COP23: Ramping up ambition

In a timely reminder for the national negotiators now starting their work in Bonn (dubbed ‘Fiji on the Rhine’ given the Presidency) at COP23, PwC recently released their annual Low Carbon Economy Index, which showed yet again that current emission reduction plans for the global economy do not match the goal of the Paris Agreement.

PWC Paris Pledges

While a handful of economies are in the ballpark of the required trajectory, these are by far the exception rather than the rule.

PWC Intensity Chart

The annual UNEP Gap Report has also just been released and arrives at a similar conclusion, with Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment saying;

“One year after the Paris Agreement entered into force, we still find ourselves in a situation where we are not doing nearly enough to save hundreds of millions of people from a miserable future.”

The key issue with a cumulative problem such as the build-up of atmospheric carbon dioxide, is that the correction required becomes steeper with each passing year that the build-up goes unchecked. Say for example that the 2°C goal requires a linear reduction in emissions from 2015 to 2075, i.e. from 40 Gt per annum CO2 to net-zero in 60 years, with the area under that line being 1,200 Gt (40*60/2). If the first five years, i.e. from 2015 to 2020, result in a flat trajectory with no reductions, then the resulting trajectory from 2020 must reach net-zero by 2070 for the same total cumulative emissions. This means that every year of delay to the point at which emissions start falling means a year earlier in terms of reaching net-zero.

The Paris Agreement attempts to deal with this by utilizing its 5-year ratchet mechanism, where every five years the nationally determined contributions (NDC) are progressively ratcheted in terms of ambition. But the Agreement gives no guidance as to how that ratchet mechanism will work, other than the timetable on which it operates. It does however assume that information will be offered through the global stocktake, which will also operate on a 5-year cycle. The Paris Agreement says;

Each Party shall communicate a nationally determined contribution every five years.

 Each Party’s successive nationally determined contribution will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition.

 The Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement shall undertake its first global stocktake in 2023 and every five years thereafter unless otherwise decided by the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement.

 The outcome of the global stocktake shall inform Parties in updating and enhancing, in a nationally determined manner, their actions and support in accordance with the relevant provisions of this Agreement, as well as in enhancing international cooperation for climate action.

In addition, the Decision Text to the Paris Agreement offers an early process to take stock, to inform the first round of NDC updates and requests with urgency that the Parties revise their NDCs with a first update in 2020.

Decides to convene a facilitative dialogue among Parties in 2018 to take stock of the collective efforts of Parties in relation to progress towards the long-term goal referred to in Article 4, paragraph 1, of the Agreement and to inform the preparation of nationally determined contributions pursuant to Article 4, paragraph 8, of the Agreement.

 Urges those Parties whose intended nationally determined contribution pursuant to decision 1/CP.20 contains a time frame up to 2025 to communicate by 2020 a new nationally determined contribution and to do so every five years thereafter pursuant to Article 4, paragraph 9, of the Agreement;

 Requests those Parties whose intended nationally determined contribution pursuant to decision 1/CP.20 contains a time frame up to 2030 to communicate or update by 2020 these contributions and to do so every five years thereafter pursuant to Article 4, paragraph 9, of the Agreement;

So, there is a mechanism in place, but no real detail on its operation. The maths behind the process should be straightforward, based on cumulative emissions to date and cumulative emissions remaining for a 2°C goal. The UNFCCC has already published data on the cumulative emissions impact of the NDCs. In addition, the IPCC 5th Assessment Report and forthcoming special report on a 1.5°C offer advice on the total cumulative emissions for a given warming limit, so the data to do the maths is available. What is lacking however, is any translation of this maths to the NDCs.

For the Paris Agreement to deliver on its goal, this problem will need considerable attention. Although the NDCs are nationally determined, a foundation principle of the Agreement, that determination cannot take place in a vacuum, with national eyes simply focused inwards. That is presumably the reason for the five-yearly stocktakes and the facilitative dialogue in 2018.

Yet, it is not the prerogative of the UNFCCC to make decisions on national actions nor is there even a clear role for the COP or CMA (the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement) in coercing Parties to adopt NDCs that reflect the climate goals of the Agreement. Rather, the pressure comes from the Agreement itself, embedded in many places, but never with absolute clarity. For example, Parties are asked to prepare long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies, to be informed by the global stock-take and to work cooperatively together, all of which should facilitate progress towards a common goal.

Article 13 of the Paris Agreement sets out the need for an enhanced transparency framework, which perhaps comes closest to the coercive role that is needed to push the Parties towards a successful outcome. The purpose of the framework is clearly stated in 13.5;

The purpose of the framework for transparency of action is to provide a clear understanding of climate change action in the light of the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2, including clarity and tracking of progress towards achieving Parties’ individual nationally determined contributions under Article 4, and Parties’ adaptation actions under Article 7, including good practices, priorities, needs and gaps, to inform the global stocktake under Article 14.

The task that now confronts the negotiators in Bonn is to turn this into a set of modalities and procedures that brings reality to the process of establishing and implementing NDCs. This will not be an easy task in that they will be caught between the rock that is national sovereignty and the hard place that is reflected in the climate maths above. But unless progress is made in this area, the Paris Agreement will forever struggle to effectively and efficiently deliver on its goals.

COP 23 needs to confront this challenge head on!