Q&A: Top UNFCCC Official Thorgeirsson on 2014-2015 Climate Negotiation Priorities


March 12 —  With the first United Nations climate negotiations of the year at their halfway point, negotiators are grappling with many key issues related to the form, scope and ambition of the 2015 global agreement to confront climate change.

Five years ago, at the Conference of the Parties (COP) summit in Copenhagen, parties agreed to take steps to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of this century, compared to pre-industrial levels. The 2015 treaty, to be finalized at the COP summit in Paris and to go into effect no later than 2020, is the mechanism meant to achieve that aim.

Halldor Thorgeirsson, head of the Implementation Strategy Unit for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and a top lieutenant to UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, spoke to Bloomberg BNA March 12 on the sidelines of the Bonn Climate Change Conference.

During a 30-minute interview, he discussed some of the specific challenges of the multilateral climate negotiating process as it winds through two more sets of inter-sessional meetings this year, the 2014 COP summit in Lima, Peru, and into the final stretch in 2015.

BBNA: You have said that governments are showing here in Bonn that they are finally ready to put forth their vision of what will happen in Lima. Why do you think that's the case? What's changed since [the last round of talks] in Warsaw?

Thorgeirsson: What is encouraging is that the submissions [countries were asked to submit specific lists of priorities for the climate negotiating process in 2014 and 2015] that have come in so far have been looking at the whole picture and not just on each country's favorite topic. They're basically looking at what needs to be clarified and how we can achieve in Lima a sense of what the [2015] agreement is going to operate. This is all kept as one conversation. We don't have silos [the term used to refer to narrow topics of negotiation] on adaptation, silos on mitigation, on finance, and so forth, and that is something I think is going to make it easier to have a sense how much is already clear and to clarify what will be the main issues in 2015.

BBNA: It's true that the submissions so far have been comprehensive, but they also fail to show much consensus: There seems to be a very wide panorama of viewpoints. It must be helpful to have all that down in writing, to know where specific countries stand, but couldn't one also say these submissions illustrate how much work must still be done? The EU proposal and that of China, and of the U.S., for example, they don't seem to show a lot of common ground.

Thorgeirsson: Yes, that's true. But we don't really see this year as the year of taking fundamental positions off the table. You will see many countries clarifying their positions, but that does not mean they will not move away from these positions over time.

But that's not the main objective of this year. The objective now is to see where the choices really lie and to try to minimize what will have to be confronted next year. It will be very difficult to create a significant consensus on central issues in Lima. That is for Paris [in 2015]. But the goal is to arrive in Lima with knowledge of what the ultimate agreement will look like so that governments can conclude their national preparations.

BBNA: Please elaborate on that.

Thorgeirsson: Well, this process is moving forward on three main fronts: One is governments preparing at home to know what they can do after 2020; they are participating in these negotiations for a new agreement, and they are looking at ways to unlock pre-2020 ambition. Advancing the process of knowing what the agreement will look like and how it will operate has to come first.

That was the biggest results from Warsaw, the idea of “nationally determined contributions” being on the table before the agreement is adopted.

BBNA: Many delegates have said the same thing. Why is it so important?

Thorgeirsson: In international environment diplomacy there has been this notion that you first clarify the international obligations and then you go home and figure out what that means domestically. There is an attempt now to reverse this sequence, to have a full understanding what is possible domestically and then determine how an international agreement allows you to be more ambitious and go further.

BBNA: In talking to delegates, the idea emerges that the 2015 agreement may end up being a set of rules on accounting for and monitoring emissions and so on and that the rest of it could be put into place a year or two later with a legally binding COP decision. This begs a question: Is the 2015 agreement meant to be a comprehensive treaty that will cover most aspects of the process to confront climate change? Or is it going to be a kind of rulebook that leaves the prickly issues for 2016 or 2017?

Thorgeirsson: Well, I have some observations: First, the backbone of the transparency and accountability framework is already under construction in the form of MRV [rules for “Measuring, Reporting, and Verification”], and that infrastructure is coming to fruition soon, well before Paris. The new agreement will in essence rely on that reporting infrastructure.

What remains is this question of accounting—there is a difference between reporting and accounting. Reporting is the information you provide and accounting is what you do with that information. It would be extremely helpful if this could be clarified this year, but it doesn't stop there.

BBNA:What are some of the ways that could work out?

Thorgeirsson: Some governments want “common accounting.” What that means is that it's negotiated at the international level and everyone agrees in the 2015 agreement. But there is also a discussion about how countries should unilaterally provide clarity on accounting. This may seem like splitting hairs, but it's a question of how do you arrive at the clarity: Do you agree internationally and then everybody applies it? Or do you actually have it arise from the bottom up, but with some international standing? Ideally, we'd know what governments want on these questions this year.

BBNA: In Warsaw, there was friction over when emissions reduction targets are submitted. Many countries, including host Peru, strongly wanted a deadline before Lima, but in the end it was pushed to early 2015. But here in Bonn, delegates are still saying they want the targets before Lima. Wouldn't that kind of change require a COP decision?

Thorgeirsson: Yes it would, and it's really a moot point. Nothing stops them from coming in earlier. And regardless, we'll have an idea before Lima. Heads of state and government will answer the call from the [UN] secretary general [Ban Ki-moon] to come to [UN headquarters in] New York in September and make bold announcements. So it starts with what leaders say in September, then what signals ministers might send during the high-level segment of the negotiations in Lima and then what they will actually submit to the UNFCCC in 2015.

You don't come up with a commitment out of the blue. What is being encouraged is the domestic processes we're seeing, and they're in the news. The most visible is the European Commission proposal and the meetings that will take place next week. You will see more and more of this. My sense is that the secretary general's event will be seen as a good opportunity for leaders who are ready to make an announcement to do so at a very headline level.

BBNA: In that case, if they will more or less know the answer already, why won't delegations come to Lima ready to at least give some idea of what their submissions will be? And how much of a disadvantage does that create, not to be able to discuss in any official way these targets in Lima? Can the ambition gap [between the voluntary targets and the levels necessary for the 2-degree goal] be closed in the months between the submissions in early 2015 and the summit in Paris?

Thorgeirsson: I don't think this will be the main issue in Lima, because in Lima we will focus on he agreement itself. The focus won't be on the content of the nationally determined agreements. That will come in 2015. But it will be very important that Lima will lay the groundwork so what is agreed to in 2015 will be a meaningful agreement.

BBNA: In that context, define “meaningful agreement.”

Thorgeirsson:What makes the agreement meaningful is that is has to be capable of bending the curve of global emissions over time to limit acceptable warming to no more than 2 degrees and possibly lower.

As you know, the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] synthesis report will be completed in October, and it will be very clear at that point what the consequences of different levels of warming will mean. This is part of the agreement just taking shape here in Bonn. How do you manage the pathway to 2050? How do you bring us from a pathway to 3 or 4 or 5 degrees of warming to just 2 degrees? And that is the whole reason for an international agreement. If all we needed was for each government to do what they think is necessary domestically, then we wouldn't be responding to the global imperative.


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