Tag Archives: common but differentiated responsibilities

The Platform Opens a Window: An Unambiguous Consequence of the Durban Climate Talks

In my previous essay – following the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which adjourned on December 11, 2011 – I offered my assessment of the Durban climate negotiations, addressing the frequently-posed question of whether the talks had “succeeded.”  I took note of three major outcomes from the negotiations:  (1) elaboration on several components of the Cancun Agreements; (2) a second five-year commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol; and (3) a non-binding agreement to reach an agreement by 2015 that will bring all countries under the same legal regime by 2020.  My conclusion was that this package – in total – represented something of a “half-full glass of water,” that is, an outcome that could be judged successful or not, depending upon one’s perspective.

However, something I did not discuss last month is that this third provision ­– the “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” – has opened an important window.  To explain what I mean requires a brief review of some key points from twenty years of history of international climate negotiations.

The Rio Earth Summit (1992)

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (the first “Earth Summit”) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, contains what was to become a crucial passage.  The first “principle” in Article 3 of the Convention reads as follows:  “The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.” [emphasis added]  The countries considered to be “developed country Parties” were listed in an appendix to the 1992 Convention ­– Annex I.

The phrase – common but differentiated responsibilities – has been repeated countless numbers of times since 1992, but what does it really mean?  The official answer was provided three years after the Earth Summit by the first decision adopted by the first Conference of the Parties (COP-1) of the U.N. Framework Convention, in Berlin, Germany, April 7, 1995 ­­– the Berlin Mandate.

The Berlin Mandate (1995)

The Berlin Mandate interpreted the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” as:

(1) launching a process to commit (by 1997) the Annex I countries to quantified greenhouse gas emissions reductions within specified time periods (targets and timetables); and

(2) stating unambiguously that the process should “not introduce any new commitments for Parties not included in Annex I.”

Thus, the Berlin Mandate established the dichotomous distinction whereby the Annex I countries are to take on emissions-reductions responsibilities, and the non-Annex I countries are to have no such responsibilities whatsoever.

The Kyoto Protocol (1997)

It was in direct response to this Mandate that the U.S. Senate subsequently passed unanimously (95-0) the Byrd-Hagel Resolution in August of 1997 (Senate Resolution 98, 105th Congress, 1st Session) stating that:

“It is the sense of the Senate that the United States should not be a signatory to any protocol to, or other agreement regarding, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992, at negotiations in Kyoto in December 1997, or thereafter, which would mandate new commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the Annex I Parties, unless the protocol or other agreement also mandates new specific scheduled commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for Developing Country Parties within the same compliance period.”

So, in a very real sense, the Berlin Mandate brought about sustained bi-partisan opposition in the United States to the international climate regime and the Kyoto Protocol.  This sealed the Protocol’s fate in terms of ever being ratified by the U.S. Senate.  President Clinton did not submit the Protocol to the Senate for ratification, nor would Al Gore have done so had he been elected to succeed Clinton.  Likewise, Senator John Kerry was explicit about his opposition to Kyoto when he ran for President against George W. Bush, and President Bush was subsequently more than explicit about his lack of support for the Protocol and, for that matter, the UNFCCC process.  When Barack Obama ran against John McCain for President in 2008, one thing on which they agreed was their opposition to the Kyoto Protocol.

Beyond those decisive impacts on U.S. climate politics, the Berlin Mandate had wide-ranging and worldwide normative consequences, because it became the anchor that prevented and has – until very recently – continued to prevent real progress in international climate negotiations.  With 50 non-Annex I countries having greater per capita income than the poorest of the Annex I countries, the distinction is clearly out of whack.  But, more important than that, this dichotomous distinction means that:

(a) half of global emissions soon will be from nations without constraints;

(b) the world’s largest emitter – China – is unconstrained;

(c) aggregate compliance costs are driven up to be four times their cost-effective level, because many opportunities for low-cost emissions abatement in emerging economies are taken off the table; and

(d) an institutional structure is perpetuated that makes change and progress virtually impossible.

