Depending on who you ask, you are likely to hear one of two distinct narratives about the outcome of the recent UN climate talks (COP18) in Doha. On the one hand, there is the official narrative that Doha represented solid progress on the road to a 2015 global deal as envisioned in the Durban Platform, particularly in the agreement for a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, and in the streamlining of the negotiations themselves. On the other hand, NGOs and other observers are likely to point to the fact that absolutely nothing was agreed at Doha that comes near to matching the scale of the challenge faced.
For examples of these two contrasting viewpoints you need look no further than the IIEA’s recent post-Doha workshop, where David Walsh of the Irish Department of the Environment expressed satisfaction on behalf of the Irish EU Presidency that all of the Union’s main negotiation objectives were achieved, while Ciara Gaynor of Oxfam pointed out that there was absolutely no shift in entrenched positions on increasing mitigation ambition or guaranteeing increased climate finance.
Of course while both of these narratives are correct in a sense, we will have to await the outcome of the process begun at Durban (known as ADP in the UNFCCC shorthand or the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action) before we know if one is more correct than the other. If the streamlining and other incremental improvements achieved at Doha ultimately assist in the process of reaching agreement on an ambitious package in 2015, then all of the blood, sweat and air miles shed at COP18 will clearly have been worth it. However if COP21 (à Paris?) turns out to be another Copenhagen, then the technical victories claimed by the EU and others at the end of last year will sound very hollow indeed.
Certainly the outcomes of Doha will continue to keep everybody busy. The EU now begins a process of formally ratifying the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, while dealing with other technical matters such as negotiating the UNFCCC’s budget and finalising ADP agendas. On a broader level, work is underway by the European Commission on two green papers; one to inform the EU’s thinking on the shape and form of the 2015 agreement and the other on the EU’s climate and energy vision for 2030. Both documents are expected to be published later this spring. Submissions on each of the ADP’s two workstreams are also due by 1 March 2013: Workstream 1 deals with the preparations for a global deal in 2015, while Workstream 2 focused on how to increase mitigation ambition in the period prior to 2020.
One of the EU’s negotiating objectives that was unsuccessful at Doha was the aim of achieving recognition of international cooperative initiatives (ICIs) as a means of increasing ambition pre-2020. ICIs are voluntary mitigation partnerships which can operate at a number of levels, including between national governments, sub-national entities, civil society or private sector actors. At the pre-Doha roundtables they were referred to as “additional supplementary actions and initiatives”, and a number of possible approaches were instanced:
(a) Strengthening the co-operation on enhancing energy efficiency in all sectors and promoting renewable energy;
(b) Reducing production and use of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol;
(c) Implementing initiatives in the transport sector including those addressing emissions from international aviation and maritime transport by the International Civil Aviation Organisation and the International Maritime Organisation;
(d) Removing fossil fuel subsidies, including by co-operative effort in the context of G20 initiatives; and
(e) Promoting cooperation on initiatives to address short-lived climate pollutants.
The final item in this list provides a useful example of an existing ICI, as in February 2012 a group of six governments came together to form the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short Lived Climate Pollutants, under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). This is a voluntary partnership that is open to non-state actors as well as governments, and by the time of the Doha COP it was able to deliver pledges by twenty-five countries to take action to reduce black carbon (a component of soot), methane, HFCs and other short-lived climate pollutants or forcers (SLCPs). In addition to some of the bigger member states, including France, Germany and the United Kingdom, the European Commission is a partner in the Coalition and has pledged to take action through its air quality and waste policy programmes.
In January 2013 the impetus for reducing SLCPs became even stronger with a major scientific study which concluded that black carbon is second only to carbon dioxide as a contributor to global warming. Even before this most recent study, it was estimated that reducing emissions of black carbon and methane could slow global warming by up to 0.5 degrees Celsius by 2050, which is significant in anyone’s book. As one of the major warming effects of black carbon is to reduce the reflectivity of ice and snow, regional warming in the Arctic would slow even more. Further, because black carbon is short-lived, persisting in the atmosphere only for a few days, the impact of reducing its emission should be felt much more quickly than corresponding reductions in carbon dioxide, which is slowly washed out of the atmosphere over decades and even centuries.
Given all of the above, there would seem to be reason for cautious optimism that an ICI on black carbon and other SLCPs could contribute significantly to slowing down global warming, while concurrently delivering health benefits and deceleration in warming in particularly sensitive regions such as the Arctic. If mitigation of short-term climate forcers is low-hanging fruit, why then did the EU find so little enthusiasm amongst other parties for formalising such ICIs within the UNFCCC framework?
In an international context the EU’s promotion of ICIs is apt to be seen less for what it can deliver than what it avoids delivering. The EU has already signalled its willingness to adopt a 30% 2020 emissions reduction target, conditional on other parties also stepping up their level of ambition. Talk of increased ambition being delivered via additional action such as ICIs rather than through increases in existing obligations can be interpreted as a signal that a) the EU does not expect other parties to commit themselves to additional obligations; and b) the EU does not itself expect to reach agreement on stepping up its target to 30%.
This may not be an entirely fair characterisation of the EU position: it stresses, for example, that ICIs should not divert effort from increasing the ambition of existing pledges. The EU will continue to promote the inclusion of ICIs as part of the pre-2020 mitigation agenda of the Durban Platform. ICIs will certainly form part of the EU’s March ADP submission on Workstream 2, perhaps with the benefit of some additional analysis on a number of the potential schemes. Being able to quantify the climate benefits of reducing HFCs and other SLCPs would certainly help to build the case, although the science suggests that a high degree of uncertainty as to the potential benefit is likely to remain.
If the UNFCCC process is seen as the global effort to prevent unsafe levels of global warming, then it is logical to argue that it should capture and account for ICIs, given their undoubted potential to contribute to this effort. However it must be acknowledged that “quick wins” on climate do not necessarily contribute to the longer-term goal of transition to a low carbon society. If action on SLCPs is seen to be instead of rather than in addition to progress on the deep structural changes required to decarbonise the economy then “quick wins” can be seen more negatively as “short-term fixes”. Before the EU is in a position to argue persuasively for the recognition of ICIs, it may have to show its hand on its own substantive proposals for pre-2020 ambition. This doesn’t appear likely to happen in advance of the Kyoto Protocol review, which will take place during 2014. So again we have to wait a little longer before we find out which Doha narrative is more justified.