Policy Update #11

Promising Winds and Threatening Clouds - A Forecast of the Level of Ambition of the Durban Platform

The 17th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 17) to the UNFCCC decided in Durban to launch a process to develop “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties” through an Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (AWG-DPA) (Decision 1/CP.17). Many observers noted that COP 17 thereby launched a new phase in the climate negotiations that offers a window of opportunity for collective action.

Despite progress achieved in Durban, current levels of ambition remain insufficient and increased action is urgently needed now, as well as up to and after 2020, to bring the aggregate ambition level in line with what science recommends. Decision 1/CP.17 addresses ambition in various paragraphs. The first reference, in paragraph 6, relates to the period post-2020, as it addresses the process to develop a new instrument, noting that it “shall raise the level of ambition and shall be informed, inter alia, by the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the outcomes of the 2013–2015 review and the work of the subsidiary bodies.” The second reference, in paragraph 7, relates to the launch of “a workplan on enhancing mitigation ambition to identify and to explore options for a range of actions that can close the ambition gap with a view to ensuring the highest possible mitigation efforts by all Parties.” The decision on the establishment of the AWG-DPA therefore addresses both the need to close the ambition gap in the period 2012-2020, and to raise the level of ambition post-2020.

COP 17 further requested Parties to submit their views by 28 February 2012 on “options and ways for further increasing the level of ambition and possible further actions” (decision 1/CP.17, para. 8). Further to this request, the UNFCCC Secretariat received submissions from the following Parties (FCCC/ADP/2012/MISC.1): Bolivia; China; Denmark and the European Commission, on behalf of the EU; Ecuador; Egypt; Gambia, on behalf of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs); Ghana; India; Japan; Kazakhstan; Malaysia; Nauru, on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS); New Zealand; Norway; Pakistan; Saudi Arabia; Swaziland, on behalf of the African Group; Switzerland; and the US. Two submissions came from intergovernmental organizations (FCCC/ADP/2012/MISC.2), namely one from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and a joint submission from UNEP and the World Resources Institute (WRI).

These submissions will be considered by the AWG-DPA at its first session, scheduled to take place in Bonn, Germany, from 17-24 May 2012. Although the Secretariat received 19 submissions from Parties, some are from country groups and therefore reflect the views of over 140 Parties, including the major players in the negotiations, thereby providing a foretaste of the arguments that will be put forward during the AWG-ADP's first session.

A review of these submissions thus enables a first forecast of the prospects to bridge the ambition gap pre-2020, and for the process to develop a new instrument to raise the level of ambition post-2020. Various elements of the submissions illustrate the strong political will of some Parties to make significant progress towards abating climate change. However, other elements suggest that the entrenched boundaries and positions of the past will re-emerge, a sign that on the road to Doha and beyond, negotiators will most likely hit various stormy patches.

Some promising winds

An encouraging aspect of the Parties' submissions is their willingness to discuss and negotiate the issues at hand. Various submissions express the countries' openness to dialogue and suggest a significant increase in negotiating time ahead of the Doha COP and after 2012. For example, AOSIS outlines a timeline of meetings before COP 18, as well as for 2013 and beyond. Norway and the EU suggest holding an additional round of workshops before COP 18 to further explore options, while Egypt and Bolivia propose holding workshops on technical, scientific and political aspects. Consensus also seems to emerge on the need for these meetings to include the participation of experts, stakeholders and the technical assistance of the Secretariat, who are to inform the discussions.

Another positive element is the willingness of various countries to explore for the first time many possible mitigation options in order to bridge the emissions gap pre-2020, including outside the UNFCCC. This is in line with the strong recommendations that UNEP and WRI have formulated in their joint submission and in their other work, even before Durban. While recognizing the central role of the UNFCCC in providing the forum for discussions on a long-term global goal and to reflect commitments to reduce emissions, the submissions of the two intergovernmental organizations underline that there are many technically and economically feasible options available to bridge the emission gap, and call for assessing complementary options in the broader climate regime to increase ambition. Similarly, the EU, AOSIS, the US, and New Zealand stress the need to explore the range of options available to that effect, including: removing fossil fuel subsidies; reducing HFC emissions, including through an amendment to the Montreal Protocol; addressing aviation and maritime emissions under the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Maritime Organization; increasing the use of renewables; and reducing short lived climate forcers.

A majority also agrees on the future of the carbon market. With the exception of Bolivia, all submissions recognize the use of market-based mechanisms as a cost-effective means of achieving significant emission reductions and support its further development.

Various Parties, including the EU, Norway and Pakistan, also stress the need for enhancing action on REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of carbon stocks). However, reconciling the views of those favoring market-linked REDD+ mechanisms, such as the EU and Norway, with those who are interested in the establishment of a fund-based mechanism, will not be an easy task.

The darkest clouds of Durban

Despite these positive elements, some aspects of the submissions cast a shadow on the AWG-DPA's prospects of success related to reaching the ambition necessary to avert dangerous climate change. The entrenched positions of the past appear on the horizon, leaving one to wonder if the Durban Conference has really helped international climate change policy “turn a corner,” as the IISD RS analysis of the meeting indicates some participants had hoped.

