Non-state actors played a key role in analysing countries’ pledges in the lead-up to the Paris Climate Change Conference, exposing the huge gap between those pledges and a 2°C-compatible emissions pathway, and pushing governments to do their “fair share”.

At COP21, SEI and CICERO co-hosted a discussion of those efforts, the impact they’d made, and the road ahead. Moderated by Mónica Araya, director of Nivela, the event brought together perspectives from think tanks and NGOs, developed and developing countries.

Below, SEI Senior Research Fellow Harro van Asselt, who organized and spoke at the event, reflects on the discussion with Marion Davis, who leads climate communications at SEI.

MD: There were numerous analyses in the lead-up to Paris that showed the “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) fell far short of a 2°C pathway – yet not one country revised its INDC as a result. Do you think that might change post-Paris?
HvA: Time was always in short supply for changing INDCs before or in Paris. In many cases, countries went through elaborate procedures to come up with an INDC, and it was not completely realistic to expect these assessments (some of which were only produced shortly before Paris) to influence the INDCs at this stage. However, post-Paris that may change – the Paris Agreement says Parties can adjust their ambition upward at any point in time.

The key question here is whether aggregate assessments against the 2°C (or 1.5°C) goal are able to influence individual Parties’ INDCs. I think evaluations of individual Parties’ INDCs are likely to play a stronger role. They can facilitate public pressure (by NGOs, media, etc.) that could in turn increase ambition.

MD: How crucial are national-level actors? One of the take-aways from our discussion was that it’s not just the analyses that are more powerful when focused on a particular country, but also who’s putting pressure on the governments. If so, how do we ensure that the tools developed by international groups tools are as useful and relevant as possible to national-level actors?
HvA: I agree, and that’s exactly why we wanted to discuss this with NGOs to see how they can take this forward. The key question, indeed, is how they can best use such tools. A traffic light system – like the one used by Climate Action Tracker – may work well with a wider public, but of course it hides many methodological assumptions. But I think that for swaying public opinion, NGOs at the domestic level will need to adapt those analyses to the national context, based on their knowledge of each country’s politics, challenges and opportunities. By doing this in dialogue with the makers of assessment tools, they can ensure that the message remains grounded in scientific research.

MD: Indeed, I thought Mónica Araya put it very well in a post-Paris interview: “What we need in Latin America,” she said, “is to connect the political momentum with each country’s priorities for development, energy, and quality of life, and create a winning agenda.”

What about the transparency and accountability frameworks within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)? Do you see non-state actors playing an important role in supporting and building on the official processes?
HvA: We explored that in a major report on assessment and review for the Nordic Council of Ministers. As we discussed in the report (and at our COP21 event), Assessment and review can take many forms: assessment of INDCs (individually or in aggregate) and their level of ambition or fairness; assessment of implementation (through measurement, reporting and verification, or MRV); and assessment of compliance.

I think that in Paris the main focus was on the periodic stocktakes, an innovation in the agreement. The scope of the stocktakes is only partly defined; the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement has been tasked with identifying the sources of input, as well as modalities for the stocktakes, and is expected to present its recommendations at the next COP, in Marrakech. The Parties have also requested advice on how to include information produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has also been asked to produce a report on the 1.5°C goal by 2018.

The work of Climate Action Tracker, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Emissions Gap reports, and other studies already inform the process as well. While there will likely be some resistance to a wide use of input, the UNEP reports, published annually, may be seen as sufficiently credible by Parties and are timelier than the IPCC’s work).

Moving on to MRV, the key question here is whether non-state actors can provide input to the MRV process, either by providing reports or other written input on how individual Parties are implementing their INDCs, or by getting engaged in a Q&A process (like the existing multilateral assessment). There is no precedent for this in current MRV processes, and I think there will be resistance, but I think it would provide for a better informed basis of the MRV process under the Agreement. Moreover, providing for such involvement is not new in international governance. Already in sensitive issue areas like human rights, it is possible for non-governmental stakeholders to participate in international review processes.

MD: Non-state actors played a big role in winning support for the 1.5°C goal. How big a role will they play in helping us understand what a 1.5°C pathway looks like?
HvA: Non-state actors, and notably the research community, will play an important role in the discourse on the feasibility and impacts of 1.5°C, well before the IPCC’s 2018 report. The latter, however, will have more authority in the negotiation process, as it requires government approval. Undoubtedly, Small Island Developing States will refer to new research related to 1.5°C in submissions in the future.

MD: A lot of the discussion about non-state actors’ role post-Paris is about keeping governments honest and exposing their failings. But can’t they also play an important role in highlighting positive examples and opportunities – showing what’s possible?
HvA: You’re right. Assessment and review is not just about telling countries they’re failing or not doing enough. For some countries, the best type of review is to suggest how they could do better/more, and to point to concrete recommendations on how to do so. Again, I think this requires a combination of the type of modelling work carried out for the UNEP gap reports, the Climate Equity ReferenceProject, etc., and in-depth country knowledge that NGOs (and in-country researchers) usually possess. Not an easy task, but hopefully one that will get more serious attention from now on.

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