Bonn Esprit: Elaborating the Paris rulebook

Reports from the recent UN climate talks in Bonn, Germany, said they had failed to meet expectations even before the session had ended. But given the many challenges negotiators face in crafting a “rulebook” for implementing the Paris Agreement, I was not among those expecting a draft manual to emerge this month.

When governments adopted the Paris Agreement in 2018, they set the goal of completing its more detailed implementing rules by COP 24, which takes place this December in Katowice, Poland. Where the Paris Agreement lays out a broad architecture, the rulebook will furnish the nuts and bolts that will allow the agreement to function and to guide parties in fulfilling their commitments.

Some of the challenges facing parties are largely technical in nature. But in some areas, the “Paris spirit” of compromise that helped deliver the agreement also left thorny political issues to resolve. The agreement relied on “constructive ambiguities” to navigate some of the more sensitive issues in Paris. Now these must be translated into concrete rules.

A prime example is agreeing on the rules for the “enhanced transparency system” at the heart of the Paris Agreement. This system holds countries accountable for their “nationally determined contributions” to the agreement by requiring them to report every two years on their emissions and their progress in implementing their NDCs and to undergo expert and peer review.

The existing transparency system sets different requirements for developed and developing countries. The Paris system instead establishes common obligations and provides “built-in flexibility” for developing countries that need it in light of their capacities. It also provides financial and technical support to strengthen countries’ capacities.

Defining and operationalizing this flexibility is one of the toughest political issues in translating Paris into rules. Many countries favor setting strong common standards for all countries to meet or work toward. Some developing countries, concerned that rules will be overly burdensome or intrude on national sovereignty, still favor a more bifurcated approach.

To resolve these issues, parties must address the “what,” “who,” “when,” and “why” of flexibility across all the elements of the new transparency system.

The design of the transparency system will also have important implications for the other ways parties are asked to reflect on their actions. Reporting and review helps to understand how individual countries are taking action, but the agreement says that its purpose also is to inform the global stocktake, which will take place every five years to measure collective progress towards the long-term goals.

Negotiators are also deciding the relationship of the enhanced transparency framework to a new implementation and compliance committee. While not intended to act as a judicial system or apply sanctions, the committee will likely need to rely on information from the transparency system to help parties strengthen their implementation and compliance.

Even grappling with these issues, parties made progress in Bonn, producing a series of issue-based texts closer to the more formal text they will need later for the final negotiations. Parties will meet again at a newly added session in Bangkok in September to pick up where they left off.

For success at COP 24, negotiators will need political guidance to untangle some of the thornier questions. Some key upcoming meetings like the Petersberg Climate Dialogue and the Ministerial Meeting on Climate Action (MoCA) in June will provide ministers with an opportunity to weigh in on some of the major political issues.

Despite their differences, most parties seem strongly committed to adopting the Paris rulebook in Katowice. Given the remaining political challenges, and limited time left to negotiate, the bigger uncertainty is how robust it will be. With any luck, parties will carry forward the Paris spirit and adopt the rules needed to bring the Paris framework to life.