Compared to 2013, the world in 1990 was a simpler place to design a global climate change regime. Countries were either part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) or not. This divide was reflected in the two primary groups of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): Annex 1 for developed countries and Non-Annex 1 for developing countries. These annexes reflect the different types of commitments for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by developed countries and how they are meant to support developing countries to act.
The UNFCCC, while prescribing all countries to take action, established a set of Principles to guide countries towards achieving the objectives of the Convention, including the ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR+RC)’ of different countries, their special needs and circumstances, equity and the precautionary principle, and the right to sustainable development. Later, through the Kyoto Protocol, which featured some of these Principles such as CBDR+RC, countries agreed to the first legally binding agreement with quantified emissions reduction commitments. Over 20 years later, the world has become more complex and most countries have seen significant changes to their economies and societies. While some have made progress towards decoupling emissions from economic growth, emissions have risen dramatically, especially in developing countries, ensuring it is now very difficult to determine responsibility and who should act. Meanwhile, the Principles of the Convention remain the same. The long running distinction between the annexes or the ‘North’ versus ‘South’ divide reached a head in 2009 at COP15 in Copenhagen with the so called 'pledge and review' approach to defining new mitigation pledges up to 2020. This approach was a massive disappointment to various countries and global civil society. Although instrumental in bringing the USA and the developing countries to the same table, this approach fell woefully short of the action required to avoid dangerous climate change. With the 2015 deadline to create a new climate change agreement fast approaching, the recent news that we have reached 400 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere reflects the urgency of the challenge and the cavernous gap between our inadequate emissions reduction pledges and what the science demands. The merits of a hybrid approach In order to secure a new agreement in 2015, we must try new approaches but without reinventing the wheel. Tapping into hybrid systems could be beneficial to accommodate this dynamic and changing world. A hybrid approach could be a common understanding (or common rules based system) of what needs to be done globally to close the ambition gap and the ways in which coping with climate impacts and the efforts to reduce emissions can be shared. This approach could combine nationally defined commitments, with common rules on measurement, reporting and verification (MRV); as well as accounting and transparency rules agreed upon by all countries. This approach would be flexible enough for countries to freely define their respective emission reduction commitments while taking into account their national emission levels and capacities. A range of options could be offered to countries including quantified emission limitation and reduction objectives (QELROS), energy intensity targets, sectoral and low emission development strategies (LEDs), among others. It is important that these be quantified, comparable and open to external scrutiny. Clear transparent rules are required in order to build trust and confidence. The Kyoto Protocol has a useful set of rules that can be used by most of us. Although it may not be the preferred option for all, a system that can deliver the necessary aggregate ambition for climate and environmental integrity, may be the one where countries are able to define their own mitigation commitments, while allowing for other countries and the public to assess the adequacy of their ambition in relation to the principle of CBDR+RC. Finally, an important element of comparability is the data analyses that will justify how ambitious a country should be in relation to others. A lot has been discussed around indicators, but some serve a few countries and not others. Justification for the chosen level of ambition is paramount and has to be clear to all of us, and to our constituencies, and be consistent with the ultimate goal of the UNFCCC. The latest UNFCCC session in Bonn was constructive. Countries were frank, and most were open in identifying redlines and possible venues for collaboration. At the next meeting in Bonn in June, we hope to work on the specifics and overcome the conceptual arguments that precede a robust and effective agreement. The time remaining before COP21 in 2015 is vanishing even faster than the Andean glaciers and it may be our last chance to reach a multilateral agreement ambitious enough to protect the integrity of our planetary systems and our societies.