Where next for Climate Treaty Verification?


Just over seven months ago, the single largest climate change meeting in history finished in division and disappointment. The fifteenth meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen was always going to be a dramatic event: two years of preparatory negotiations, 194 states, 115 heads of state and a host of observers would not make for a quiet conference. And it was hoped that with the world ‘holding its breath’, the legitimate expectations of what was coined ‘Hopenhagen’ by some would materialise. But it was not to be. In and amongst the debate between developed and developing nations over who should be doing what about climate change—encapsulated in the Convention’s guiding principle of ‘Common But Differentiated Responsibilities’ and respective capabilities (CBDR)—a relatively new concept rose to prominence: that of measurement, reporting and verification, or MRV. In fact, MRV issues have long been integral to the regime, but took on a marked significance in Copenhagen. Proving in some instances to be a leverage point during the negotiations, indications of increasing clarity from COP 15 and beyond on an MRV framework may help galvanize future negotiations, despite ongoing divisions between parties.

Monitoring and verification systems exist in many agreements as a way of providing transparency, allowing trust to be built through mutual accountability, measuring progress towards treaty goals, and facilitating the review and improvement of the regime. This multiple-functionality is especially important in negotiations on climate change, as the same system which tracks actions also facilitates the negotiation, implementation and evolution of the agreement itself. The design of such a system involves a careful balancing act: it must be strong enough to ensure environmental integrity but not so demanding as to make implementation impossible. Measuring, reporting, and verifying the numerous routes to reducing emissions is, after all, a resource-intensive task which can raise sensitive issues of implied responsibility. As such, the design of a climate change verification system has become a microcosm of the larger disagreements over the Convention’s guiding principle of CBDR, with both groups of countries demanding that the other should show that they are doing more. In the run-up to the next summit (in Mexico this December), it is important to build on areas where advances were made both in Copenhagen and since. This article looks at the development of climate change treaty monitoring before, through and after the Copenhagen summit to examine what progress has been made in this area and to highlight opportunities for achieving consensus on developing a fair and effective regime.

Before Copenhagen

In December 2007, COP 13—in Bali, Indonesia—was held to discuss long-term ways of addressing climate change. Adopting a document known as the ‘Bali Action Plan’ (BAP), the COP initiated a two-year process to ‘enable the full, effective and sustained implementation of the Convention through long-term cooperative action’. Consequently, the ‘Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action’ (AWG-LCA) was launched to address the ‘four pillars’ of the BAP: mitigation, adaptation, technology transfer and financial support. Regarding mitigation, the BAP intended the process to address ‘Measurable, reportable and verifiable nationally appropriate mitigation commitments or actions […] by all developed country Parties’ and ‘Nationally appropriate mitigation actions [NAMAs] by developing country Parties in the context of sustainable development, supported and enabled by technology, financing and capacity-building, in a measurable, reportable and verifiable manner’. By stating that both developing and developed state actions are measurable, reportable and verifiable (MRV) the plan implicitly called for the reinvigoration of discussions on the treaty monitoring architecture. If the principles of ‘measurable’, ‘reportable’ and ‘verifiable’ are going to be met, some aspects of the existing system may require enhancement and expansion.

The Existing System
The UNFCCC requires all state parties to collect and report both quantitative and qualitative information through two mechanisms: national emissions inventories and national communications. These mechanisms collect, report, and review quantitative and qualitative data. The extent to which states must use these mechanisms, however, is guided by the principle of CBDR and, consequently the requirements for developed and developing states vary considerably.

National Emissions Inventories
Emissions inventories collect and present the calculated greenhouse gas emissions from various sectors to give a picture of aggregate emissions levels over time. According to guidelines adopted by the COP, an ideal national emissions inventory should be ‘transparent, consistent, comparable, complete and accurate’. An inventory should allow for the state of each party’s contribution to GHG emissions to be reliably known, and by comparing inventories both to the guidelines and to each other, allow for the gradual refinement of treaty monitoring and, crucially, mitigation activities. But attaining this ideal is not an easy task. Within any particular state there may be many varied emission sources and sinks in a number of diverse sectors; estimating their aggregate effects to a high level of accuracy can be a resource-intensive undertaking. As such, the emission inventory requirements for developed and developing states differ.

