Who is afraid of transparency?

Thursday 03 December 2015

Flaring up issues of transparency and reporting of climate actions could be a tactic by developed nations to divert attention from more crucial agendas

Transparency and reporting of climate actions and emissions data by countries has become a big issue at the Paris climate conference. Developed countries are demanding that developing countries should have the same reporting and transparency requirements (called MRV, or measurement, reporting and verification mechanism) as the developed countries. As a negotiator from a developing country told me, the developed countries want a “unified mechanism for reporting and verification”.

President Obama, in his speech on November 30, 2015 at the leaders’ meeting of the Paris climate conference, had specifically mentioned the issue. He said, and I quote, “let’s agree to a strong system of transparency that gives each of us the confidence that all of us are meeting our commitments. And let’s make sure that the countries who don’t yet have the full capacity to report on their targets receive the support that they need”. But, developing countries are opposing this.

Why are developing countries opposed to the MRV regime? What is this reporting and transparency issue all about?

As it happened

The debate on reporting and transparency was started by the developed countries in the meetings leading up to the failed Copenhagen climate conference of 2009. Then, developed countries had spread the rumor that they could not trust China and so they needed detailed verification of emissions reduction data from China. Then India got sucked into this debate, because Indian negotiators believed, at that time, that they had no responsibility to cut emissions on their own under the UN climate convention and, therefore, any domestic action India took need not be verified internationally. They used terms such as “infringement of sovereignty” and “meddling in our internal actions” to object to developed countries’ transparency push. However, they agreed that projects that developed countries funded in developing countries could be MRV-ed.

After the Copenhagen conference failed to achieve consensus, the debate shifted to the next climate conference in Cancun. By Cancun, countries like India and China had unilaterally put out their commitment to reduce emissions. India pledged to reduce emissions intensity of its economy by 20 to 25 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020, without any support from developed countries. China and many other developing countries also submitted their pledges.

In Cancun, the demand for international verification of developing countries actions and emissions data was again raised. Here, the (then) environment minister of India, Jairam Ramesh, proposed that a less intrusive system – called International Consultation and Assessment (ICA) – should be applied to developing countries. A deal was done on this basis at Cancun in 2010. The Cancun agreement is applicable till 2020.

The developed countries are again back with the transparency/reporting issue at Paris. India, in line with the Cancun formulation, has proposed that it will accept MRV for projects that developed countries fund in developing countries. However, for projects developing countries fund themselves, and on data related to their greenhouse gas emissions, India will follow the less-stringent ICA route. The sparring on this issue continues in Paris.

I believe the reporting/transparency issue is a diversionary tactic of the developed countries. They want to box developing countries into a corner on this issue so as to divert attention (and time) from more important issues of resolving questions of equity, the fair division of the carbon budget and finance routed through the Convention process. And I believe that developing countries are unnecessarily getting defensive on this issue.

The issue of reporting and transparency has two components:

  1. Capacity in developing countries to report at the same level of details as the developed countries; and,
  2. Rationale for changes in the reporting and verification system, barely five years after Cancun.

 Let’s start with the second issue.

The Cancun agreement on ICA has not even seen proper implementation. Most developing countries have not even submitted one report under the ICA mechanism largely because of the lack of capacity to prepare such reports. India is soon going to submit its first biennial report. China, too, has not submitted any report. In such a scenario, asking for a change in the agreed-upon reporting and verification system is irrational.

This takes me to the first issue.

The fact is that reporting and verification—the information a country puts out regarding its emissions, or reductions, and the like—is a function of capacity within a country.

Reporting of greenhouse gas emissions is not easy. It requires huge capacity to track and account for all sources of emissions. It requires trained people and sophisticated systems as well as methodology. Most developing countries simply don’t have these. This is the reason developing countries are resisting a stringent system of reporting and verification.

Also, let us not forget that there is an element of differentiation here. Developing countries want to keep the difference between themselves and developed countries on all issues. But that’s a whim and not logic.

I think we can resolve this issue by learning from the Montreal Protocol—the most successful environmental treaty. Under the Montreal Protocol, there is a uniform requirement for reporting the consumption of Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS). This reporting is done through the National Ozone Offices of countries. They follow a similar protocol to maintain, verify and report data. The National Ozone Offices in the developing countries are funded through the multilateral fund (MLF)—a fund set up under the Montreal Protocol to assist developing countries to phase-out the use of ODS. It has taken years for developing countries to develop capabilities to transparently report on various aspects of Montreal Protocol. Some small countries still struggle to collect and verify information and so depend on consultants to do so.

A proposed solution

Learning from the Montreal Protocol, if the developed countries are really serious about reporting, why can’t they agree, at Paris, to fund Climate MRV Offices in each developing country and build their capacity?

I propose that at Paris, countries agree to a 10-year capacity building programme to create, build and sustain the capacity of developing countries to achieve the same levels of reporting and verification as developed countries. Developed countries should agree to additional funds (over and above what they have promised for adaptation, mitigation and technology transfer) to set up climate offices in developing countries and build their capacity. After all, President Barack Obama did say: “let’s make sure that the countries who don’t yet have the full capacity to report on their targets receive the support that they need”. From 2025 onwards, a uniform system can then be applied to all countries.

In all this, note that there is another issue related to MRV that developed countries are avoiding at Paris. That is: MRV of finance. For the past two decades, they have promised finance to developing countries, but have not kept that promise. Now the time has come for them to not only keep to the promise but also be accountable for that.

So, at Paris, we must start a process that will lead to a verifiable mechanism for reporting the financial support of developed countries to the developing countries. The uniform system of MRV will be incomplete without this.

A well-hatched plot

A well-hatched plot

Indications are that India will be made the "fall guy". Developed countries will try at every step to propose changes in the 1992 convention, just to attract opposition from India

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