Paris ministerial boosts UN climate talks, more national action plans released

23 July 2015

Ministers and other high-level officials from 46 countries made headway on the politically thorny issues that have stymied the UN negotiations to finalise the first-ever universal emissions-cutting deal during an informal meet in Paris, France held earlier this week.

Consensus emerged at the gathering that there should be a regular, five-year review of the collective effort to curb climate-warming greenhouse gases (GHGs). National climate action plans will form the building blocks of new multilateral climate regime, set to replace the current Kyoto Protocol when it expires at the end of the decade, and geared towards keeping the world within a two degree Celsius rise from pre-industrial levels.

How to track progress on, and scale up ambition where needed, has been a sticking point between parties. These plans have been steadily released by countries throughout the year and a flurry of new contributions were released over the past week.

“This is a breakthrough,” Laurence Tubiana, France’s top climate negotiator commenting on the progress told reporters. “That was not obvious to get. There are still a lot of details to be worked out, but the idea of everyone accepting to be verified within a common framework is very significant,” she added.

The two-day session, held on 20-21 July, was framed as an “informal ministerial consultation” dedicated to preparing governments for the watershed UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meet to ink the deal in the French capital in December. All of the world’s top GHG emitters, apart from Russia, and the recognised negotiating blocs attended the meeting.

Ministers also made progress around the traditionally difficult principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” (CBDR), agreeing that governments will “self-differentiate” and judge their own capacity to contribute to the new UN climate deal, according to media sources.

The principle has proved a regular stumbling block over who should cut emissions beyond the end of the decade. In the multilateral climate regime to date, only developed nations have been mandated to cut emissions, in accordance with separate “Annexes” created when the UNFCCC was inked in 1992. The rise of new global economic powers, and corresponding escalating levels of emissions, has nevertheless created tensions around the distribution of mitigation efforts between countries.  

Given that the principle will likely play a role in the new deal, according to an outcome document from last December’s climate meet held in Lima, Peru, negotiators must square the circle between differentiation and comprehensive participation.

Nonetheless, many in the international community have expressed optimism around the tone of the talks, and are optimistic about the safe passage of the deal by the end of the year. “I see far greater convergence on the broad outlines of the deal than we ever saw in the time preceding Copenhagen,” said Elliot Diringer, executive vice-president of US-based climate analysts C2ES, which recently finished organising a series of dialogues with senior climate officials on building a successful agreement.

From informal to formal

Some sources said that the meeting had been important in continuing to build up trust between policymakers and saw some discussion on a long term mitigation goal.

"The process needs a political nudge. Having ministers talking to each other, sitting around eye-to-eye, that helps to move things along," said Tony de Brum, the Marshall Islands’ foreign minister.

Some delegates, nevertheless, drew attention to some outstanding challenges ahead around crafting the new climate governance regime and ultimately solving the CBDR structural challenge.

“On the way to the utmost target different tasks should be shared between developed and developing countries. Otherwise, someone may just wait and see, while others find it beyond their grasp,” said Xie Zhenhua, China’s special representative on climate change affairs, who also added that the overall meeting had been very productive.

Political progress in the talks was eyed after negotiators meeting in June in Bonn, Germany during the UNFCCC’s last formal session struggled to make headway on a 90 page-long negotiating text. That occasion had made clear that ministerial-level engagement would be important to help find solutions to the tougher issues on the table. (See BioRes 15 June 2015)

Negotiators and stakeholders are now eagerly awaiting the pending release of a new consolidated version of the negotiating text, or so-called “tool,” currently being drafted by the co-chairs of the UN climate talks. The informal document was proposed at the end of the June meet and will present countries with clearer options for various sections.

The streamlined text is set to be released either on or before Friday 24 July, and a second informal ministerial meet is likely to take place in Paris around 6-7 September, where discussions might focus on the financing of proposed policies. A UNFCCC negotiating session is scheduled from 31 August-4 September and another from 19-23 October.

The past week also saw the submission of two more national climate action plans – referred to in UN speak as “intended nationally determined contributions” – one by Japan and another from the Republic of Marshall Islands. The UNFCCC secretariat will release a report in November evaluating pledges received by October.

The latest submissions bring the total number of country pledges to 20, counting the 28- member states of the EU as one.  According to a World Resources Institute (WRI) database dedicated to analysing the INDCs, these now cover over 56.3 percent of global emissions.

In early July, Singapore and New Zealand also joined ranks with countries the US, the EU, China, Mexico, Gabon, and Ethiopia, who have all submitted INDCs. However, a few big emitters, including Australia and India, have yet to come forward with their national plans. (See BioRes 2 July 2015).