Developed states, with institutionalised data collection, and technological and financial resources, are required to submit annual inventories which must adhere to detailed and evolving guidelines specifiying use of agreed methodologies and procedures. Conformity with these guidelines by each inventory submission is examined by international reviews assessing the report’s consistency, comparability, completeness and accuracy. The final stage of the review process is conducted by an expert review team consisting of qualified nominees from both developed and developing states. As such, developed state inventories provide a good basis for building an MRV system that meets the principles of the Bali Action Plan. As developing states are not bound by specific emission reduction commitments, and because they face a number of challenges in creating national inventories (including insufficient data, infrastructure and resources), their emissions inventories need not be as detailed as those of developed states. Only reporting on half of the identified greenhouse gases, developing states are not required to follow internationally-agreed guidelines—although it is recommended that they do—and they have substantial freedom in what they include in the inventory. Developing state inventories are also much less frequent and regular than those of developed states, and are not considered stand-alone documents but rather submitted within the context of national communications and subject to the review process discussed below. Reflecting their lack of funds, the submission deadlines for developing state inventories and communications are contingent on the delivery of support by developed country parties. According to some observers, the inventory process for developing countries serves in many cases initially to catalyse the development of data collection capabilities. Further support and enhancement of these inventories will be necessary to help them reach higher standards of functionality.

National Communications
National Communications augment national emissions inventories by providing qualitative data on a variety of climate change activities. These include mitigation actions, provision of technological and financial assistance, and (for relevant states) the use of Kyoto Protocol mechanisms. Ideally, National Communications should be complete, consistent, comparable and transparent, but due to the nature of the current reporting format and guidelines, the information provided is not as useful as it could be, and it is difficult—but important—to identify a suitable metric through which to evaluate the information provided. Reporting requirements differ substantially between developed and developing countries. Given that mitigation actions can take a variety of forms, to gain a level of comparability, developed states are required to report on specific aspects of them in a standardised fashion, including their scope, type and level of implementation every two to three years. The UNFCCC requests that developed states quantify the estimated emissions impact of these measures, though this is not required. Due to the diverse nature of mitigation actions, however, there is no set methodology to making these estimates and states are not required to elaborate on the methods used to create them. Reporting on the supply of financial support encounters similar obstacles. The UNFCCC and the Protocol require developed countries to provide ‘new and additional’ finance to meet the ‘agreed full costs’ of a number of developing state activities, but these two terms are rather ill-defined and it is, as such, hard to assess the level of support against a metric, though it is important to resolve this issue as soon as possible. Expert review teams carry out ‘in-depth’ reviews of the communications to evaluate adherence to the reporting guidelines. In the context of the BAP principles, whilst developed state communications assist in tracking action on climate change, refinement of the format would be helpful to improve standardization in reporting (by increasing comparability and consistency) and to facilitate effective verification through increased transparency.

Requirements for developing states’ national communications are less stringent, in line with the CBDR principle. Two national communications are to be submitted (one from 1990 information and the other using information from 2000) with other future submissions determined by the COP. These communications should follow agreed guidelines but report on fewer issues and are not submitted to any individual review process. Developing state communications go some way towards facilitating measuring and reporting of climate change action, but would benefit from further development in aiming for these standards. National Communication preparation is meant to be supported by funding from developed countries. The adoption of specific, legally-binding, quantified emissions reductions targets by developed countries under the Kyoto Protocol led to an enhancement of monitoring, reporting and accounting requirements to allow determinations of legal compliance. ‘Units’ of allowed emissions were assigned to these countries by comparing baseline emissions with targets. Rigorous compliance procedures for states were also introduced, including the establishment of a Compliance Committee, which focus both on adherence to monitoring standards and also on meeting emissions reduction target commitments. A number of mechanisms introduced by the protocol to assist mitigation also rely heavily on having adequate monitoring, reporting and accounting procedures in place. Some of the mechanisms enable project level mitigation activities to generate emissions reduction units. These projects are also obliged to follow specific monitoring and verification standards.

The Bali Plan revisited
To facilitate the development of a treaty MRV system that would meet the requirements of the Bali Action Plan, observers and academics have identified a number of key issues, listed below:

  • What forms will the ‘nationally appropriate mitigation commitments or actions’ for developed states take, and to what extent will the various existing monitoring, review/verification and compliance systems need to be applied or enhanced?
  • How will developing state NAMAs be defined?
  • Will NAMAs take the form of a list of clearly defined activities, or will they be broadly described? These differences will determine what types of qualitative and quantitative information are needed, and the evaluative metrics used.
  • To what extent will developing state NAMAs be verified and how much will a verification system draw on existing review processes?
  • How will the provision of financial and technological support to developing states be measured, reported and verified in a satisfactory way?

