COMMENT: National pledges must be subject to assessment and review, or a UN deal will be toothless
Slowly but surely, the first climate pledges for the 2015 agreement – or, in UN-speak, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) – have started to trickle in.
Under the 2015 agreement, the hope is that INDCs will prove to be crucial instruments in preventing dangerous climate change. Yet a key element is still missing.
At the UN Climate Change Conference in Lima last December, countries were unable to agree on any meaningful process to review the INDCs before the Paris summit and ensure that they are sufficient to keep warming under 2C, the agreed goal.
From a practical perspective, this may make sense; after all, some INDCs are only expected later this year, leaving very limited time to assess them (notwithstanding laudable efforts by, e.g., UNEP and Climate Action Tracker).
But if countries fail to provide for future assessment and review in the Paris agreement, this would significantly reduce its effectiveness.
Assessment and review is arguably the last bastion of the top-down architecture in an increasingly bottom-up climate regime.
Without it, the pledge-and-review system envisaged for the 2015 agreement becomes only a collection of pledges, with very limited accountability and no strong incentives for countries to increase their ambition over time.
Assessment and review not only ensures mutual accountability among the Parties, but it can also provide important information and insights that can mobilize domestic actors (including parliamentarians and NGOs) who want their governments to do more.
Assessment and review, in short, should be one of the bedrocks underpinning the agreement in Paris. But how can we make it effective, practical and acceptable to countries holding very different views?
We address this question in a new report prepared for the Nordic Council of Ministers.
We begin by showing that the Parties need not start from scratch, but can build upon a wealth of experiences gained through existing monitoring, reporting and verification processes under the UNFCCC, such as the reviews of country reports and emissions inventories.
Such processes have already resulted in significant amounts of information on countries’ emissions, policies and trends.
They also offer an indication of the challenges that lie ahead: reviewing the contributions of over 190 countries, as opposed to only developed countries, will require a significant amount of additional financial and human resources.
Similarly, lessons can be learned from review processes outside of the climate context, in areas such as trade, finance, human rights and other environmental agreements.
These experiences show, for instance, that even in highly contentious issue areas such as human rights, it is possible for non-governmental stakeholders to be actively involved in the review process.
Moreover, various options to facilitate a smooth review process have already been put in practice, such as the use of group reviews for smaller and poorer countries and the provision of financial support to participate in the process or to implement recommendations.
The range of options for assessment and review under a 2015 agreement is thus wide. However, difficult choices need to be made, and tradeoffs are inevitable.
For example, should the review process focus only on mitigation pledges, or also cover contributions to climate finance and technology transfer?
Should it include domestic adaptation efforts? For the greatest transparency, the full scope of INDCs should arguably be covered, yet this would require a large set of experts and additional resources.
Rich v poor
Another question is whether the review process should differentiate between developed and developing countries – and, if so, to what extent).
Such a suggestion may make sense from the perspective of equity, for example if it means that Least-Developed Countries would be reviewed less frequently, in groups, or with less scrutiny, and may also be practical in that it may require fewer resources.
However, it might also reduce transparency.
The good news is: not all knots need untying before Paris, and the details of assessment and review can be sorted out after the adoption of a 2015 agreement.
However, a basic decision establishing a robust assessment and review process as part of a 2015 agreement is crucial in Paris.
Such a decision would further benefit from clarifying the scope of the review, the extent to which the process is different for developed and developing countries, and the formal involvement of non-governmental stakeholders.
Pillars of change
Should resistance against assessment and review re-emerge in Paris, it should be kept in mind these processes are not just about checking whether countries did their homework.
On the contrary, they can help countries do their homework better next time around by providing insights into the opportunities and limitations as well as options for (bilateral) cooperation for more ambitious climate policies.
This realization could help establishing this important pillar for a 2015 agreement in Paris.
Harro van Asselt is a research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute in Oxford. Håkon Sælen is a research fellow at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO).