, who are now meeting in Bonn, should settle on guidance for how to present national offers ahead of the Paris summit so they can be fairly compared to each other, Morgan said. A technical body could then be tasked with adding them up and working out how much extra effort is required to comply with the 2 degree limit.

"The key open question that hasn't been determined going into Paris (is), if countries put forward all these pledges for post-2020, is there a collective lift up in ambition?" she noted. A forum for making a group decision to do that might help, as leaders would not have to strike out alone, she added.

In the case of China, which holds its cards close to its chest at the U.N. negotiations, the government is constrained in what it can put on the table by its priority of preserving social stability in a fast-developing nation where people aspire to own cars and white goods, said Townshend, who is based in Beijing.

According to comments from a senior government advisor and the country’s top climate negotiator this week, China is planning to set a cap on its emissions, but experts say they are unlikely to peak before 2030. Beijing has also declared "war against pollution", as its cities struggle to cope with worsening smog, and has amended laws and introduced tougher fines to make that happen. In addition, it is mulling an overarching climate change law.

"When you look at the urbanisation they are going through, the infrastructure development, the growth in the economy, it is very difficult to see how they can significantly improve the offer they put on the table in Paris. I think they have got limited wiggle room," Townshend said.

REVIEW OF LEGISLATION

All that suggests GLOBE legislators meeting in Mexico face a crucial but tough task if, as expected, they commit to review existing climate change legislation ahead of Paris 2015 to ensure it is consistent with the 2 degrees goal, and then try to fill the gaps.

For Africa, that will mean sharing good legislative practice across different sectors like forestry, as well as more support for parliamentarians to improve their understanding of climate change issues, said Ghanaian parliamentarian Simon Edem Asimah, also vice president of GLOBE for Africa.   

At the same time, acknowledging the achievements of major emerging economies that are now big emitters in advancing policy, regulation and legislation to tackle climate change may be one way of breaking through the persistent mistrust between traditional negotiating blocks of industrialised versus developing countries, GLOBE Secretary-General Matthews suggested.

"Let's look at a different kind of (climate) agreement that enables recognition of what those countries taking action have done," he said. "It's about a broader picture and understanding of where countries are at - and what they are actually doing - and then using the negotiations to allow greater progress at that level."  

This story is part of a series of articles, funded by the COMplus Alliance and the World Bank, looking at progress and challenges in developing nations’ efforts to legislate on climate change, ahead of the June 6-8 World Summit of Legislators in Mexico City, organised by the Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE International).

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