Warsaw talks: A mid-point for 2015 agreement

Negotiations toward a new global climate agreement reach a mid-point next month in Warsaw.  And while countries have begun putting forward some concrete ideas about the kind of pact they want, the more immediate question is the process they’ll use to get to a final agreement in Paris in 2015. They’re planning an important game of show-and-tell between now and then, and need to agree on the terms.

The current round of talks was kicked off two years in Durban, South Africa, when parties set a 2015 deadline for a new agreement that will have “legal force” and be “applicable to all.”

Heading into November’s COP 19 – the 19th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – very sharp divides remain, particularly over perennial issues such as the differentiation of commitments between developed and developing countries.

But as I describe in a recent article in Nature, there is growing convergence among many parties on a new approach with both “top-down” and “bottom-up” elements. In this emerging model, countries would define their own individual commitments, and agree on a common set of rules to compare them and track their implementation.

The aim of this hybrid approach, as New Zealand put it in a recent submission, would be to “find a point of optimal convergence between overly-prescriptive rigidity and free-for-all flexibility.”

Naturally, parties have different ideas on where that point of optimal convergence is to be found. South Africa, for instance, proposes that parties set their commitments according to multilaterally agreed criteria – different for developed and developing countries – and that the commitments be legally binding. The United States, on the other hand, proposes that all parties have full discretion in setting their commitments, which wouldn’t necessarily be legally binding.

Despite such differences on the agreement’s ultimate shape, there is growing consensus on the need for some kind of process leading up to Paris to get countries’ proposed commitments on the table so everyone can look them over.

The last time countries put forward self-defined commitments – in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord and the 2010 Cancun Agreements – they offered very brief formulations with little or no explanation and no opportunity for others to ask questions. For instance, some countries pledged to reduce emissions in 2020 below business as usual without defining business as usual.

This time countries are expecting greater clarity upfront, and time to assess one another’s proposed commitments before they’re finalized. Some argue that this “ex-ante” scrutiny will encourage countries to come forward with their best efforts. Others hope it will induce those who come with weak numbers to ratchet them up.

The United States is proposing that countries describe their proposed commitments in a table including “clarifying information” such as: the gases, sectors and percentage of national emissions covered; the overall emissions reduction anticipated; any use of offsets or emissions trading; and any underlying methodologies.

The European Union argues that countries should go further and justify how their proposed commitments “reflect an appropriate level of ambition” relative to the collective target of keeping warming below 2°C, and how they “represent a fair contribution based on [a country’s] responsibilities (past, current and future) and capabilities.”

There are also different ideas on how countries’ proposals would then be assessed. The United States describes a “consultative process” in which parties, civil society and independent bodies such as the International Energy Agency each conduct their own assessments, and, in an open UNFCCC meeting, parties ask one another for greater clarity or why they think their actions are sufficient. The EU wants an “international assessment phase” that results in “a step up in ambition if necessary” to stay on track for below 2°C.

Another issue is timing. While the EU and others are pushing for countries to propose numbers in 2014, perhaps at the September leaders summit called by UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, the United States favors early 2015, after the U.S. mid-term elections.

It’s plausible that the outcome in Warsaw won’t be a specific process or timeline, but simply an exhortation parties to start getting their numbers ready. But a fundamental question about the emerging hybrid approach is whether it can deliver real ambition. How parties prepare themselves for the coming show-and-tell will be an early test.