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RNRF Round Table: WRI’s David Waskow Discusses Paris Agreement Implementation

David Waskow, director of the World Resources Institute’s International Climate Initiative, spoke at a meeting of the RNRF Washington Round Table on Public Policy on September 11, 2019. The meeting was hosted by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA).

The goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement is to keep global heating under 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, and to pursue efforts to keep it under 1.5 degrees. Under its framework, each country has put forth a set of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to work toward this goal. These are statements of intended reductions to greenhouse gas emissions, and in many cases, intended improvements in resilience to climate change. The ambition of these contributions, and countries’ adherence to them, are fundamentally important to the success of the Paris Agreement. Unfortunately, the current set of NDCs that have been agreed upon are not sufficiently ambitious to keep global average temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, much less 1.5. This means that, if the agreement is to be successful in halting climate change, not only must countries adhere to their current commitments, they must also increase ambition.

Recognizing this deficiency, the Paris Agreement lays out a series of five-year cycles to bring countries “back to the table” to increase their ambition and strengthen their NDCs. The first such reevaluation will take place in 2020 in Glasgow, Scotland, making next year a focal point of international climate negotiations. The strengthening of NDCs, or lack thereof, in the coming months will potentially have a huge impact on future heating scenarios.

In addition to NDCs, the Agreement also asks countries to bring forth “long-term strategies,” through which they can articulate their intended trajectories out to 2050. Ideally, these trajectories will map out a plan for countries to reach net-zero carbon emissions by then. A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body dedicated to bringing an objective, scientific view of climate change, concluded that this level of ambition is necessary for there to be a chance that warming will stay below 1.5 degrees. It is expected that these updated long-term strategies and NDCs will be presented officially at COP26 in Glasgow in 2020. Activities during 2019 have been developed to prepare participating nations to present more ambitious outcomes in 2020.

The multilateral Paris Agreement has been relatively resilient to recent geopolitical difficulties, with many major countries recently reaffirming their commitments in spite of some uncertainty from others. They demonstrated this at COP24, the annual meeting of the Paris Agreement delegates which took place in Katowice, Poland in December of 2018. This reaffirmation of commitments, however, was not the main focus of this meeting.

Talks were centered around the development of the “Paris Agreement Rulebook,” a set of guidelines for the Agreement’s implementation. Waskow described the rulebook as a concrete backing to Paris’ cycle of action. It provides structure to the repeating patterns of commitments, emissions reductions, re-evaluations, and increases in ambition until the world eventually reaches net-zero carbon emissions.

It involves a planning process, which includes a rubric for the development of new NDCs. It also includes mechanisms for countries to communicate their progress, and a review process to bring accountability to individual countries’ efforts. Additionally, it plans for a periodic global stocktake to assess global progress on carbon emission reductions. Finally, it began to codify a process to promote compliance – most of this was adopted at Katowice (COP24) last year. Some unfinished sections will be addressed this December in Santiago, Chile (COP25).

An important step in ramping up ambition for climate action will be the UN Climate Action Summit, scheduled for New York City, September 21-23. The UN Secretary General António Guterres and his team planned this summit to address the necessity for an increase in ambition, and concrete action alongside it, to address the climate crisis. Essentially, the world is not doing enough about climate change, and this summit’s goal is to inspire the necessary increases in action to prevent catastrophic temperature rise.

The summit will convene a wide variety of stakeholders. Since the summit is happening at the UN headquarters in New York concurrently with the UN General Assembly, leaders from around the world will be in attendance. However, it will not solely be an event for leaders and diplomats. Youth climate activists will play an important role, raising awareness of the direct impacts that climate change will have on young people throughout their lives. The weekend’s events will begin with a youth-led general climate strike on Friday, an extension of the Fridays for Future movement founded by Greta Thunberg, who is in attendance in New York. Saturday, the official beginning of the summit itself, will be dedicated to the Youth Climate Summit, where youth leaders from around the world will showcase climate solutions and engage with global leaders.

Alongside the Youth Summit on Saturday, as well as all day Sunday, there will be track events happening on topics including resilience and adaptation, nature-based solutions, and energy transitions. Leaders from local governments and the private sector will also be in attendance, discussing local action and industry transitions to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis. This will give leaders from outside national governments an opportunity to display their efforts to combat climate change, setting an example for the world on a public stage.

All of these activities will lead up to Monday, the 23rd, when the summit will conclude with statements by national leaders and announcements of high-level initiatives to raise ambition on climate action. The Secretary General, in planning this meeting, has supported countries taking as concrete and ambitious an approach as possible in both their NDCs and their long-term strategies. He is especially focusing on transitioning away from coal as a power source as quickly as possible, which is a necessary early step toward creating carbon-neutral energy systems around the globe. Overall, Waskow said, it is expected that countries’ intents for next year’s communication of new NDCs will become far clearer, although there will still likely be questions as to exactly how much ambition we can expect. It is hoped that the summit will result in far more ambitious commitments at the 2020 meeting in Glasgow.

The meeting in Santiago, Chile (COP25) commences on December 2 and concludes on December 13. Waskow said that the most important items to be addressed at this meeting are issues that remained unresolved at the conclusion of the meeting in Katowice. The Paris Rulebook needs more work. Its completion will allow countries to move into the next phase, implementing and strengthening their commitments. The primary issue that remains to be resolved is creation of international carbon markets and a mechanism for permitting countries to trade against their carbon emission reduction accomplishments. Essentially, countries would be able to trade emissions reductions to another country to count toward the other country’s unmet commitments.

Another point of uncertainty moving forward concerns emission reduction goal timeframes, or the dates upon which countries will adhere to implementing their reduction goals. Currently, the first round of nationally determined reductions ends in 2025 for some countries, and 2030 for others. The uncertainty lies in the timeframe for the next round of commitments – both when the next round will end, and whether every country will adhere to the same end date. Waskow emphasized the importance of having an earlier end date (likely 2035, as opposed to 2040) because it brings about a reconsideration of climate action strategies and the areas in which each country needs to increase its ambition sooner. Fundamentally, end dates need to be soon enough that countries feel the pressure to increase ambition. Waskow concluded discussion of COP 25 by briefly mentioning as outstanding issues: transparency of the reporting progress, capacity building for future emissions reductions, and positively receiving IPCC special reports.

An overarching theme through all of these events and negotiations moving forward is increasing ambition for climate action. Waskow listed three important aspects of increasing ambition: enhancing Paris commitments, increasing the ambition of long-term strategies for each country, and increasing climate finance, namely the replenishment of the Green Climate Fund (GCF). Some significant commitments have been made by Germany, Norway, the UK and France to double their commitments beyond what they had contributed in the first round. However, there are many countries that have not made any commitments, making these commitments an important variable in climate negotiations in the near future. A conference addressing the replenishment of the GCF will be held in October 2019, which will bring more certainty to the future of the fund.

Waskow concluded his presentation with a short description of the 2020 conference in Glasgow (COP26). This will be another important moment for the ambition of climate action on a global scale, since leaders will finally be able to officially announce what their country will be doing to strengthen their commitments. He noted that, in many ways, this is the moment that COP24, the UN Climate Action Summit, and COP25 are leading to.

— Stephen Yaeger, RNRF Program Mgr.

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