Fast Forward to Copenhagen (2009) and Cancun (2010)

The dichotomous Annex I/non-Annex I distinction remained a central – indeed, the central – feature of international climate negotiations ever since COP-1 in Berlin in 1995.  Then, at COP-15 in 2009, there were hints of possible change.

The Copenhagen Accord (2009) and the Cancun Agreements (2010) began a process of blurring the Annex I/non-Annex I distinction.  However, this blurring was only in the context of the interim pledge-and-review system established at COP-15 in Copenhagen and certified at COP-16 in Cancun, not in the context of an eventual successor to the Kyoto Protocol.  Thus, the Berlin Mandate retained its centrality.

Finally, We Arrive in Durban (2011)

The third of the three outcomes of the December 2011 talks in Durban, South Africa, which I mentioned at the beginning of this essay – the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action – completely eliminates the Annex I/non-Annex I (or industrialized/developing country) distinction.  In the Durban Platform, the delegates reached a non-binding agreement to reach an agreement by 2015 that will bring all countries under the same legal regime by 2020.  That’s a strange and confusing sentence, but it’s what happened, and it’s potentially important.

Rather than adopting the Annex I/non-Annex I (or industrialized/developing country) distinction, the Durban Platform focuses instead on the (admittedly non-binding) pledge to create a system of greenhouse gas reductions including all Parties (that is, all key countries) by 2015 that will come into force (after ratification) by 2020.  Nowhere in the text of the decision will one find phrases such as “Annex I,” “common but differentiated responsibilities,” “distributional equity,” “historical responsibility,” all of which had long since become code words for targets for the richest countries and blank checks for all others.

A Dramatic Departure

Thus, in a dramatic departure from some seventeen years of U.N. hosted international negotiations on climate change, the 17th Conference of the Parties in Durban turned away from the Annex I/non-Annex I distinction, which had been the centerpiece of international climate policy and negotiations since it was adopted at the 1st Conference of the Parties in Berlin in 1995.

Because of this, the international law scholar, Daniel Bodansky, has labeled “the Durban Platform a complete departure from the Berlin Mandate.”  Likewise, Indian professor of international law, Lavanya Rajamani says that Durban delivered a “new process and with it, a clean slate on differentiation.”  And Elliot Diringer of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, finds the overall Durban deal to be “delicately poised between two eras – the fading age of Kyoto, and a new phase … with developed and developing countries presumably on a more equal footing.”

This is of vast potential importance, but – of course – only “potential” importance, because just as it was the Kyoto Protocol’s numerical targets and timetables that fulfilled the Berlin Mandate’s promise, it remains for the delegates to the UNFCCC to meet this Durban mandate with a new post-Kyoto agreement by 2015 (to come into force by 2020).  Only time will tell whether the Durban Platform delivers on its promise, or turns out to be another “Bali Roadmap,” leading nowhere.

So, with such uncertainty, what’s the “unambiguous consequence” of Durban that I refer to in the title of this essay?

An Unambiguous Outcome:  The Platform Opens a Window

The Durban Platform – by replacing the Berlin Mandate – has opened an important window.  It is this.  The national delegations from around the world now have a challenging task before them:  to identify a new international climate policy architecture that is consistent with the process, pathway, and principles laid out in the Durban Platform, namely to find a way to include all key countries (such as the 20 largest national and regional economies that together account for upwards of 80% of global carbon dioxide emissions) in a structure that brings about meaningful emissions reductions on an appropriate timetable at acceptable cost.

Having broken the old mold, a new one must be forged.  There is a mandate for change.  Governments around the world now need fresh, outside-of-the-box ideas from the best thinkers, and they need those ideas over the next few years.  This is a time for new proposals for future international climate policy architecture, not for incremental adjustments to the old pathway.  I trust that this call will be heard by a diverse set of universities, think tanks, and – for that matter – advocacy and interest groups around the world.  With 48 research initiatives in Australia, China, Europe, India, Japan, and the United States, the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements is prepared to contribute to this effort.  Please stay tuned.