Resolution of these treaty monitoring issues will play a central role in facilitating the negotiation and development of the climate change regime. Both developed and developing states may have legitimate concerns regarding each other’s MRV requirements, but while the significance of this issue was recognised ahead of Copenhagen, reaching agreement on it there was far from certain beforehand.

The Copenhagen Conference-COP 15
During the two-year period from 2007, the working groups met nine times to forge a draft document to be tabled at Copenhagen. This involved the analysis and negotiation of hundreds of submissions from state parties, intergovernmental organizations and independent observers. Reflecting the long, complex and tense negotiations, the final draft document produced by the AWG-LCA came to over 150 pages, and contained a large amount of bracketed text representing disagreement. In and amongst the brackets, options and disputed sections, however, some important concepts and mechanisms were introduced, and which, given successful negotiation, could be seen as the first steps towards an enhanced MRV system.

When the AWG-LCA delegates convened to work on the colossal, bracket-riddled text, they split into separate informal drafting groups, and attempted to iron out the creases. But differences persisted. Mutually-exclusive options and brackets remained around the ‘pillar’ issues of mitigation, finance, adaptation and technological support. In particular, the issue of the measuring, reporting and verification of NAMAs undertaken without international support (unilateral NAMAs), which would become a key debate, remained unresolved. The US, Australia, and Canada all reiterated that they believed international MRV of all NAMAs was necessary, whilst most developing states firmly opposed this. With a cloud of other unresolved issues hanging over the heads of delegates, little progress was made at these meetings. Eventually, the AWG-LCA had to submit its work to the COP for further negotiation, with the chair stressing that although significant progress had been made, the text was incomplete and ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’. During COP negotiations, as before, little progress was made as parties continued to adopt entrenched and uncompromising positions. Lacking the political power to forge compromises on key issues, many delegates called for advice from higher-level political representation, and as such a ‘friends of the chair’ negotiating group was created, containing an unprecedented number of high-level political representatives.

Friends of the Chair Meetings
Reflecting on the unsuccessful negotiations that preceded their arrival, some heads of state expressed concern over the lack of progress. In attempting to combine separate tracks of negotiations in a smaller ‘representative group of leaders’, the Friends of the Chair negotiations were lambasted by many of the excluded parties as non-inclusive and undemocratic. On the penultimate day of the conference, an important announcement heralded change: the US declared a $100bn fund from developed states to help developing states adapt to climate change, on the condition that major nations would need to submit their mitigation actions to ‘international verification’. China, which played a leading role in the negotiations as a representative of the developing nations, subsequently stated it was prepared to strengthen its reporting system and submit reports to some type of international review. Following on from this mutual compromise, the high-level negotiations managed, in the eleventh hour of the conference, to thrash out a short new text known as the Copenhagen Accord, informed by ongoing negotiations.

The Copenhagen Accord
When the Copenhagen Accord was introduced to the waiting states, many of whom considered the process to have been undemocratic and unrepresentative, tense negotiations followed culminating in the COP merely ‘taking note’ of the accord. Although the document contains some major gaps and weaknesses, it also outlines a new treaty MRV system, highlighted below, which may point toward a growing political consensus on this issue. Referring back to the issues identified earlier, some important indicators of progress regarding MRV within the Copenhagen Accord are identified below.

MRV of developed state actions
Developed states will commit themselves to economy-wide quantified emissions reductions, which will be measured, reported and verified in accordance with existing and updated guidelines adopted by the COP. To inform the development of COP guidelines for developed states, the text includes the principle that ‘accounting of [targets] and finance is rigorous, robust and transparent’. The frequency with which these MRV provisions will be applied is uncertain and would need to be addressed as part of the updated guidelines.

Definitions of developing state NAMAs
The Copenhagen Accord states that developing countries will implement Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions, but that these actions will be voluntary for Least Developed States (LDS) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and contingent on the delivery of support. The Accord calls for countries to submit NAMAs to an annex, but does not provide much detail on what form NAMAs should take. Submissions so far demonstrate how varied NAMAs can be. These actions have been expressed in a number of ways, from quantifiable sectoral targets (such as a percentage reduction in emissions per unit GDP), to lists of policy measures. For example, Brazil submitted a document detailing eleven targets and policy measures augmented with estimates of expected emissions reductions, whilst India has so far submitted a document with just one overall emission intensity target.

