Why flexibility must lie at the core of any UN climate agreement

COMMENT: Country commitments to a global agreement should be based on their domestic strengths

(Pic: Land Rover/Our Planet)

(Pic: Land Rover/Our Planet)

By Niklas Höhne and Cynthia Elliott

With negotiations well under way for a global climate agreement next year, negotiators and the public are anticipating announcements from each country about their commitments to lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Since December 2013, countries have been preparing their “contributions” to reduce emissions in accordance with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and some will be ready to be presented by early 2015.

During the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009, developed countries made commitments for 2020 similar to commitments made under the Kyoto Protocol, proposing to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to a specific level, often below a reference year.

Under the new agreement, some developing countries will also put forward contributions and many countries will present targets in addition to a wide range of other types of commitments.

These include reductions below a reference scenario, targets for emission intensity (emissions per GDP), and sectoral targets such as energy efficiency and renewable energy targets or targets on forest land cover.

Some countries may also present policies or individual projects as their contribution.

LIMA: UN climate negotiators outline priorities for negotiations

A new paper from ACT 2015 explores some of the unknowns around national mitigation commitments.

The commitment options that countries select will have implications for environmental impact, transparency, and measurability, as well as for the level of participation, flexibility, and ambition of the of the new climate agreement.

Some characteristics of those commitments may include whether they are results-based or activity-based; their scope (from local to international); their timeframe; whether they target a range of years or a single year; whether they are absolute or conditional on the actions of others; and how binding they are on the countries making them.

There is no silver bullet—different options have their pros and cons.

Emission-based approaches are attractive for their clarity, transparency potential, and flexibility, but may require a strong political will—especially from large emitters.

Other approaches, such as policy and program commitments, could be better suited to less-developed countries as building blocks towards more ambitious actions.

These policies or programs may target key emissions drivers or areas with the most mitigation potential, generate co-benefits, and link to the domestic policy debate.

REPORT: Todd Stern on China, India and the UN climate deal

A mixture of approaches with different types of targets and measures may prove to be the best way forward.  A healthy mix could provide sufficient clarity, predictability, and flexibility while ensuring sufficient ambition.

Emissions reduction targets and limitations could serve as a baseline while other policies or measures adapted to national circumstances ramp up the ambition of commitments.

This approach could in fact be more reliable than focusing on only one commitment type; if one approach fails to significantly reduce emissions, other commitments could compensate for the deficit.

In anticipation of the 2015 agreement, countries from all over the world and in vastly different circumstances will put forward climate commitments.

Necessarily, those commitments will reflect the diversity of their authors and take a variety of different forms.

While managing such a broad mixture of commitment types may pose challenges, the benefits of allowing nations to present contributions which fit their unique domestic capabilities will make for a stronger, more ambitious, and more effective global agreement.

Niklas Höhne is Founding Partner at the NewClimate Institute. He is also Associate Professor at Wageningen University. 

Cynthia Elliot is a Research Assistant for the Climate Programs at the World Resources Institute. She contributes to the ACT 2015 initiative which is developing a proposal for the design of a new international climate agreement in 2015.

Read more on: Comment | COP20 | UN climate talks