What Hath Copenhagen Wrought? A Preliminary Assessment of the Copenhagen Accord

After years of preparation, the Fifteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-15) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) commenced on December 7th, 2009, and adjourned some two weeks later on December 19th after a raucous all-night session.  The original purpose of the conference had been to complete negotiations on a new international agreement on climate change to come into force when the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period comes to an end in 2012.  But for at least the past six months, it had become clear to virtually all participants that such a goal was out of reach — and the COP-15 objective was publically downgraded in mid-November to a non-binding agreement by heads of state at a meeting in Singapore of the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference.

I begin by describing what were reasonable expectations going into the Copenhagen negotiations and appropriate definitions of success for COP-15, and then turn to the unprecedented process which unfolded over the final 36 hours of the conference.  Next, I describe the fundamental architecture of the sole product that emerged – the Copenhagen Accord – and describe its key provisions, with an assessment of each component.  I close with an examination of the major pending issues and the available procedural routes ahead.

Sensible Expectations and Definitions of Success for Copenhagen

There was much hand-wringing in the months leading up to COP-15 about how difficult the negotiations had become.  I saw this as something of “A Silver Lining in the Climate Talks Cloud,” because the difficulty was largely a consequence of key countries of the world taking very seriously the task of expanding the coalition of the willing.

Going into Copenhagen, the challenge was very great, largely because of fundamental economic (and hence political) realities, as I explained in a previous post, “Chaos and Uncertainty in Copenhagen?” Given legitimate concerns about issues of efficiency, on the one hand, and distributional equity, on the other hand, it was not surprising that the industrialized countries (particularly the United States) insisted that China and other key emerging economies participate in a future agreement in meaningful and transparent ways, nor that the developing countries insisted that the industrialized countries foot much of the bill.

The key question was whether the negotiators in Copenhagen could identify a policy architecture that is both reasonably cost-effective and sufficiently equitable to generate support from the key countries of the world, and thus do something truly meaningful about the long-term path of global greenhouse gas emissions.  There were (and are) some promising paths forward, as we have documented in the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements, and as we examine in a pair of current books (Post-Kyoto International Climate Policy: Summary for Policymakers; and Post-Kyoto International Climate Policy:  Implementing Architectures for Agreement).

At the final hour in Copenhagen, the leaders of a small number of key countries worked creatively together to identify a politically feasible path forward.  I have previously argued (“Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen”) that the best goal for the Copenhagen climate talks was to make progress on a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action, not some notion of immediate, numerical triumph.  That has essentially been accomplished with the “Copenhagen Accord,” despite its flaws and despite overt challenges from five of some 193 countries represented (Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan, and Venezuela).

An Unprecedented Process

Before turning to the substance of the Copenhagen Accord, it is worthwhile taking note of the quite remarkable process that led up to its “last-minute” creation.  From all reports, the talks were completely deadlocked when U.S. President Barack Obama arrived on the scene at 8:00 am on Friday, December 18th, the scheduled final day of the conference.  Through a series of bilateral and eventually multilateral meetings of President Obama with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and South African President Jacob Zuma, a document gradually emerged which was to become the Copenhagen Accord.

It is virtually unprecedented in international negotiations for heads of government (or heads of state) to be directly engaged in, let alone lead, negotiations, but that is what transpired in Copenhagen.  Although the outcome is less than many people had hoped for, and is less than some people may have expected when the Copenhagen conference commenced, it is surely better – much better – than what most people anticipated just three days earlier, when the talks were hopelessly deadlocked.

The Copenhagen Accord – Its Fundamental Architecture

The fundamental architecture of the Copenhagen Accord is one we recently analyzed in the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements in “A Portfolio of Domestic Commitments: Implementing Common but Differentiated Responsibilities,” and about which I blogged at the end of November (Approaching Copenhagen with a Portfolio of Domestic Commitments).  Essentially, under such an approach each nation commits and registers to abide by its domestic climate commitments, whether those are in the form of laws and regulations or multi-year development plans.  This is essentially the “schedule approach” introduced by the Australian government in spring 2009.

