UNFCCC review offers opportunity to boost climate ambition

By Joy Hyvarinen

The negotiating deadline for a new climate change agreement – 2015 – is approaching fast.

One of the most important steps towards a new agreement is a review of the global 2°C temperature goal and progress towards the goal.

The first periodic review under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will take place in 2013-2015.

As discussed in a recent FIELD paper the review is probably the most important near-term opportunity to strengthen action to limit climate change.

The review has the potential to determine if:

(a)    The international climate change regime will aim to limit climate change to a level that is as safe as still possible, or

(b)   The international community is in the process of concluding that increasing climate change-related loss and damage is preferable to making the changes required to achieve the needed greenhouse gas emission reductions

Option (b) would raise questions, including questions related to international law and compensation for loss and damage.

There is a risk that the review could become mired in negative negotiation dynamics.

For example according to UNFCCC Article 4.2 (d) the second review of the adequacy of articles 4.2 (a) and (b), which address commitments of Annex I Parties, was to take place no later than 31 December 1998, but Parties have been unable to agree on this.

Decisions that the Conference of the Parties (COP) adopted in Cancun (2010), Durban (2011) and Doha (2012) set out a framework for the 2013-2015 review, but it is not yet clear how it will be applied in practice (see decisions 1/CP.16, 2/CP.17 and 1/CP.18).

UK climate and energy minister Greg Barker alluded to the ‘dark arts’ of UN climate negotiations during the 2012 Doha conference (Pic: UNFCCC)

In FIELD’s view three essential elements must be in place at all stages of the review process:

– Scientific integrity
– Transparency, including transparency beyond the intergovernmental negotiating process
Consideration of human security impacts on the most vulnerable countries and communities

Review process 

The periodic review agreed in Cancun and elaborated further in Durban and Doha will assess:

1. The adequacy of the long-term global goal (of holding the global average temperature increase to 2 °C) in the light of the ultimate objective of the Convention

2. Overall progress towards achieving the global goal, including a consideration of the implementation of the commitments under the Convention

The review is also to take into account consideration of strengthening the global goal in relation to a temperature rise of 1.5 °C. Many vulnerable countries have argued that 1.5 °C is necessary to avoid extremely damaging climate change impacts in their countries.

Reviewing the adequacy of the long-term global temperature goal may raise the question of defining what “dangerous” climate change is. The ultimate objective of the UNFCCC – and any related legal instruments that the COP may adopt – is:

“… stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner” (Article 2).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) considers the question of defining “dangerous” to be a task for policy makers, not the IPCC.

Although many would consider the danger level to have been passed already, the UNFCCC is without doubt the appropriate forum for a formal determination of the level of climate change that should be considered “dangerous”.

The COP is to take “appropriate action” based on the review.

What “appropriate action” might involve is not clear, but Parties have agreed that the outcomes of the review will inform the negotiations under the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP).

Following decision 1/CP.18 from Doha the process for the first review will involve four levels of consideration within the UNFCCC process:

– A “structured expert dialogue”
– A joint contact group of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) and the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI)
– Consideration by SBSTA and SBI
– Consideration of the review by the COP, followed by “appropriate action” by the COP. As noted below this involves two separate components and potentially two separate decisions: a decision on the review and a decision on “appropriate action”.

The most challenging task will be with the two co-facilitators who will facilitate the expert dialogue.

The expert dialogue will consider the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report and other inputs and should be able to play a critical role in articulating the policy implications of scientific findings. This will involve workshops and “other in-session and intersessional activities”.

Elements for review

In FIELD’s view three essential elements need to be in place at all levels of the review process, from the expert dialogue to the COP.

Scientific integrity

The expert dialogue, which will support the joint SBSTA/SBI contact group, is explicitly meant to “ensure the scientific integrity of the review”.

However, ensuring the scientific integrity of the review cannot only be the responsibility of the expert dialogue. SBSTA, SBI and the COP must also safeguard the scientific integrity of the review.

This could pose challenges, taking into account the political nature of the UNFCCC negotiations.

At the level of the COP, making a clear distinction between (a) consideration of the review itself and (b) consideration of “appropriate action” following from the review could potentially help safeguard the scientific integrity of the review.

For example, this could involve two separate COP decisions: one on the review itself and another decision of a potentially more political nature on “appropriate action”.


In Doha the COP decided that “the review should be conducted in a transparent manner and with the full participation of Parties”. The paragraph focuses on the involvement of Parties, in particular developing country Parties.

Engagement of civil society is usually viewed as an important factor in achieving transparency in international environmental negotiations.

The Doha decision clarifies that the workshops to be held in connection with the expert dialogue will be open, but the extent of further civil society involvement is unclear.

Civil society representatives may presumably participate in an expert capacity, but it is not clear how selection of experts will take place.

The Doha decision also for example mandates SBSTA and SBI to identify information gaps and to request additional inputs and studies, which presumably could come from civil society experts.

In FIELD’s view transparency should extend beyond the UNFCCC negotiations.

In light of the potential importance of the review for the international community’s efforts to address climate change the public has an interest in understanding the conclusions reached during the review process, including how they were reached and also what “appropriate action” the COP decides to take.

The moral and ethical implications may benefit from public debate.

Ensuring that the transparency of the review process extends beyond Party representatives would assist Parties to implement UNFCCC Article 4.1(i) effectively. In this article all Parties have committed to:

“Promote and cooperate in education, training and public awareness related to climate change and encourage the widest participation in this process, including that of non-governmental organizations”.

Impacts on vulnerable communities

The impacts of climate change on the most vulnerable countries and communities must be at the forefront in the review process. Human security – including economic security, food security, health security and community security – is under increasing threat from climate change.

This underscores the importance of the inclusion of a specific reference to 1.5°C as part of the consideration of strengthening the long-term global temperature goal. This should be given high priority in the review process.

In considering what constitutes a “dangerous” level of climate change the question may arise: “dangerous for whom?”.

The COP has decided that the review should be guided by the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDRRC).

Notwithstanding current debates about the exact meaning of these principles it would be difficult to consider a review outcome that accepted a high likelihood of severe climate change impacts on poor and vulnerable countries and communities as being compatible with these principles.

Such an outcome would raise questions related to international law and human rights, including questions related to compensation for loss and damage.

You can download a fully annotated version of this paper at the Field website

Joy Hyvarinen is Executive Director at Field, The Foundation for International Law and Development.

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