Climate governance in focus as key UN meetings approach

14 September 2016

The world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters have ratified the Paris Agreement on climate change, bringing the landmark deal significantly closer to entering into force. The news of the US-China effort comes ahead of a series of meetings by different UN bodies over the coming months, all aiming to bring various climate-related processes across the finish line.

The ratification announcement was made jointly by US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and came just ahead of this year’s G-20 summit, which was hosted by China. The two leaders also made a series of other climate-related announcements relating to international civil aviation and the potential phase-out of hydrofluorocarbons.

“This is the single-best chance that we have to deal with a problem that could end up transforming this planet in a way that makes it very difficult for us to deal with all the other challenges that we may face,” said Obama regarding the Paris accord.

The UNFCCC has 197 parties, with the vast majority of these having already signed the deal. At press time, 26 of the 180 signatories to the Paris Agreement have submitted their instruments of ratification, including the US and China. According to the UNFCCC, these 26 countries together account for just over 39 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

In order for the Paris Agreement to enter into force, 55 UNFCCC parties must submit their instruments of ratification, and those parties also must account for 55 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, at a minimum. Once these threshold conditions are met, the deal would take effect 30 days afterward.

UN officials have welcomed the Sino-US announcement as paving the way for the Paris accord’s prompt entry into force, and potentially giving additional momentum to ongoing ratification efforts underway in other signatories – especially in light of a planned summit on 21 September being hosted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

“I would like today to thank China and the United States for ratifying this landmark agreement – an agreement on which rests the opportunity for a sustainable future for every nation and every person,” said Patricia Espinosa, who recently took on the post of UNFCCC Executive Secretary.

Though the Paris accord was envisioned as entering into force in 2020 – when the current Kyoto Protocol is due to expire – there is an increasing likelihood that the two threshold conditions of emissions coverage and number of parties might be met before then.

However, many of the details relating to “operationalising” the Paris Agreement still need to be negotiated at the UN level, and are slated to be among the main topics for discussion at the UNFCCC’s next Conference of the Parties (COP), slated for 7-18 November in Marrakech, Morocco. (See Bridges Weekly, 2 June 2016)

ICAO Assembly: Market-based mechanism advancing?

One of the areas not covered under the Paris climate accord involved emissions from civil aviation, a topic that is normally dealt with by a separate UN body that is also holding high-level meetings this autumn.

The latter organisation is known as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and is due to convene its triennial Assembly from 27 September – 7 October. Among its agenda topics are negotiations for a global, market-based mechanism on aviation emissions, which were launched at the last ICAO Assembly in 2013.

Given the goal of concluding these talks at the upcoming Montreal meeting, the ICAO Council released in early September a working paper featuring a proposal for an Assembly resolution on the market-based mechanism.

The proposal suggests that such a mechanism could be put in place through multiple phases, though these could be adjusted depending on the results of subsequent periodic reviews. States can choose to participate early, either during the 2021-2023 “pilot phase” or the 2024-2026 “first phase.” Any country not participating then would join in during the 2027-2035 “second phase,” unless they are accorded specific “exemptions” from doing so.

Those given exemptions could include least developed countries (LDCs), small island developing states (SIDS), and landlocked developed countries (LLDCs), along with potentially including those countries whose international aviation activities fall below a certain threshold. Other topics include how to distribute offsetting requirements, along with the baseline level of emissions for determining such requirements, among others.

According to a factsheet issued by the White House, Obama and Xi referred to the ICAO Council move as a welcome one, and suggested that their countries would be among the “early participants” in such a mechanism, while not specifying which of the two early, voluntary phases they may sign up for.

The ICAO Council resolution refers to differing views regarding whether the final resolution should push for developed countries to be those leading the way in early implementation, or if instead there should be a generic call for all countries to do so.

Finish line for HFC amendment in Kigali?

Also coming up on the climate governance agenda is the next Meeting of the Parties (MOP) to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer – often referred to as the Montreal Protocol for short. That gathering will be held from 10-14 October in Kigali, Rwanda.

The most high-profile topic for the upcoming MOP will be the attempt to finalise ongoing talks for an amendment to the protocol that would address hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). These are used as coolants in refrigerators and air conditioners and have a climate-warming potential over 1000 times stronger than carbon dioxide.

These “super” greenhouse gases were previously touted as a viable alternative for other ozone-depleting substances, which are covered under the treaty. Given the extreme warming potential of HFCs, however, the interest in addressing them either under the Montreal Protocol or through another international mechanism has grown over the years, despite questions over the cost of developing alternative technologies as replacements.

Meetings throughout this year have involved negotiations on baselines, along with “freeze dates” and “phase-down schedules” for the eventual restriction of such emissions. Discussions have addressed proposals on differing timeframes for freezing HFC growth in developed and developing countries, respectively.

Other topics under negotiation include determining the “baseline” level of HFCs, around which the “phase down” will be structured.

Cooperation between the US and China on this project has been key in helping it move forward. Three years ago, the two leaders met in California and announced that they would be collaborating in the negotiations for such a phase down – a shift in approach for Beijing, which had previously maintained that HFCs were not ozone-depleting and should therefore be dealt with elsewhere. (See Bridges Weekly, 13 June 2013)

Xi and Obama reaffirmed their backing in their joint statement this past week, along with pledging to help support research on alternatives, develop better efficiency standards, and other related actions.

“The United States and China commit to work together and with others to reach agreement this year on an ambitious and comprehensive HFC amendment to the Montreal Protocol, including an early first reduction step and early freeze date for Article 2 and Article 5 parties respectively and an ambitious phase-down schedule,” they said.

Article 2 parties are developed countries, while Article 5 refers to developing economies under the Montreal Protocol’s classification.

ICTSD reporting; “US and China ratify Paris climate accord,” FINANCIAL TIMES, 3 September 2016.

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