The 2015 climate agreement: should countries qualify first to join the best part?

  • A longer version of this blog also appeared here on RTCC.
  • E&E ClimateWire story by Lisa Friedman quoting FIELD here.

The negotiations on the 2015 climate change agreement are taking a new approach. This time it’s not about top-down targets as in the Kyoto Protocol. Instead negotiators are focusing on a “bottom-up” approach based on nationally determined contributions (NDCs). That means each country deciding what it is willing to do as part of the global effort to fight climate change.

It is a challenging task to figure out how to construct an NDC-based bottom-up agreement and how to make it work from a legal perspective.

The toughest question is how to bridge the expected very large gap between the contributions that each country decides it is willing to make and the emission reductions that are needed to keep warming to below 2°C or less.


A legal agreement?


It is not yet clear how much of the expected “Paris 2015 package” will be in the shape of a legally binding agreement. At this point it is not even clear that there will be enough progress in the negotiations by December next year for the Paris Climate Change Conference to be able to adopt an agreement.

Having said that, many expect that there will be some kind of legal agreement, either in Paris or soon after. How the legal agreement would be structured, what it should contain, how NDCs would fit into it, and how it would relate to the rest of the potential Paris 2015 package (which could include COP decisions and political agreements) are among the questions.

Quite a few people are concerned that the consensus-based negotiations, where everyone has to agree enough not to object actively, could result in stalemate or an inadequate outcome based on the lowest common denominator.

One possible solution to that would be to adopt the legal 2015 agreement as an amendment to the UNFCCC, which could be done by ¾ majority vote (UNFCCC Article 15). It would not be ideal, but the agreement could be designed to encourage more countries to join and make it easy for them to do so.


FIELD’s new idea: require countries to qualify to join the best part of the agreement


It is important to not get stuck in old ways, but explore new ideas and a wide range of potential legal solutions to improve the prospects of reaching a fair global agreement that could keep warming to under 2°C.

FIELD is considering if a special list, annex or optional protocol, which would only be open to countries with above-adequate NDCs, could help to make a strong and acceptable agreement. The special category for countries that try extra hard would be additional to the main agreement, which all countries could join. Whether the special category would be a list, annex, optional protocol or something else would depend on the form of the main agreement.

This idea builds on research which suggests that in some circumstances states may be more accepting of legal design choices that stand out - that are prominent and visible. Research by Jean Galbraith, which FIELD has highlighted earlier, has shown that states display certain "built-in" biases when they negotiate and ratify treaties.


In a bottom-up system not everyone should automatically go to the top


A special top category could help counter the weaknesses of a bottom-up agreement. Giving prominent recognition – and perhaps special benefits - to countries whose NDCs are above-adequate would reward those countries. In combination with a strong review system it could form part of a mechanism for strengthening emission reductions over time, which many countries have said they want.

This idea and other examples of possible building blocks and options for the 2015 agreement are included in this recent FIELD graphic.