After its release, President Obama characterized the new Accord as “an important first step” at his press conference shortly before returning to Washington.  I would prefer to amend that characterization to call the Accord a potentially very important third step.  Step One was the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, which produced the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.  Step Two was the Kyoto Protocol, signed in Japan in 1997.  But what many policy wonks (myself included), not to mention the United States Senate, immediately recognized was the absence from the Kyoto Protocol of involvement in truly meaningful ways of the key, rapidly-growing developing countries, a small set of important nations that are now better termed “emerging economies” – China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, and Korea.  This was a primary deficiency of Step Two, as well as the lack of serious attention to the long-term path of emissions (as opposed to the five-year time horizon of Kyoto).

The Copenhagen Accord establishes a framework for addressing both deficiencies, and thereby can be characterized as a potentially very important third step – expanding the coalition of the willing and extending the time-frame of action.  With this step, all of the seventeen countries of the Major Economies Forum– which together account for some 90% of global emissions – are agreeing to participate.  Nevertheless, let’s be honest about the difference between the outcome of the 1997 negotiations in Kyoto (a detailed 20-page legal document, the Kyoto Protocol) and the outcome of the 2009 negotiations in Copenhagen (a general 3-page political statement, the Copenhagen Accord).  Still, it remains true that the COP-15 negotiations were “saved from utter collapse” by the creation and acceptance of the Copenhagen Accord.

The Copenhagen Accord – Key Provisions and Preliminary Assessment

It is unquestionably the case that the Accord represents the best agreement that could be achieved in Copenhagen, given the political forces at play.  Indeed, were it not for the spirited – and as I suggested above, quite remarkable – direct intervention by President Obama, together with the other key national leaders, there would have been no real outcome from the Copenhagen negotiations.  That said, let’s take a critical look at the Accord, item by item.  The key provisions (as I interpret them, with my own numbering, not that of the Accord) are these:

1.      The signatories validate their will to “urgently combat climate change in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”  The signatories agree that deep cuts in global emissions are required to hold global temperature increases to 2 degrees Centigrade, and commit to take actions to meet this objective, “consistent with science and on the basis of equity.”

Assessment: Although the Accord notes the importance of the frequently-discussed 2 degrees Centigrade target, it does not spell out actions that will achieve it.  The Accord also notes the importance of the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” which is of great importance to developing countries.

2.      Action and cooperation on adaptation is urgently required, particularly in the least developed countries, small island developing states, and Africa.  Developed countries commit to provide financial resources to support adaptation measures in developing countries.

Assessment: Recognizing the importance of adaptation and providing financial resources to support it in developing countries is an important departure from Kyoto.  Targeting the funds to the “least developed countries” is sensible.

3.      Annex I Parties of the Kyoto Protocol (the 1997 list of the industrialized countries and the emerging market economies of Central and Eastern Europe) commit to implement mitigation actions (specified in Appendix I), and Non-Annex I Parties (the developing world, as defined in the Kyoto Protocol) also commit to implement mitigation actions (specified in Appendix II), all of which will be submitted to the UNFCCC Secretariat by January 31, 2010.

Assessment: These appendices (“schedules”) of domestic mitigation targets, actions, and policies are the heart of the Portfolio approach, as I described above.  This is where the action is.

It is unfortunate (but was probably politically necessary) that the Accord maintains the distinction of Annex I versus non-Annex I countries from the Kyoto Protocol.  I have characterized this distinction in the Kyoto Protocol as the “QWERTY keyboard” (unproductive path dependence) of international climate policy, because it has been the greatest impediment to developing a meaningful international arrangement.  It is because of the presence of this distinction that developing countries have insisted on a continuation of the Kyoto Protocol for a second (post-2012) commitment period.

Note that even if the Annex I list was appropriate in 1997, it surely no longer is:  more than 60 non-Annex I countries now have greater per capita income than the poorest of the Annex I countries.

