Louis Verchot is normally an optimist, but even he is doubtful: “It’s been four years since the debate on measuring, reporting and verifying (MRV) carbon emissions started and yet we still see disagreements on how to make decisions.”
Verchot, a research director at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), is referring to the meeting that never was. Earlier this year, the Subsidiary Body for Implementation – the group charged with implementing and financing decisions by the 190 nations involved in the annual UN climate talks – was blocked from meeting by Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, which were more than a little annoyed at being ignored at the conclusion of last year’s climate meeting in Doha.
It is symptomatic of a wider problem of division between countries – a problem that has also been stalling progress on verification of carbon emissions as part of a scheme to reduce emissions from deforestation (REDD+), in which developed countries provide financial incentives to developing forested countries to keep their trees standing.
Russia’s impasse didn’t stop all progress at the Bonn meeting. The Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) prepared a draft decision on how to verify REDD+ emissions before money is disbursed and also developed a detailed outline of technical reporting requirements.
The science behind calculating carbon emissions is now strong, but the politics of verifying measurements is complex. A decision needs to be reached in Warsaw as “next year we’ll really be thinking more about the new agreement (to replace the Kyoto Protocol) and phasing in what has (already) been done with REDD+,” says Tony La Vina, negotiator for the Philippines.
Until recently, it wasn’t just politics holding up progress at UN meetings.
When the idea of an international scheme for reducing emissions from deforestation was first floated at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 7th Conference of the Parties (UNFCCC COP7) in 2001, it was rejected because, among other reasons, it was perceived to be too difficult to calculate the emissions avoided by keeping forests standing.
But since COP11 in Montreal in 2005, when developing countries again raised the idea as part of their contribution to addressing climate change, various tools, ideas and concepts had been developed to resolve the technical problems and figure out ways to make the necessary calculations – even in countries with low capacity and few data. But as no country is yet at the stage of REDD+ where verification is needed, there are still three to five years to experiment.
Developing countries (such as Brazil) are objecting to having costly, independent verification of emissions imposed on them by donor countries (such as Norway, the United States, Australia), which need to tick the boxes to ensure taxpayers’ aid money is being spent wisely.
They have a point. Many developing countries do not have the technical capacity to engage in complex reporting and verification schemes. And verification costs money.
Developed countries also have a point. Development aid finance is not designed to support this type of funding – lump sum payments for achieving emission reductions. Development finance must achieve objectives and contribute to non-carbon benefits (such as poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation), says Michael Dutschke, director of Biocarbon Consult, an international network of policy advisors for planning and implementation of market-driven climate change mitigation.
“An agreement on verification in Warsaw will only relate to a minor share of REDD+ funding under the UNFCCC (for example, the Green Climate Fund, which is not yet operational),” he says. “All other bilateral dealings, even those of multinational institutions like the World Bank, are subject to contractual law anyway, and will have their own MRV requirements.”
Countries reached a compromise in Bonn and tabled an internal review process for discussion in Warsaw. If adopted, it will require all countries seeking to receive payments based on a reduction of emissions to:
· submit a report estimating their carbon emissions to the UNFCCC every two years based on the latest IPCC greenhouse gas inventory guidelines.
· submit a technical annex on the methodologies used to calculate the reference (emission) level and emissions for the reporting period (see here for our line-by-line analysis of SBSTA’s draft technical annex).
· have their report reviewed by a technical team of experts, including a developed and developing country expert from the UNFCCC roster who will assess it for transparency, consistency, completeness and accurateness.
· work with the review team to clarify issues and provide additional information.
“Countries can now actually see what kind of information they will have to provide and can internally assess how burdensome it would be to provide that information,” Verchot says.
The draft decision is weak in two areas:
· It is not clear on how a country would be required to respond to a negative reviewer and at the moment any negative judgments only need to be “noted it in the summary report”.
· It does not specify how policies and policy changes should be addressed in the country reference level and whether the technical team of experts has the right to assess these or to give advice to the government.
So what is the likelihood of a decision in Warsaw?
If the Subsidiary Body for Implementation impasse continues, verification discussions may be pushed late into the second week (and we may have another overtime COP on our hands).
But if the verification debate looks like it will kill the negotiating process, it is better to be less ambitious and only agree on rules of reporting, says Markku Kanninen from the University of Helsinki.
“Countries only have one and a half years to agree on the next climate treaty. Forget about verification, forget about payments at this stage. Just agree on principles – that countries will report emissions and that countries reducing emissions will get compensated. All the details can be pushed into the next phase.”
The stalemate harks back to the fact that REDD+ was designed as a market-based mechanism, he says. “There will be no strong carbon market unless there is a strong commitment from industrialised countries to reduce emissions.”
But the rules of the game seem to be changing. The past few decades, marked by the division of countries between Annex I and Annex II, rich and poor, North and South, developed and developing may no longer be appropriate, with the draft compromise on emission reductions a sign of things to come, says Verchot.
“The Kyoto era is almost over; the next climate agreement will mandate both developing and developed countries to take action on curbing emissions. Things are starting to change but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. If money changes hands with this system then it will be a change.”