Japan’s target criticised

Japan’s INDC promises a 26 percent drop in climate change driving emissions by 2030 from 2013 levels. This final plan was unchanged from a draft version released on 30 April. The cuts will cover energy, including those from industry, manufacturing, construction, transport, residential, agriculture, forestry, and fishing; fugitive emissions from fuels; and carbon dioxide transport and storage. The climate plan release came shortly after the government’s release of its long-term energy strategy out to 2030 published last Thursday by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Japan is the seventh largest emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for 2.65 percent of global emissions, including those from land use, land use change, and forestry (LULUCF). Japan plans to increase the share of renewables to 22 to 24 percent of its energy supply by 2030. Japan is also looking to scale-up the share of nuclear in its power supply to 20-22 percent by 2030, a percentage that is still lower than before the devastating Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011. According to analysts, carbon emissions in Japan rose steadily after 2011 and peaked in 2013, since fossil fuels were used to replace zero-carbon nuclear energy, sparking a significant climate-development conundrum for the island nation.

By using 2013 as its baseline for emissions reductions in its INDC, some experts believe that Japan has backtracked on its 2009 target to reduce emissions 25 percent on 1990 levels. The post-2020 effort represents an equivalent of 18 percent emissions cuts below that baseline, finds monitoring group Climate Action Tracker.

While the Japanese government last week said that the INDC was comparable to the global effort, many environmentalist groups said the effort paled in comparison to the EU’s target of 40 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 on 1990 levels, and the US target of 26-18 percent reduction in emissions by 2025 on 2005 levels.

Some experts have also pointed out that Japan’s plans to build more than 50 coal fired power plants – the most polluting conventional fuel source – at home and abroad is at odds with the international pledge to reduce emissions.

“With this bare minimum target, Japan has not presented a credible plan to shift its economy from reliance on climate change-causing fossil fuels,” said Wael Hmaidan, executive director of Climate Action Network International, an organisation representing over 900 climate groups.

Missing the mark on markets, WTO compliance?

According to the INDC document, Japan is planning on reaching its emissions pledge by utilising carbon credits generated from its bilateral accounting system, also known as the Joint Crediting Mechanism (JCM). The JCM is intended to both cut GHG emissions and boost the export of clean technologies to developing countries.

In a move that surprised the international community, Japan created the JCM in 2010 to reduce its dependence on the carbon offset mechanism in the Kyoto protocol, referred to as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The programme consists of bilateral agreements between Japan and 14 developing countries including Mongolia, Kenya, Cambodia, Mexico, and most recently Saudi Arabia and Chile.

Estimates from analysts show that Japan may have overestimated the amount of emissions cuts that can be generated from the JCM. While Tokyo estimates that the mechanism will cut emissions by 50-100 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent between now and 2030, a recent article first published by Carbon Pulse, concludes that the four projects approved so far only have a combined capacity to reduce emissions by just 500 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. Unless a vast number of new projects are approved, therefore, some experts say the JCM will not lead to the carbon reduction Japan needs to reach its target.

Some members of the international community are also concerned about the JCM’s compliance with WTO rules, with several experts suggesting the JCM may explicitly exclude the participation of foreign firms in the scheme. This could constitute as preferential treatment to Japanese companies, potential falling foul of WTO’s agreement on subsidies and countervailing measures. No formal complaint, however, has yet been made by another WTO member.

Several analysts have questioned how the JCM will ensure environmental integrity and prevent double counting of emission cuts. The JCM is nevertheless implemented under the UNFCCC's "Framework for Various Approaches" in line with a decision taken at a 2012 climate meet allowing parties to develop, individually or jointly, market- and non-market-based tools to enhance cost-effective mitigation. The decision emphasises that any such approaches must deliver meaningful climate action and avoid double counting.

Other commentators have also suggested that the scheme may not sufficiently take into account the actual technology needs of developing countries. Some experts have pushed back on this point, however, suggesting that the JCM schemes are designed and implemented jointly between Japan and each partner to accommodate relevant needs. 

Pushing for more ambition

The Marshall Islands, meanwhile, aims to cut emissions 32 percent below 2010 levels by 2025 and provides a secondary indicative pledge to cut emissions 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030. This is part of the government’s larger plan to reach net zero emissions by 2050, according to a statement from President Christopher J. Loeak’s office.

“With most of the big emitters’ targets on the table, everyone knows we are falling well short. Our message is simple: if one of the world’s smallest, poorest, and most geographically isolated countries can do it, so can you,” Loeak said on releasing the INDC.

As the first small island developing state to submit an INDC, facing many challenges ahead from the impacts of climate change, the contribution received a warm reception among stakeholders and environmental groups. 

The INDC covers emissions from energy and waste, noting that emissions from other sectors are negligible. The nation said it does not plan to use market-based mechanisms to meet its targets. The INDC includes details on adaptation efforts and disaster risk management. Another section also details the international support the country will need to move to a low carbon future, particularly in the energy sector, given a current dependence on imported petroleum products.

ICTSD reporting: “Paris climate ministerial sees progress on global deal,” RTCC, 22 July 2014; “U.N. climate deal draft must be shorter, clearer: minister,” REUTERS, 22 July 2015; “Marshall Islands to cut GHG emissions by a third by 2025,” CARBON PULSE, 20 July 2015; “Japan delivers 26% emissions reduction plan to UN,” RTCC, 20 July 2015; “Japan’s 2030 climate pledge leaves room for coal expansion,” Carbon Brief, 21 July 2015; “Japan’s JCM sees slow progress, facing scrutiny at home and abroad,” CARBON PULSE, 28 April 2015. 

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