An important improvement would be to employ a formulaic mechanism that takes a variety of factors into account, including per capita income, to determine the stringency of ambition, targets, or actions for individual countries, rather than the dichotomous distinction of having targets or not (“Global Climate Policy Architecture and Political Feasibility: Specific Formulas and Emission Targets to Attain 460 PPM CO2 Concentrations”).

If a continuous spectrum with all countries listed in the same table is not politically feasible, then a mechanism is needed for countries to transition from one list to the other.  Korea and Mexico joined the OECD six months after Kyoto, but they remain off the Annex I list.

4.      Emissions reductions for the Annex I parties will be measured, reported, and verified according to guidelines (to be established), which will be rigorous and transparent, whereas mitigation actions taken by non-Annex I parties will be subject to domestic measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) reported through national communications, with international consultation and analysis.

Assessment: There was a great deal of attention to this issue in Copenhagen, with all members of the U.S. delegation talking about the importance of “transparency.”  The compromise seems acceptable:  developing countries employ domestic measurement, reporting, and verification, but it is subject to “international consultation and analysis.”

Interestingly, the Accord is silent on the issue of “international competitiveness” and the possible use of border adjustments (border taxes or import allowance requirements in national cap-and-trade systems).  This is a controversial point, since inclusion of such mechanisms is important in domestic U.S. politics, but is anathema to China, India, and other developing countries.

5.      Least developed countries and small island developing states may undertake actions voluntarily and on the basis of support (from other countries).  Such actions will be subject to international measurement, reporting, and verification.

Assessment: This is the third element of the national schedules, reserved for the poorest developing countries (which contribute only trivially to greenhouse gas emissions), and it seems acceptable, although a graduation mechanism would again be desirable.  Interestingly, if their actions are funded by developed countries, then those actions are subject to the most stringent MRV.  So-called technology transfer mechanisms are included in this context.

6.      The parties will establish positive incentives to stimulate financial resources from developed countries to help reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation.

Assessment: This is a potentially important change, as the lack of meaningful attention to retarding deforestation was a significant deficiency of the Kyoto Protocol.  We have investigated appropriate mechanisms in the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements (“International Forest Carbon Sequestration in a Post-Kyoto Agreement”).

7.      The parties agree to pursue opportunities to use markets to achieve cost-effective mitigation actions.

Assessment: As we have documented in the Harvard Project (“Linkage of Tradable Permit Systems in International Climate Policy Architecture”), it is very important that future international agreements facilitate or at least not discourage voluntary linkage of national and multi-national cap-and-trade systems.  Needless to say, this provision in the Accord – like virtually all of the provisions – will require specific details to make it operational.

8.      Predictable and adequate funding will be provided to developing countries for emissions mitigation, reduction of deforestation, and adaptation.  There is a collective commitment from developed countries “approaching” $30 billion for the period 2010-2012, “balanced between adaptation and mitigation,” with adaptation funding being prioritized for the most vulnerable developing countries.

Assessment: To whatever degree the funding for mitigation is of government-government form (expanded foreign aid), legitimate concerns exist about both the feasibility of marshalling the necessary amounts and the efficiency of its use.  The private sector needs to be employed, as I have previously argued (“Only Private Sector Can Meet Finance Needs of Developing Countries”).

9.      The developed countries commit to a goal of jointly mobilizing $100 billion annually by 2020 from sources both public and private.

Assessment: It is important that the Accord notes that the funds can come from either public or private sources.  Governments can — through the right domestic and international policy arrangements — provide key incentives for the private sector to provide the needed finance through foreign direct investments for emissions mitigation (clearly a role exists for government assistance for adaptation).  For example, if the cap-and-trade systems which are emerging throughout the industrialized world as the favored domestic approach to reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions are linked together through the existing, common emission-reduction-credit system, namely the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), then powerful incentives can be created for carbon-friendly private investment in the developing world.