Verification of developing state NAMAs
The Copenhagen Accord also increases the frequency and stringency of developing state national inventories and communications procedures. Under the Copenhagen Accord, developing states have to submit national communications and inventories once every two years, and to compile them according to internationally-agreed guidelines. NAMAs seeking support are to be placed in a registry detailing their nature in order to facilitate linkages with the appropriate international support. They will subsequently be reported and verified internationally.

In comparison, unilateral NAMAs are only subject to ‘domestic’ MRV, but a compromise was struck so that the results of this MRV will be reported through national communications with ‘provisions for International Consultation and Analysis (ICA)’. It is currently unclear what form ICA will take, but some work has already begun on examining models from other organisations such as the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund.

Verification of support
Recognising that sufficient financial resources will be required to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change (and also to ensure such actions are measureable, reportable and verifiable), the Copenhagen Accord states that ‘scaled up, new and additional, predictable and adequate funding as well as improved access shall be provided to developing countries’. The measuring, reporting and verification of this support is to be achieved through existing and further guidelines adopted by the COP in a way that is ‘rigorous, robust and transparent’. The ability to truly verify the implementation of these requirements will, however, depend upon how new guidelines are informed by interpretations of such concepts as ‘new and additional’.

Half-way house at Bonn and the road to Mexico
Considering the somewhat dubious position that the Copenhagen Accord holds within the negotiating framework, it is unclear to what extent these measures will be incorporated into final treaty provisions. Last month, the AWG-LCA met again along with other negotiating bodies under the UNFCCC in Bonn, Germany, to revisit their complicated negotiating texts and, as the main negotiating text regarding long-term action, it is the AWG-LCA text and not the Copenhagen Accord that forms the current basis of ongoing talks. In any case, some options on MRV presented in the Accord are also included in outgoing COP reports from Copenhagen.

During the Bonn negotiations, many delegates from both developed and developing states expressed their support for a number of options included in the COP text and which closely resembled those contained within the Copenhagen Accord. The outgoing text from Bonn produced by the AWG-LCA chairs also contains some items which present an MRV structure similar to that contained in the Accord. For developing countries, this includes an increased frequency of reporting (every two years) on a selection of core items: inventory information, mitigation actions, receipt of finance and the result of domestic MRV of unsupported NAMAs. International MRV is envisaged of supported NAMAs. Full national communications are envisaged every six years, with International Consultation and Analysis applying to these and the biennial reports.

Provisions for developed countries, on the other hand, may include an assessment of the comparability of efforts by a technical panel, MRV based on current and future guidelines, accounting procedures, annual inventories, biennial progress reports on mitigation action, targets, provision of finance, and use of emissions trading. Full national communications based on current and possibly new reporting elements are required every three to five years. These may be subject to enhanced verification procedures building on current processes, including in-depth reviews by expert review teams. However, as only a representative text this does not necessarily indicate consensus and some parties have expressed dissatisfaction with certain aspects of it.

Meanwhile, Convention parties that are also parties to the Kyoto Protocol have been negotiating over the protocol’s future. Some parties have been calling for those developed country parties that are not parties to the protocol—namely, the US—to nevertheless be subject to the protocol’s provisions on MRV.

Attempting to banish the ghosts of Copenhagen, delegates at Bonn tried to find a balance between ambition and workability. An ambitious approach would suggest that parties at COP 16 should push for the realisation of the complete, comprehensive agreement missed at Copenhagen. A more workable approach might, however, recognise that there is still a considerable amount of work to be done in several core areas and that it might therefore be wiser to first concentrate on the ‘low hanging fruit’ as a positive step toward the realisation of a complete agreement. The development and agreement of an MRV structure in Mexico may well be one such ‘low hanging fruit’. Consensus on an MRV framework can build confidence and provide a solid framework on which to build a comprehensive agreement. The progress made in developing an MRV framework played an important role in unlocking the difficult negotiations at Copenhagen, and finalising this structure may well give a boost to negotiations at COP 16.

Hugh Chalmers
VERTIC Intern (May-July 2010)
Hugh holds a BSc with Honours in Astrophysics from the University of Edinburgh.

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