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It’s About Time – The Case for Shorter UNFCC Commitment Periods

By Morgan Henley

The difference between five or ten years may seem trivial when you are talking about an issue with the gravity of climate change. So when it comes to UNFCCC commitment periods, it can be easy to think it’s more of a detail than a crucial point. What’s the difference between five or ten years anyway?

To put it into perspective, let’s look at the world 15 years ago. It was 1999 and Y2K was one of our biggest fears, NATO was in the midst of bombing Yugoslavia, US President Bill Clinton was on trial for the Lewinsky affair, the euro had just been created, and Putin was the fresh new face of the Kremlin.

Apart from the seemingly never-ending rule of Putin, it’s easy to see that in 15 years, things have changed quite a bit. Yet if you move ahead five years to ten years ago, it looks a little more like the world as we know it today. By 2004 Facebook had made it’s debut, the US was in Iraq despite knowing they didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction, the EU expansion was happening, and the Orange Revolution was underway in Ukraine. All this to say: five years can make a significant difference.

So as the current climate negotiations get underway this December in Peru, timing is going to be crucial. Peru (Lima) is going to be instrumental in crafting the following year’s agreement that is set to be signed in Paris. If this agreement is going to be the “one” that rights the wrongs of Copenhagen and Kyoto, and finally give us the “UN answer” to climate change, even the details such as commitment periods will be essential.

 

The Debate

Today, the parties are split between the option of either five or ten year commitment periods. The five year commitment period is advocated by many to be more appropriate given how rapidly technology advances which could boost renewable targets. Further, given that governments have less time to meet their targets, it encourages earlier action instead of putting it off, possibly to be another future administration’s chore later.

 

It is precisely these kinds of under-ambitious deals which are leading many other nations to call for shorter term commitment periods for the UNFCCC.

 

With the ten year 2020 – 2030 proposal there would be a review in the middle, which is argued would lead to adjustments of the agreement if necessary. The EU has advocated this option with the rationale that this will boost investment and security for the obviously crucial private sector support. It also would conveniently correspond to the EU 2030 Energy Package.

This is the 2030 Energy Package that has markedly low ambitions. Experts have pointed out repeatedly that the necessary reductions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change are not encapsulated in the EU’s recent package, and unfortunately are likely to freeze the EU’s climate change aspirations until 2030. It is precisely these kinds of under-ambitious deals which are leading many other nations to call for shorter term commitment periods for the UNFCCC.

The rationale behind this proposal is to avoid what is called in climate negotiation lingo “locking in low commitment.” Given the current political atmosphere and the attitudes towards climate change and clean energy investment of major emitters, not only the EU, this is a serious concern. Many reasonably fear that the global political leaders of today will only be able to agree on weak targets, which will create an under-performing status quo. If the past is any indicator, when a country breaks from the status quo within the UNFCCC, it is rarely for the good.

This low ambition would then be frozen into an agreement until 2030, which can keep many countries around the world under-performing on emissions reductions and renewable investments. For the EU in particular, research has shown that the bloc could have surpassed their emissions reductions but didn’t because it had already met the relatively low Kyoto Protocol targets. A dysfunctional EU emissions trading (ETS) mechanism doesn’t help…

Given the reputation and reality of the climate negotiations themselves, having to craft another agreement and go through the cumbersome process of negotiating any more than absolutely necessary does at first seem like a nightmare. For the EU, coming battle worn from the 2030 negotiations, this sentiment is apt. After the long and trying process of getting together the 2030 targets, it appears that the idea of putting together new numbers for 2025 right now is just too cumbersome for many in the EU Commission, leaving the UNFCCC to be an afterthought of the 2030 package.

After the EU 2030 package is decided upon, it is up to the EU as to whether they will come up with a plan that accommodates a 2025 timeline as well or continue to defend the 2030 position. There is mounting pressure on the EU to support short-term goals from developing countries and environmental NGOs, such as the Climate Action Network, the major global network of NGOs who work against climate change. They have been calling on the EU to change their position as they see that the fear and low ambition of the EU 2030 package could seep into the UNFCCC. Included in this opposition is a seemingly unlikely player – the US.

 

Why the US?

As of late, the US, despite being the notorious climate change negotiation spoiler of the past, has given some hope on emissions reductions. Whilst Obama has been far from the climate champion the world once hoped he would be, his recent 30% emission reduction regulation for existing power plants is some sign of progress. Climate change apathy in Washington also seems to be losing strength in other areas, as shown by the recent report released from the Pentagon on the security costs of inaction on climate change.

Yet despite these signs of movement, the reality of climate change politics in the US is still stormy – warranting the advocacy of a short term commitment period. U.S. negotiators and leadership have repeatedly urged that any legally binding agreement that will need the US Congress’s approval is sure to get rejected by Republicans. Some may regard this as one of the US’ sly negotiating tactics, but to do so would ignore the stark reality of the political landscape in the US.

 

Climate change apathy in Washington also seems to be losing strength in other areas, as shown by the recent report released from the Pentagon on the security costs of inaction on climate change.

 

The recent mid-term elections are currently underway in the US, and they have shown the depths of the Republican party’s hostility to climate change-directed legislation. Many of the potential Republican Presidential hopefuls such as Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, have publicly denied climate change – and the list goes on. It has even reached the point where climate change scepticism within the Republican party has received so much public attention and criticism that signs of change in rhetoric have started to appear. The tactic of the Republicans to avoid questions of climate change by claiming to ‘not be a scientist,’ proved more to be fodder for speeches from the Democrats and online campaigns from environmental NGOs than reassuring words for a climate-sceptic American public.

For the US negotiators, the hope is that a more favourable political scenario will develop in the future and the Republican’s rampant climate denial will eventually subside. One way this could happen is if technology progresses enough to make the economic case for renewables undeniable to the American people. Given that this is already happening, and given the rate at which technological advances happen is surpassing expectations, we have reason to believe that the US position could actually improve. Fossil fuel divestment has the potential to also shake things up in this regard, and decisions from major figures such as the Rockefellers to get their substantial investments out of fossil fuels could be a sign of more to come

The EU will play an important role in these negotiations as ever. The EU needs not only to legitimise its reputation as a global leader in progressive climate legislation, it also needs to send a sign to other governments that being tough on climate change is possible. Yet if they let the disappointing EU 2030 package give a pass to the rest of the world on a lack of climate change action, we will have bigger things to worry about than just weak EU energy targets.

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