Clearly the CDM, as it currently stands, cannot live up to this promise, but with appropriate reforms there is significant potential.  Of course, problems of limited additionality will inevitably remain.  Therefore, what is needed is for the key emerging economies to take on meaningful emission targets themselves (even if equivalent to business as usual in the short term), and then participate directly in international cap-and-trade, not government-government trading as envisioned in Article 17 of the Kyoto Protocol (which will not work), but firm-firm trading through linked national and multi-national cap-and-trade systems.

Such private finance stands a much greater chance than government aid of being efficiently employed, that is, targeted to reducing emissions, rather than spent by poor nations on other (possibly meritorious) purposes.

10.  Evaluation of the Accord’s implementation is to be completed by 2015, including consideration of strengthening the long-term goal as the science indicates.

Assessment: Depending upon when the Accord is implemented, completing an assessment by 2015 might or might not be reasonable.  A provision to strengthen the long-term goals of the Accord may be sensible, but it would seem that the provision should provide more generally that the long-term goal should be “adjusted as the science indicates,” so as not to pre-judge what future scientific research may reveal.

11.  In the official version of the Accord released by the UNFCCC, Appendix I (quantified 2020 economy-wide emissions targets for Annex I countries) and Appendix II (nationally appropriate mitigation actions of developing country parties) are left blank, to be completed by January 30, 2010.

Assessment: It is unfortunate that no numbers or other specifics were included in the two appendices, because many of the various parties have previously made public statements regarding commitments, plans, or expectations that would actually have provided considerable information.  Some specificity of the tables – both numerical pledges from Annex I countries and “voluntary pledges” from developing countries — would have better demonstrated the compelling substance of the Accord, and would thereby have given the agreement greater credibility, at least in news media reports.

The Way Forward

Many details regarding these elements of the Accord as well as other unspecified issues remain on the table, and will presumably be examined and negotiated if nations move forward with the Copenhagen Accord and the basic architecture it promulgates.  We are already at work on many of these issues in the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements, including:

·         metrics for evaluating commitments

·         climate policy review mechanisms

·         compliance mechanisms

·         afforestation and deforestation mechanisms

·         facilitating international market linkage

·         fostering technology transfer

·         methods of negotiating and updating climate agreements

·         methods of providing incentives for developing country participation

·         methods of carbon finance

·         making an international climate agreement consistent with international trade rules

Whether the next step in international deliberations should be under the auspices of the UNFCCC or a smaller deliberative body, such as the Major Economies Forum (MEF), is an important question.  Given the necessity of achieving consensus (that is, unanimity) in United Nations processes and the open hostility of a small set of nations, bilateral and multilateral discussions, including via the MEF, could be an increasingly attractive route, at least over the short term.  (Such questions about preferred institutional venues for international climate negotiations and action constitute an important topic on which we are focusing research in early 2010 in the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements, and about which I will write in future posts.)

The climate change policy process is best viewed as a marathon, not a sprint.  The Copenhagen Accord – depending upon details yet to be worked out – could well turn out to be a sound foundation for a Portfolio of Domestic Commitments, which could be an effective bridge to a longer-term arrangement among the countries of the world.  We may look back upon Copenhagen as an important moment – both because global leaders took the reins of the procedures and brought the negotiations to a fruitful conclusion, and because the foundation was laid for a broad-based coalition of the willing to address effectively the threat of global climate change.  Only time will tell.


After I completed writing this blog post, I came across a superb essay on the same topic by David Doniger, Policy Director of the NRDC Climate Center in Washington, D.C.  It deserves to be read (and distributed).

Approaching Copenhagen with a Portfolio of Domestic Commitments

As we approach the beginning of the Fifteenth Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen in December, international negotiations are focused on developing a climate policy framework for the post-2012 period, when the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period will have ended.  In addition to negotiations under the UNFCCC, other intergovernmental outlets, including the G8(+5) and the Major Economies Forum, are trying to reach common ground among the world’s major emitters of greenhouse gases.  To date, these efforts have not produced a politically, economically, and environmentally viable structure for a future climate agreement.

