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The Paris Agreement rulebook explained

Countries are congregating in Katowice, Poland, from 2-14 December to agree on the “Paris Agreement Work Programme”, also known as the Paris Agreement rulebook. In this explainer, SEI researcher Cleo Verkuijl deciphers the rulebook, spells out why the stakes for the upcoming meeting are high, and outlines key expectations for the rulebook negotiations.

Cleo Verkuijl, Karen Brandon / Published on 3 December 2018

What is the significance of the upcoming UN climate change conference?

The 24th UN Climate Change Conference – or COP 24 – is a key milestone in global efforts to address climate change. This December marks the deadline for the adoption of the Paris Agreement rulebook, which is the compilation of the rules and guidelines needed to put the 2015 Paris Agreement into practice. Over the course of two weeks, ministers and negotiators will discuss detailed guidance on a range of climate issues, from mitigation and adaptation, to finance, technology transfer and carbon markets. In addition, the meeting will mark the culmination of a year-long process – the Talanoa Dialogue – that seeks to inject ambition into the climate process. As we transition towards the Paris Agreement’s post-2020 climate governance framework, parties in Katowice will also be taking stock of what has been achieved in the pre-2020 period in terms of climate action and finance for developing countries. Still, the rulebook negotiations are front and centre of many minds, not least because they will represent a key signal that governments remain committed to the Paris Agreement, and to multilateral climate cooperation more generally.

Why the need for more rules? Haven’t countries already signed up to a new climate pact?

For all its virtues, the Paris Agreement left many issues undecided. The treaty includes global goals – most prominently the intention to limit global average temperature rise to well below 2°C, and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C – and mechanisms to achieve these goals – including a five-yearly process requiring countries to submit national climate plans, or “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) that should become progressively more ambitious over time. However, the nuts and bolts of post-2020 climate governance still need to be further determined. Countries meeting in Katowice will need to agree on many issues, such as: What should NDCs look like to ensure they are clear and comparable across countries? How should countries report on progress in implementing their NDCs? And what are the most effective ways to enhance the transparency of climate finance? Ultimately, a robust rulebook is a prerequisite for ensuring that the Paris Agreement can meet its potential, and that progress towards its long-term goals can be tracked over time.

What are the key issues that will come up in Katowice?

Many issues that were contentious during the negotiations towards the Paris Agreement have resurfaced in only slightly different guises at the rulebook stage.

One very clear example of this is the issue of “differentiation” between developed and developing countries. Although – in contrast to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol – the Paris Agreement moves away from a bifurcated approach between these two groups of countries, it still requires countries’ different circumstances to be taken into consideration. The question lingers about how to recognise the realities facing different countries, and, at the same time,  ensure that all countries do their fair share. This issue plays out in transparency discussions in particular: How much flexibility should be afforded to countries with limited capacity to monitor and report on their progress on implementing their commitments? And, crucially, how will governments ensure that the rulebook is sufficiently dynamic to reflect countries’ changing circumstances over time?

Another complicating factor for these negotiations is the interlinked nature of many of the rulebook’s strands, including transparency of action and financial support, the Paris Agreement’s five-yearly “global stocktake” of progress, and compliance with the Agreement’s obligations. These matters are closely intertwined with decisions made on other issues, including mitigation, adaptation and finance. In Poland, negotiators will need to ensure all these separate strands of the rulebook are brought together in a coherent way so that the entire package makes sense.

A final issue that comes to the fore in the rulebook discussions is one of “balance” between different negotiating tracks. While the rulebook needs to ensure strong mechanisms through which countries will drastically cut back their greenhouse gas emissions over time, it will also need to provide assurances to vulnerable countries already grappling with the impacts of climate change that their concerns around adaptation and financing will be addressed. To ensure buy-in from everyone, the rulebook will need to work for all.

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