A new reality to come to terms with

The first UNFCCC talks since the adoption of the Paris Agreement are now underway and the various delegations are getting down to the tough task of implementation. I was in Bonn on the opening day of the two week meeting, representing the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) in a side event hosted by the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) Executive Board (EB). The aim of the event was to draw on the learning from a decade of CDM operation and apply this experience to Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. This is the Article that provides a potential new foundation for carbon market development. I was there to present the IETA Article 6 Vision paper which I posted a story on recently.

The side event was packed out and many were standing in the corridor leading to the room; there is clearly considerable interest in this topic. Over the years the CDM has been a successful mechanism, resulting in nearly 8000 projects and some 1.7 billion Certified Emission Reduction (CER) units issued. Even at a €5-10 per CER (as it was in the earlier days of the EU ETS), this still represents a carbon price based financial injection of up to €10 billion into developing economies. The CDM spawned a small industry of project developers, assessors, MRV professionals and climate finance experts and clearly demonstrated that even a gentle application of the market can have a significant impact. Little wonder that there is such interest in the mitigation mechanism embedded in Article 6 and its potential to drive change.

However, the CDM (or a version of it) is unlikely to be repeated or replicated under Article 6, at least not under the terms that existed within the Kyoto Protocol. It was clear from the discussion during the side event that this new reality is going to take a while to hit home and settle in. The CDM became an important source of climate finance for developing countries, where the only real obligation on the part of the host country for a given project was to provide the necessary governance structure to ensure eventual issuance of the CERs. But that is no longer the case given the provisions of the Paris Agreement and Article 6 are now effectively the same for all countries.

Over time, Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) will expand to cover all greenhouse gas in all economies. Every NDC, either specifically or notionally (for assessment and stocktake purposes) is linked to a quantitative carbon budget and there is an expectation from the Paris Agreement that these budgets will be delivered. While the Paris Agreement doesn’t say this in such stark terms, it is nevertheless implied. The whole approach that the UNFCCC used to assess the NDCs in their latest synthesis report, released on May 2nd, underpins this. Their aggregate analysis is summarized in carbon budget terms as follows;

The implementation of the communicated INDCs is estimated to result in aggregate global emission levels of 55.0 (51.4 to 57.3) Gt CO2 eq in 2025 and 56.2 (52.0 to 59.3) Gt CO2 eq in 2030. The global levels of emissions in 2025 and 2030 were calculated by adding the estimated aggregate emission levels resulting from the implementation of the communicated INDCs, that is 46.5 (44.3 to 48.9) Gt CO2 eq in 2025 and 48.0 (45.1 to 51.4) Gt CO2 eq in 2030, to the levels of emissions not covered by the INDCs. Global cumulative CO2 emissions after 2011 are expected to reach 533.1 (509.6 to 557.2) Gt CO2 in 2025 and 738.8 (703.6 to 770.9) Gt CO2 in 2030.

As I noted in my last post and drawing on Article 6.5 in the Paris Agreement, this means that the transfer of credits from a project across a national border (in the style of the CDM) will impact the national inventory reports of both parties. These transfers will then have to be executed in the style of Joint Implementation (JI) of the Kyoto Protocol, which effectively required an adjustment to the project host country’s national goal if the crediting unit was to be used by another Party to meet their goal.

I raised this issue as part of my presentation and the message was then amplified by a couple of people in the audience during the Q&A. But the response from some in the room was close to one of denial of this new reality, even though the Paris Agreement makes the need for such adjustment clear. The discussion almost drifted back into the old reality of developing countries not having goals and targets, but fortunately we didn’t land there. We didn’t resolve the issue either, which means that there are probably some tough discussions ahead as the negotiators get down to business.

A week later in Bonn and after many hours of discussions on Article 6 by the Parties, there has been some progress. At a side event on the second Monday also on Article 6 and also standing room only, I heard one central African delegate note that we had certainly left the world of the CDM and that perhaps we were somewhere between the constructions offered by CDM and JI of the Kyoto Protocol, albeit this would have to be interpreted to match the new bottom up global architecture of the Paris Agreement. I also heard another national delegate argue strongly that the new mechanism was not a sustainable development mechanism and should not be referenced as such, even if sustainable development was an important outcome of the implementation of the mechanism. Several panellists talked about quantification of NDCs as an important precursor to the avoidance of double counting.

The various concerns and issues that have been raised in these early discussion are very valid and the answers aren’t immediately obvious. Many developing countries have placed the need for finance as a condition on at least some portion of their mitigation contribution and in the past the CDM offered such finance. But if the reality of a new mechanism is a tighter national goal as a consequence of using it, there may be some push back. In the IETA paper one possible solution to this was proposed, namely the direct purchase of project units from the host country of the mitigation activity by multi-lateral funds. But this is unlikely to reach the necessary scale of mitigation envisaged by the NDCs, so other approaches will have to be developed. Interesting times ahead!

Update: The co-chairs in the UNFCCC discussions on Article 6 have released informal notes on ITMOs (here) and the proposed mechanism (here). These are a summary of points made in the initial discussions in Bonn.