A particularly dark cloud is the interpretation given by some Parties of the principles of common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities (CBDR) and equity, enshrined in the Convention. It is widely recognized that the CBDR principle has played a fundamental role in shaping the UN climate regime and none of the submissions claim it should be cast aside. Ensuring climate objectives, however, requires a dynamic interpretation of the principle. All developing countries' submissions make a specific reference to these principles, with many underlining that their mitigation efforts are dependent on financial, technical and capacity support, something that developed countries including Switzerland, Norway and the EU, readily accept.

Taking one step further, India's submission profiles the equity and CBDR issues in a contest over contemporary rights to development, and with Ecuador and Bolivia, insists on its need for “atmospheric space” to emit and develop. This Indian position, which led in Durban to the longest closing plenary in the history of the UNFCCC, would suggest that the right of countries to develop is in question. While no submission argues against the right of countries to develop, it should be underscored that the urgency and seriousness of the climate crisis calls for the adoption of a development path that is compatible with climate protection. Furthermore, India's arguments would position the pursuit of the right to development at the expense of the very survival of the most vulnerable, such as small island developing States and least developed countries.

India also stands out to be poised to do the “heavy lifting” of the BASIC bloc of four large developing countries to which it belongs (Brazil, South Africa, India and China), by taking a hard stand in relation to its short-term mitigation commitment. In its submission, it interprets decision 1/CP.17 as imposing the requirement to increase the level of ambition in the short term on Annex I Parties only, adding that developing country parties will agree to binding targets only after 2020. This position comes at a time when the 2012-2020 regime is in great need of support. Under another negotiation track, Parties in Durban agreed to establish a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol, thereby breathing some life into the pre-2020 regime, albeit with only a limited participation by major emitters. The announced exit of Canada of the Kyoto Protocol, which was followed by the announcement by the Russian Federation and Japan of their refusal to join the second commitment period, threatens to undermine its strength, underlining the importance of supporting it and completing the regime under the Durban platform. In addition, it remains to be seen if the other key outsider to the Kyoto regime, namely the US, or other major emitters without binding commitments, such as China, will be willing to take on significant emission reduction commitments in the pre-2020 period. In its submission, the US stresses the need for the workplan to “respect the integrity of Parties' nationally derived targets and actions and limitations inherent in taking economically sound mitigation policies at a national level,” thereby leaving the door open to justifications if others argue that its level of ambition is too low. As for China, while its submission underscores that the overriding priority of developing countries is social and economic development and poverty eradication, it does allow for the enhancement of developing countries' mitigation efforts, albeit noting that it will depend on “the enhanced finance and technology supports by developed country Parties.”

The lack of muscle of the 2012-2020 regime has the potential to lead to higher mitigation costs, as well as larger damages from climate change impacts given that the scale of the global mitigation challenges beyond 2020 are strongly dependent on successful pre-2020 mitigation. The experience with the mitigation workplan to enhance ambition will inform the negotiations on how to address mitigation effort in the new agreement. As noted by the EU, the feasible emission pathways and future mitigation costs beyond 2020 depend to a large extent on the ability to transform investment patterns within the next few years. In the same vein, the EU, Norway, Nauru and others cite the 2011 World Energy Outlook of the International Energy Agency and UNEP's Emission Gap Report, which underline that several of the investments made in the coming years will have a lifetime of 20-30 years, thereby strongly influencing post-2020 emissions by “locking in” emissions now. Additional actions taken in the period up to 2020 are therefore crucial if we are to have a chance of meeting the 2ºC target.

Risks of disturbance from Rio

Another source of disagreement may concern trade issues and the worries of “green protectionism.” In their submissions, Ecuador and Egypt underscore that “measures taken to fight climate change, including unilateral ones, should not constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination or a disguised restriction on international trade.” These statements echo the fears expressed by some developing countries, including Indonesia or Mexico, in the run up to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20), that the concept of green economy will be used to develop global standards and certification schemes that lead to a “green protectionism,” or that impose additional requirements to official development assistance.

Will the skies clear?

Agreement in Durban on the need for a process that “shall raise the level of ambition” of mitigation efforts was a significant breakthrough. Before Durban, there was no binding decision requiring Parties to address the ambition gap between their unilateral pledges by 2020 and the reductions needed to set the world on a 2°C pathway. The submissions received by the UNFCCC Secretariat on options for increasing the level of ambition contain some encouraging elements, including the willingness of Parties to give themselves additional negotiating time, to explore all options for the first time, and to strengthen the carbon market. However, as negotiators meet to begin discussions on the emissions gap and start their long journey towards agreeing on the new post-2020 legal instrument, some of the polarized positions of the past are likely to accumulate into threatening clouds. It remains to be seen if negotiators in Bonn will be able to dissipate them and, by rising to the challenge, confirm that Durban has indeed launched a new phase in the climate regime.