Through the looking glass: transparency in a UN climate deal

Clear and regular information on national climate plans is vital to overcome a lack of trust at global talks

(Pic: UNFCCC/Flickr)

(Pic: UNFCCC/Flickr)

By Alexandra Deprez

At the UN climate talks in Bonn this week, climate negotiators are tasked with producing a shorter, clearer and more workable negotiating text toward a successful outcome in Paris this December.

One critical area for progress is transparency, and more precisely, ‘transparency of implementation’. In laymen’s terms, this is the system that will collect, assess, and disseminate information on countries’ progress toward achieving their climate change commitments they submit this year.

The frank, conceptual discussion negotiators had last Tuesday night on transparency is a promising start. But they still have a ways to go to attain the necessary consensus by December.

And needless to say, this technical topic has less political momentum behind it than other pressing issues like finance, legal form of the agreement, and adaptation.

Yet sweeping transparency under the carpet, to deal with it at a latter day, would be a grave mistake.

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Indeed, a robust and well-designed transparency system is absolutely critical for enabling countries to reach the global goal of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. It is thus essential for the Paris Agreement to be successful.

The transparency system under the Paris Agreement must focus on helping countries overcome a major barrier currently limiting their mitigation ambition—lack of trust in collective action.

By collecting information on countries’ progress toward reaching their targets, on the implementation of mitigation policies, and on decarbonization throughout different economic sectors, this system can create a sense of individual and collective movement toward a low-carbon future.

The emerging ‘bottom-up’ model of climate cooperation, reflected by the climate commitments countries are submitting this year (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs), is establishing much welcome national ownership, and broad inclusiveness in the multilateral process.

Yet as they are determined without previous international deliberation, INDCs may in aggregate be insufficiently ambitious to immediately place the world on a 2 degrees emissions track.

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The Paris Agreement must thus institute processes—such as the transparency system—that enable regular raising of ambition over time.

Building trust that collective action is occurring will reassure countries against concerns of free-riding and or the competitive disadvantage of acting alone. It will also assuage apprehensions on plunging into the unknown, long-term journey toward a very-low carbon future, and also improve countries’ self-confidence in reaching their more immediate mitigation goals.

To construct a transparency system that delivers on all these fronts, we do not need to start from scratch. There is much to draw from the current system under the Convention, established at the 2011 Cancun talks.

Yet the new system cannot just be a continuation of the present one. It must reflect the shift of perspective entailed by viewing transparency not as a precursor to compliance and sanctions (as was the case in the Kyoto Protocol), or fixated on precise emissions accounting (again, as under the Kyoto Protocol, and which the Cancun system somewhat inherits), but rather as a way to build trust that collective mitigation action is underway.

Clear framework

Concretely, the new system needs three things: pertinent information, an individual and collective assessment process, and broad country participation.

Currently, reports submitted by each country are subject to a technical examination, followed by an exchange among countries. This nascent process (initiated in 2014) has so far produced promising analysis and possibilities for collective policy learning.

However, it does not require all countries to report on individual progress towards their emissions pledges. This is a major weakness that must be addressed.

A further missing element is an assessment of aggregate progress on decarbonization. So far, no UN or external entity conducts a comprehensives global landscape study on this topic. Yet this is essential for building trust among countries and the private sector on the growing low-carbon shift within markets and technologies.

The new transparency system should take on this essential task, drawing from country level reporting and review processes, and external sources of aggregate information.

The transparency system should shift away from fixating purely on GHG emissions information, to favor further information on the implementation of countries’ mitigation policies underpinning their emission reduction targets.

It should also start inviting countries to communicate indicators of sectoral decarbonization progress, such as investment in renewables and changes in energy matrixes.

Business signal

Sectoral and policy information can provide countries with a better sense that their neighbors are serious about acting on climate change than purely emissions-centric information. It also provides a stronger and more legible signal to businesses and investors.

Buy-in and broad participation from countries in the transparency system is also essential for its success. To date, the present system has seen very low participation from developing countries—less than 10% have submitted their first bi-annual report (due in December 2014).

It is the first time they are requested to submit such a report, and some countries are still building the necessary emission databases. More general lack of capacities may also come into play.

Yet this low participation rate (and the heterogenous quality of developed country reports) raises deeper questions. Do countries see the transparency process as valuable and worth their time?

Are they reticent to submit information they feel could then be used to point fingers at them and blame them for insufficient implementation and progress? Clearly stating the purpose of the transparency system, and disassociating it from a compliance and sanction mechanism is critical to address this.

Now, how do we translate this vision into reality? A new IDDRI working paper does this. Drawing on our in-depth analysis of the current transparency system, and on the principles emerging of the new climate regime, we advance a detailed and concrete proposal for how to transform the current reporting and review processes into a transparency system fulfilling the roles outlined above.

We specifically elaborate on how countries can create a universal transparency system that differentiates equitably between them, safeguards against the lessening of reporting and reviewing ambition, and fairly improves its ambition and scope over time.

By COP21, countries must agree on the main objectives and principles to underpin the transparency system, and inscribe these in the legal Paris agreement (the system’s technical details can be worked out in subsequent years). But to do so, transparency must to be given greater attention.

Alexandra Deprez is a Research Fellow on Climate and International negotiations at IDDRI (Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations). The report she co-authored is available here.

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