In the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements (a global effort which now includes 35 research initiatives in Australia, China, Europe, India, Japan, and the United States), we continue to investigate promising post-2012 international policy architectures, as part of our on-going effort to help the countries of the world identify the key design elements of a post-2012 architecture that is scientifically sound, economically rational, and politically pragmatic.

One approach we have recently examined is a “portfolio of domestic commitments,” an approach which could be effective, but more flexible and politically palatable than other international arrangements.  Under such a scheme, nations would agree to honor commitments to greenhouse gas emission reductions laid out in their own domestic laws and regulations.  A portfolio of commitments might emerge from a global meeting such as the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, or a smaller number of major economies could negotiate an agreement among themselves, and then invite other countries to join.

Despite the obvious differences between such a system and the conventional “targets and time tables” approach embodied in the Kyoto Protocol, negotiators should not dismiss this new approach out of hand.  There are several ways to construct a portfolio of domestic commitments, and negotiators have numerous levers available to tailor an agreement to meet their political, economic, and environmental goals.  In a recent Harvard Project Viewpoint, I outlined some basic features of a portfolio approach, highlighted a few major issues and concerns, and discussed the potential feasibility of this approach.

The Portfolio of Domestic Commitments Approach

The core of a portfolio of domestic commitments is agreement among a set of member countries to conform to the climate change mitigation requirements specified by their respective domestic laws, regulations, and official planning documents (the last being domestically binding in centrally planned economies).  The portfolio approach gives member countries free rein to dictate the precise form their domestic commitments will take, whether those be greenhouse gas cap-and-trade systems, carbon taxes, intensity targets, performance or technology standards, or other instruments.  A portfolio agreement should be highly credible, given that it is grounded in domestic commitments, binding in and enforceable by law previously made by the very governments signing on to the international agreement.

Domestic commitments might take the form of specified greenhouse gas emission targets or the form of particular actions that could be taken to reduce emissions, both envisioned in the Bali Action Plan as “nationally-appropriate mitigation actions” (NAMAs).  A target-based approach has the advantage of being transparent and relatively simple to aggregate across countries to reach a global target.  On the other hand, action-oriented goals can be more concrete and may be easier for many governments to implement in the short term.  There is no reason why both targets and actions could not be pursued simultaneously.  Coexistence of multiple approaches is not uncommon in environmental policy.

Ongoing commitments for several years into the future are necessary to stabilize and eventually reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations to combat climate change.  Under a portfolio approach, these domestic commitments could be represented in a table of national schedules attached to an agreement.  Australia has proposed a model agreement that includes such schedules. The schedules would signal a continuing commitment to the international community, and their inclusion in an international agreement would provide a disincentive for member nations to deviate from them in the future.

Countries would not be limited to acting unilaterally to meet their domestic commitments.  They could choose to submit joint goals or targets — for example, on a regional level — or link with other countries through a multinational carbon trading regime to reduce costs.  (Such linkage is the subject of another Harvard Project paper — by Judson Jaffe and myself.)  The portfolio approach would not be a bar to international cooperation.

A primary consideration for a portfolio agreement is the well-established principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.”  This principle acknowledges that responsibility is shared for solving the climate change challenge, but suggests that historical differences in contribution to the problem and economic and technical disparities be reflected in varying national commitments.  A portfolio of domestic commitments may be particularly well-suited to implement this principle because it allows for countries to make commitments along a continuum of stringency, rather than dividing nations into two groups as did the Kyoto Protocol.  The placement of each country upon the continuum would depend on an array of political, economic, and environmental concerns.  (On this, see recent Harvard Project papers by Jeffrey Frankel and Valentina Bosetti, and by Sheila Olmstead and myself.)

Key Issues for Negotiators

Negotiators will inevitably need to tackle a number of key issues in crafting a portfolio agreement, three of which we highlight here.  The first is the extent to which domestic commitments could be relaxed in later years to reflect changed circumstances.  The second is the formal status such an agreement would have under international law.  Third is the necessity to monitor conformance to domestic commitments.

