What’s the time

Most assessments agree that Lima has provided another step in the right direction – albeit a baby step, where what we need is a leap. 350.org rightly highlight that the UNFCCC and the new agreement is just one tool, that needs to be complemented by broader action, including a continuation and strengthening of the divestment movement.

However, it is an important tool. Without an agreement that holds governments accountable in the international arena, many grassroots movements, local politicians and others working for change would likely be faced with growing odds. Given the challenges ahead, as for example shown in the World Bank’s ‘Turn Down the Heat’ series, we need all actors – from national governments to grassroots movements – to do the best they can do, as fast as they can. 

So, in the light of the apparent urgency of action, what I find strangely absent is agreement on a time frame for INDCs. Are countries expected to provide INDCs for 2025, 2030, or maybe any other point in time? And… does it matter?

The answer is – of course – yes, it does matter. For a number of reasons:

  • Avoid lock-in of low ambition – the current political signals do not indicate that commitments are likely to be in line with what is required to limit global warming to below 2°C. As we see from the negotiations under ADP workstream 2, which aims to address the gap for 2020 pledges, it is not likely that commitments, once inscribed, will be scaled up during the commitment period.
  • Ensure continuity – there seems to be growing agreement for the need to define a process that embeds individual commitment periods into a long-term pathway and removes the need to negotiate ‘IF’ and ‘WHEN’ there are new commitments each time. This reduces negotiations to the essential level of ambition of commitments and provides a clear signal for continuity to policy makers and the private sector.
  • Enhance flexibility – shorter cycles allow to react more directly to changes in underlying assumptions and new findings from science. Science is regularly providing new insights into causes and impacts of climate change, including on sustainable development and poverty. Real developments often outpace predictions, as seen in the development of wind and solar prices and related installed capacity. While policy is, amongst others, a driver of such developments, they also influence the level of ambition and can encourage bolder action.
  • Mainstreaming climate policy into policy cycles – short commitment cycles support truly low carbon development in all countries, as required to achieve the Convention objectives. The frequent need to address the topic helps to keep climate change on the agenda of policy makers and create regular political momentum for enhanced attention, providing political leaders with an opportunity to demonstrate ambition.
  • Enhanced transparency – free choice of time frames or differentiation between groups could lead to a situation of comparing apples and oranges. Agreeing on one time frame for all eliminates the need to make assumptions on potential developments up to and beyond the stated dates, required in the case of different time frame to be able to add up global contributions. This, however, is essential in understanding if commitments are sufficient or not.

There seems to be growing support for a joint long-term emission goal, translated from the agreed temperature limit into something – at least marginally – more tangible, and certainly more easy to use as a reference point for assessing ambition. This is a positive development, although the draft agreement text suggests this proposal to be far from full consensus. An agreed long-term emissions target could, however, provide a solid basis for enhanced ambition over time.

There is far more divergence on the time frame for initial and subsequent INDCs. The elements for the draft negotiating text, which form part of the Lima Call for Climate Action, show no less than 10 different options regarding the time frame for commitments / contributions (Annex, paragraph 71).

Ahead of the conference, the LDCs called for a 5 year period with an automatic 5 year cycle until 2040. The 5 year time frame was also proposed by the Marshall Islands and the US in their respective submissions. Brazil goes a step further, in proposing a twofold commitment, with a 5 year INDC and an indicative contribution for the following 5 year period.

The EU supports the idea of a regular “cycle of commitments” and a 5 year review cycle, but stays vague regarding the actual commitment period. Given the challenges for internally negotiating a commitment within the EU, it is obvious why the EU favours 2030 as a target year. This seems to lead to a stand-off of very unlikely alliances, with the most vulnerable countries being supported by the US vs. the EU, being supported by China in the call for a 10 year commitment period.

Another dimension of this heated debate is the question, if there should be one time frame for all Parties, or a differentiation between developed countries and others. The 10 options outlined in the draft negotiation text offer a multitude of combinations between the two elements of the discussion.

Like so many other elements of the new agreement it boils down to two questions:

  • When do we get serious with ambition that lead on a path to full decarbonisation?
  • Where and how do we need to differentiate between Parties depending on their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities?

Where there is a will, there is a way… as the saying goes. Let’s work together to trigger more political will. Looking at the growing evidence that increasing parts of the population and even business are calling for stronger action is encouraging. So we should give ourselves a chance to better communicate the issues, to gather even more momentum in society, and learn more about the benefits of acting to prevent climate change. Let’s not block future progress by setting in stone insufficient levels of ambition up to 2030.

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