Much to the delight of the international climate community, President-elect Joe Biden has said he will rejoin the Paris Agreement on the first day of his presidency. In all likelihood, one top U.S. priority will be putting the finishing touches on the agreement’s transparency system to help ensure that countries are sticking to their climate commitments.
All through the Paris negotiations, even as the United States was preparing to withdraw from the agreement, U.S. negotiators fought hard for rigorous transparency rules. Starting in 2024, the agreement’s new transparency framework will effectively require China and other large developing countries to meet the same standards as the United States and other developed countries, reporting regularly on their emissions and on steps to implement their commitments.
While the basic rules of the new system have been outlined, some of the key technical aspects won’t be finalized until COP 26, late next year in Glasgow, with the United States back at the table. Parties need to adopt decisions on the detailed instructions to parties for reporting on their greenhouse gas inventories, their progress in implementing their nationally determined contributions, and the support they have provided or received.
Even as those details are still being negotiated, the value of stronger transparency is being demonstrated under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s existing arrangements for developing and developed countries. Countries continue to submit new disclosure reports and undergo international review. Despite working in virtual settings, 52 countries underwent review and analysis in 2020.
The latest examples of the value of these processes came last month during the Climate Dialogues, a virtual platform organized by the U.N. in lieu of face-to-face negotiations. During a process known as a “facilitative sharing of views,” 17 developing countries, including China, engaged in Q&A with other parties about their climate actions and their international reporting. Ten developed countries provided answers to parties’ questions in a known as a “multilateral assessment.”
Developing countries have faced challenges in developing the systems and practices needed to produce timely, thorough reports, but many are making progress. A May 2020 UNFCCC report found that 60 percent had submitted at least one biennial update report (BUR) on their climate progress. For many, undergoing reporting and review has become a valuable capacity-building exercise and learning opportunity that helps strengthen confidence and mutual understanding over time.
In presenting its second BUR since 2015, China highlighted several ways it has improved reporting, such as using more rigorous methodologies to estimate some greenhouse gas emissions and withdrawals. The Chinese representatives noted that the U.N.’s expert reviewers had commended their emissions trackers for adopting previous recommendations.
China faced questions from other parties about policy implementation on the ground and on shortcomings in their reporting. Chinese representatives were asked, for instance, about progress in standing up their emissions trading systems and how China plans to reduce excess production capacity in carbon-intensive sectors like steel. China said it was late in submitting its BUR because of delays resulting from the restructuring of its environmental and foreign policy ministries, and promised further improvements in its emissions inventory.
Countries also asked Brazil whether it will achieve its pre-2020 goal and how it addressed deforestation in its reporting. The European Union received questions about rising emissions in its transportation sector and was asked to give examples of good practices for reducing emissions in the power sector.
The Paris transparency framework builds on the existing, bifurcated UNFCCC processes to form a unified system that will cover all countries. This new system will provide limited flexibilities to developing countries, if they need them because of capacity constraints, but requires all countries to work towards the same standards over time. New processes like the Capacity-building Initiative for Transparency and Paris Committee on Capacity-building will support developing countries in meeting the standards and identifying current and emerging needs.
The enhanced transparency process forms a critical part of the Paris Agreement’s accountability framework. Once fully operational, it will help build confidence that countries are delivering on their commitments, which in turn will contribute to stronger commitments going forward.
By delivering a robust transparency decision at COP 26, parties will finalize an important process that will help build mutual trust and confidence, and promote effective implementation and rising ambition over time.