Rigidity of Commitments

One approach would be for a portfolio agreement to log domestic commitments and allow countries to relax those commitments in response to changes in political or economic climate or advances in the understanding of the threat of climate change.  In essence, such an agreement would function as a depository for current domestic legislation, serving the dual roles of information-gathering and diplomatic recognition of shared commitment to the climate problem.  It is difficult to imagine countries registering objections to such an agreement, given that they would not be binding themselves to future commitments.

For precisely this reason, however, climate negotiators may wish to stay the hand of future governments by barring relaxation or abandonment of preexisting climate commitments.  In other words, the agreement could set minimum commitments on a country-specific basis.  Amendments would be allowed only if they maintained or strengthened domestic commitments to climate change mitigation.  Such a precommitment strategy is not generally included in domestic legislation or plans, and it is likely to require careful wording and additional domestic legislation to become effective in some countries.

There is surely the possibility of domestic commitments being ignored by future leaders, but note that this concern is not unique to the portfolio approach.  All climate policy architectures — indeed, all international agreements — face this problem, and the question is whether the precommitment challenge is greater under this approach than it would be under others.  One possible compromise position would be to allow revision of domestic commitments, but only at specified intervals, in order to account for dramatic shifts in economic or environmental situations and expectations.

Type of Legal Instrument

Another key issue is the official legal status of a portfolio of domestic commitments.  There are a number of possible structures for such an agreement, each with different implications under international law.  A treaty is the most formal option and would be the most binding on participating nations.  Treaty law is relatively well-developed, as compared with the law governing other international instruments, and the law of treaties provides a framework for enforcement and dispute resolution.  But treaties are difficult to craft and face the perils of national ratification.

Outside of a treaty, there are various other instruments of international law that could be used in the portfolio approach.  For example, in the United States, congressional-executive and sole-executive agreements can be entered into by the President and do not require the approval of two-thirds of the Senate, as do treaties.  (See, for example, Nigel Purvis’s work on executive agreements.)   Other “soft law” instruments, such as explicitly nonbinding agreements, political declarations, and U.N. declarations, are fallback options which merit consideration for implementing a portfolio approach.  Ultimately, negotiators will choose the best instrument, based on how open countries are to the agreement and what obligations the agreement imposes.

Monitoring and MRV

Throughout the industrialized countries — and increasingly in the emerging economies — domestic environmental regulations include internal mechanisms for monitoring and enforcement.  A portfolio agreement could rely on countries to be prompted by international pressure to enforce their commitments, or an agreement could take a more active role.  The agreement could, for example, put in place an international monitoring body, license domestic entities in each country to monitor national commitments, or suggest model codes for enforcement.  International assistance may be necessary to aid countries lagging in technical or administrative capacity to monitor greenhouse gas emissions and enforce domestic policies.  More broadly, the agreement would need to define—to the extent possible—uniform measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) procedures and assure that all countries could implement these procedures.

Feasibility of a Portfolio of Domestic Commitments

A portfolio of domestic commitments has several advantages as the foundation of a future international climate policy architecture.  The agreement could be flexible enough to allow countries to implement the mitigation instruments of their choice and link those instruments with domestic instruments in other nations if they so chose.  It could also allow for countries to accede at various times, thus giving them adequate time to prepare to participate.  (See David Victor’s Harvard Project paper on climate accession deals.)   This approach could also be an ideal vehicle for implementing the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, since member countries would not need to be lumped together into rigid tiers of commitment (as they are under the dichotomous Annex I approach of the Kyoto Protocol).

Perhaps most crucial is the political feasibility of the portfolio approach.  In recent months, several major economies have expressed willingness to consider a climate policy architecture along these lines, including Australia, India, and the United States.  For this reason alone, the portfolio approach merits serious consideration, despite the significant hurdles to negotiating an effective portfolio agreement.

The concerns regarding this approach to a future global climate policy architecture are significant, but so are its potential advantages.  In general, there are real challenges to developing any post-2012 international climate policy architecture that is scientifically sound, economically rational, and politically pragmatic.  The challenges facing this approach are no greater – and may be less – than those facing other means of addressing the threat of global climate change.