Climate Change

COP24: Nationally determined contributions and search for common time frames in Katowice

Time is running out and negotiators are still not happy. What will be the fate of the Paris Rule Book?

By Tarun Gopalakrishnan
Published: Wednesday 05 December 2018
Time is running out and negotiators are still not happy. What will be the fate of the Paris Rule Book? Credit: Getty Images

Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are at the heart of the Paris Agreement. The awkward phrasing reflects the shift in climate policy thinking between the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.

Under Kyoto, countries negotiated targets at the international level and implemented them at the national level—a top-down approach. Paris saw the shift to a bottom-up approach. Countries are now supposed to determine their own climate targets at the national level, and communicate them to the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. 

Every effort has been made to distinguish these NDCs from "targets". However, the Paris Agreement does three things to ensure that NDCs are concrete commitments (rather than general aspirations).

First, it requires countries to undertake and communicate ambitious NDCs. Second, it requires that a country’s second NDC must represent a progression over its first (the third must be a progression over the second, and so on). Third, it requires that countries should pursue domestic mitigation measures with the aim of achieving the objectives of their NDCs—this means that once a country has communicated an NDC, it is undertaking a legal commitment to pursue its self-determined targets.

The first NDCs were submitted in 2015, before the Paris Agreement. At the time, they were known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC). Once a country ratified the Agreement, its INDC became its first NDC. These came in all shapes and sizes. They focused on different sectors—some included agriculture, for example, and some did not.

They were not based on standard metrics. Targets ranged from percentage reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions per unit gross domestic product (GDP), to a targeted number of electric vehicles on the road. This is why countries are currently negotiating a 'Paris Rule Book'—to set out rules and guidelines which standardise how NDCs are communicated.

The Rule Book is to be finalised at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which commenced Monday and continues for the next 10 days.

Most critically, NDCs are currently not on the same time frame. India, for example, has indicated targets up until 2030, as has China. Other countries have communicated targets up until 2025.

These are the two most common approaches, but not the only ones. Hence countries are discussing the question of common time frames—to get all NDC communication on the same schedule.

This is different from the question of how regularly NDCs are to be communicated–Article 4.9 of the Paris Agreement is clear that countries have to submit a new NDC every five years. Hence, a country could submit an NDC in the year 2060, with targets for the time-period 2065-2075 (i.e. a 10-year time frame). It would then have to submit a new NDC in 2065 (i.e. 5 years later), with targets for 2070-2080 (still a 10-year time frame).

As covered above, however, the 10-year time frame is not the standard at present. The draft text of the Paris Rule Book currently has four options for common time-frames—five years, 10 years, five or 10 years, or left to countries themselves. This last option, as several negotiators in Katowice pointed out on Monday, is not really an option. It is in the text as a negotiating tactic, but the time for such tactics is running out.

The crux of the issue is the progressive increase in ambition required by the Paris Agreement. Shorter time-frames would mean more regular increases in ambition. The aggregate effect of the currently communicated NDCs has us on track to exceed the dangerous threshold of 1.5°C of warming in the mid-2030s—rapid and regular increases in ambition would be very welcome.

A longer time frame, in theory, could allow for more consultation and domestic planning, which could result in more sustainable increases in ambition. It is more likely, though, to lock in un-ambitious domestic planning.

The current negotiating text is the work of the co-chairs of the negotiating group on common time frames, and they have attempted to capture the preferences of the negotiators in as clear and concise a manner as possible. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were early objections to the exclusion of some countries' preferences from the negotiating text. The discussions are hence open again for "options-between-the-options".

One such proposal is to just set a schedule until 2040, and push decisions on the schedule beyond 2040 to future negotiating sessions. This is pragmatic, but does not send a strong signal on long-term commitment to climate action. Another proposal would require countries to submit two NDCs at a time, each with a five-year time-frame. Hence, in 2060, a country would communicate an NDC for 2065-2070, and one for 2070-2075. In theory, this combines the benefits of the five and ten year time frames.

In practice, common time frames are just one of the issues at stake in Katowice. The fact that negotiators are still not happy to pick one of the options in the draft text is not a promising sign. Innovative proposals can offer a way to find compromise, but they are generally more complex to implement domestically.

Besides, momentum behind these proposals should have ideally gathered at the negotiating sessions in Bonn (in May this year) or in Bangkok (in September). With just over a week to finalize the Paris Rule Book, countries must find quicker ways to common ground.

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