In Durban, Progress on Details for Climate Action

CI staff attending a side event at COP 17. (© CI / Photo by Kim McCabe)

Rebecca Chacko is currently attending the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP 17) of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban, South Africa. Read other COP 17 posts.

Only five days remain for delegates here in Durban to make the decisions that will shape international action on climate change in 194 countries across the globe. As Jennifer mentioned yesterday, the big political issues here — a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol and a mandate for a comprehensive, legally-binding agreement by 2015 at the latest — are still unresolved. World leaders have a lot of work in front of them.

Detailed decisions on the rules that will determine how the Cancun Agreements are implemented are also important. One issue that CI pays particular attention to is REDD+, a mechanism through which countries’ efforts to keep forest standing can keep up to 16 percent of global emissions out of the atmosphere. Figuring out how to best organize a global system to encourage countries to keep forests standing is quite a complex affair — and it should be, as it is important to get the details right. Discussions on this topic have been taking place under the UNFCCC since 2005, and countries have been implementing activities for several years now. 2011 is a critical year for the development of REDD+ rules under the UNFCCC; these rules can convert REDD+ from piecemeal activities to a transformational mechanism that can fundamentally change the way we value forests.

Yesterday, two subsidiary bodies finalized recommendations on many of those details; others are still in the works. See below for an update on where we are. (Warning: this blog is about to get technical. I’ll keep it as simple as possible.)

  • REDD+ Reference Levels: Reference levels set the benchmark from which progress on REDD+ is measured, and if REDD+ is to be a sound investment that actually reduces climate change emissions, it’s important to get that right. The recommendation indicates that the development of reference levels should be transparent, and establishes a review process to make sure the reference levels are technically sound. In Copenhagen countries agreed that the historical average of emissions rates should be the basis of a country’s reference level; that outlook has been maintained in the recommendation here in Durban. Countries also agreed to allow adjustments for “national circumstances,” providing opportunities for nations with high-forest cover and low-deforestation rates to participate in REDD+. While justification is now required for those adjustments, however, the decision may not sufficiently constrain adjustments that could potentially erode the environmental soundness of the reference levels, so this will need to be watched closely in the future.
  • REDD+ Safeguards: For REDD+ to move forward and be most effective, we need safeguards in place to ensure that limited funds go to the right kinds of activities (for example, funding the protection of standing forest rather than new monoculture plantations) and that the system protects and enforces rights of local stakeholders. In fact, REDD+ is a great opportunity to benefit people and biodiversity, and it is important to CI that it does so. Unfortunately, the recommendation finalized last night did little to advance the Cancun Agreements. Countries agreed to create an international means for sharing information on safeguards, indicating that it should be both transparent and consistent. However, they only specified that this happen every four years, failing to note when the first exchange would even take place. That means it could be many years before a first round of reporting. This will need to be addressed — we do not want to leave the door open for negative impacts that could go unreported for years. (To learn more, hear from Joanna Durbin in CI’s “Room for Progress” in the video below.)

  • Monitoring and MRV: On the issues of monitoring and Measuring, Reporting and Verification of emissions reductions (MRV), expectations were low given the lack of progress made on this issue all year. By postponing decisions on MRV until next year, countries implementing REDD+ are left with little guidance on approaches. Still, it would have been worse to have a weak decision on monitoring and MRV — one that allows all sorts of creative, unreliable monitoring and measuring. Countries need clear consistent guidance as soon as possible, and we’re glad it is on the agenda again next year.
  • Adaptation: CI is also following the adaptation discussions quite closely. Unfortunately, the impacts of climate change are already here — freshwater availability is changing, extreme, events are increasing in frequency and intensity, sea levels are rising, glaciers are melsing. People must now figure out how to adapt to those changes and to the other changes that are yet to come. Last night’s recommendation also extends and expands the mandate of the Nairobi Work Programme, an initiative aimed at sharing information and best practices on adaptation action. Workshops on ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation and water related issues were also recommended. Given that climate change adaptation is a challenging new area of work, building this understanding at COP17 will make a big difference for people and ecosystems outside of these conference halls.
  • Financing: This is also a big topic of discussion in Durban. Last year the UNFCCC established a Green Climate Fund; determining how this fund will work and how it will disperse funding would be a major win for this meeting, and it’s starting to look like a real possibility. Sources of financing for climate change action has been a bit more challenging, and expectations on that issue were low coming in. However, there have been discussions on this important topic, and that is a good thing.

Not every meeting can result in a world-changing new protocol; hose agreements are built slowly and come only every few years. But we can make progress towards an agreement of that nature here in Durban. Agreements on the details of complicated issues like these contribute to that process. They can also make a huge difference on the ground. If one small element can be operationalized and funds can start flowing toward new activities, that results in concrete actions and progress.

As more global leaders arrive in Durban over the next few days to participate in the second week of the climate talks, we at CI will watch and work through our delegation — along with thousands of others — to ensure that the details are right.

Rebecca Chacko is CI’s senior director of climate policy.

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