Thinking about Canada's post-2020 climate ambition: INDC setting

With March 31 fast approaching, and Canada likely to miss a soft UNFCCC deadline to submit its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (iNDC), it seems a good time to explore issues related to setting Canada’s iNDC. This is the first in a number of posts on iNDC setting and Canada.

As a bit a context, the iNDC is our new Copenhagen target that will essentially set Canada’s post-2020 GHG mitigation ambition under the emerging post-2020 UNFCCC global climate change architecture. Our eventual iNDC is a big deal as it essentially sets our collective psyche for the next 15 or so years on the types of policy we need to implement and the level of stringency required. It also becomes the benchmark against which our collective GHG performance is measured at home and abroad.

In this post, I explore some iNDC context within four trends affecting Canada's iNDC setting:

  1. Bundling of targets, finance and other UNFCCC issues;

  2. Flexible contribution setting with an eye on ratcheting up ambition and reducing backsliding;

  3. Flexibility in defining the iNDC; and,

  4. The rise of sub-national recognition.

An emerging “nationally determined contribution” kitchen sink. In the lead up to Bonn in March 2014 and thereafter, splits emerged over the definition of contribution, with many developing countries looking for a broader definition that includes mitigation, adaptation, climate finance, capacity building & technology issues, transparency, and the iNDC under the “contribution” work stream. This was is stark contrast to many developed countries like the US and Canada that understood the term to more closely align with mitigation ambition solely. Slowing the process of defining the INDCs therefore is the delierbate “constructive ambiguity” adopted to side step the thorny question of the legally binding form of the post-2020 agreement, with language moving from “commitment” to “contributions”.

In the lead up to COP20 (Lima) in December, 2014, there has been a push to more tightly define the iNDC to focus more on mitigation targets and allied infrastructure such as GHG reporting. While many developing countries are still pushing for a broad definition of national contribution to include issues such as climate finance and adaptation, the complexity of the negotiating language that still needs ot be nailed down likely precludes a broad definition.

This could be good or bad news. On the negative, pilling on issues to the definition may slow the global process down considerably and threaten a deal in Paris in 2015. On the plus side, for Canada, it could mean more flexibility in the offer to participate globally to help reduce emissions should domestic action aligned with global ambition prove too costly. A notable example is climate finance where Canada could look to using financing contributions to help balance a perceived lack of ambition in its iNDC. Also, such a financing move would align with an ongoing and increasing vocal call for developed countries to upscale their climate finance pledges. Another notable example is a window for proposing (accelerated) enhanced action through international initiatives such as the Climate and Clean Air Coalition.

“Updating ambition”; contingent targets with ambition flexibility. The recognition that past target setting under both Kyoto and Copenhagen left a void between action and ambition, or backsliding on commitments, has led to an emerging focus in the UNFCCC on “updating” contributions. Avoiding the pitfalls of a static target like Kyoto is leading to the exploration of conditions in a post-2020 deal that enable target contingencies. A cycle of five year commitment periods is likely emerging that enables ambition to be increased or at least assessed on a routine basis. A five year cycle aligns nicely with now routine reporting of GHG inventories to the UNFCCC. Then, longer-term aspirational targets can benchmark end points more aligned with the climate science calling for drastic GHG cuts, with iNDC then viewed in the context of the 2 degrees goal (2dC).

Adding flexibility to contribution setting is an important trend to watch for Canada, and indeed to pursue within the UNFCCC. It would allow Canada to propose a tiered approach to target setting to help address competiveness concerns, setting a level of ambition that is doable yet allows for ratcheting down ambition should national circumstances change.

The future is more Copenhagen than Kyoto. Canada can chart its own course. It is most likely that Canada can define its contribution as it sees fit. Rules and guidelines for setting contributions are emerging slowly, giving an opportunity for countries to define their own contributions, in terms of both form and function. This could include intensity targets, base years or absolute emissions. Flexibility mechanisms also seem possible, such as carbon finance that obtain GHG reductions globally.

The trend in the UNFCCC negotiations is clear, with a move to soft global governance away from hard legally binding commitments. This move to national accountability mechanisms will place emphasis on domestic legislation to achieve the national contribution, with global soft governance mechanisms delineated by the UNFCCC in areas such as GHG reporting and MRV

The rise of sub-national recognition. Furthering the emphasis away from global efforts to domestic action is a subtle shift towards the subnationals within the negotiations. The latest text guiding the Durban Platform Working Group (ADP), calling for increasing pre-2020 action, is placing a heavy emphasis on subnational governments. This is an expanded focus under the ADP, with the co-chairs draft of July 2014 taking a soft stance on the role of subnational participation using language such as acknowledge, invites and recognizes.

In the October, 2014 ADP co-chairs draft the language is more action oriented:

22. Agrees that effective implementation of enhanced action requires the engagement and contribution of the broadest range of actors and therefore invites:

(a) Parties to further incentivize, in accordance with their national circumstances, climate actions by subnational authorities, including cities, by establishing effective regulatory frameworks and financing mechanisms needed to address barriers and leverage investment.

The text was subsequently removed. Still, this trend recognizing subnational contributions and calling on national governments to support subnationals reflects the reality, as in Canada, that national governments often lag subnationals. A specific call for national governments to finance subnational mitigation action would certaintly put the fox among the pigeons in Canadian federal-provincial policy dynamic.

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