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Can the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change truly be a forum for implementation?

November 16, 2023

This article is part of our COP28 series. Learn more about CATF at COP28.

The first Global Stocktake – a process designed to take place every five years to assess collective progress towards the Paris Agreement goals – will culminate at COP28. It is a major milestone, but we already know that we are off track. 

The World Meteorological Organisation predicts that global temperatures are likely to exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels between 2023 and 2027; fossil fuel demand is predicted to continue to rise through 2030, and – despite widespread understanding that this should be the urgent decade of action and implementation – an increasing number of countries are unlikely to meet their 2030 climate targets (see for example, the UK and Germany).  

The disappointing news in this first Global Stocktake should serve as a stark reminder that pledges are not enough. We must move from ambition to action, which means a focus on implementation. The UNFCCC synthesis report published ahead of COP finds just that, “much more ambition in action and support is needed in implementing domestic mitigation measures and setting more ambitious targets in [nationally determined contributions]”.  

But implementation is a broad and complex issue; it is not just a box to be ticked. In the COP context, it means delivering on the commitments countries have made under the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement, including:  

  1. Transparency and reporting processes that enable accountability; 
  1. Collective commitments that are not defined at the national level such as the phase down of coal; and  
  1. On-the-ground delivery of mitigation, adaptation and finance.  

This shift in emphasis also begs the question: Is the UNFCCC fit-to-purpose for ensuring implementation? 

Whilst the UNFCCC is successful in ensuring that Parties deliver on its reporting processes, it is limited in its ability to accelerate on-the-ground delivery of climate targets. Although the Kyoto Protocol had an enforcement mechanism that suspended Parties from participating in emissions trading and required them to make up the difference in their emissions and their assigned target, this did not necessarily lead to implementation. Under the Paris Agreement, the Implementation and Compliance Committee can only assess compliance with reporting processes, rather than real delivery, meaning it has limited ability to implement or enforce international agreements made within the COP framework. This is often a concern of analysts and pundits assessing COPs from the outside, even if those concerns could be applied to any domain of international law.  

The UNFCCC primarily makes use of symbolic value and political pressure to push country actors towards better outcomes, but that’s something that is beginning to change. 

The value of the UNFCCC

  • Momentum for climate action: COP brings together world leaders, Governments, investors, business and the media year-on-year, keeping climate in the global spotlight. The Paris Agreement also includes built-in mechanisms for maintaining momentum, such as the Global Stocktake.  
  • Political signalling: outcomes agreed at the COP provide a political signal to the outside world, and when matched by binding commitments by COP Parties (often through translation into domestic law), help to create investor certainty on the global direction of travel. 
  • International cooperation on climate change: through the Paris Agreement, the UNFCCC creates a framework for collective action under a common goal and timeframe. This creates some common baselines for climate plans, like holding “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C” or the process of developing Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) every five years to support meeting that goal. 
  • Nationally determined climate targets: the bottom-up process of setting NDCs enables Parties to make commitments based on their respective capabilities and domestic resources. When setting an NDC target, Parties outline how they consider their NDC to be “fair and ambitious” in line with their national circumstances. 
  • Inclusivity: Whilst the usual international players (US, China, EU) wield the most power in the negotiations, outcomes are agreed by consensus and require collective agreement. Smaller negotiating groups such as the Small Island Developing States have led the charge on raising ambition at many COPs. 
  • Transparency of countries’ pledges and actions: the rules and guidelines for implementation require Parties to outline the detail of their NDCs and to report biennially on progress towards achieving their commitments. The process is built on accountability through transparency, trust that countries will deliver on the promises they have made, and the notion that a lack of trust in delivery can have spillover effects into wider international diplomacy. 

Negotiations focused on implementation 

Since the agreement of the Paris rulebook at COP24 in Katowice (2018), the UNFCCC has tried to move towards a focus on the implementation of Parties’ commitments. New negotiating items have been brought forward that are increasingly focused on sectoral transformations, for example: 

  • Cover decisions in recent years have included elements of ‘sectoral implementation’, such as Parties agreeing to “rapidly scale up the deployment of clean power generation” and “accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power”.  
  • The Global Stocktake is a key part of the Paris Agreement architecture, enabling countries and other stakeholders to determine collective progress towards meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement every five years. The UNFCCC has made an effort to broaden these discussions to focus on implementation, with sectoral roundtables involving civil society and industry representatives that focus on aspects of implementation e.g., industrial decarbonisation. The recent synthesis report also highlights the importance of systems transformations, particularly in transport and industry, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 
  • The Mitigation Work Programme was agreed at COP26 to urgently scale up mitigation ambition and implementation this decade. It is currently discussing the possibility of sectoral targets and elements of implementation such as power sector and transport decarbonisation in its ‘Global Dialogues’, which bring together technical experts to talk about practical solutions and barriers.  

However, it is challenging to move beyond political signalling to the implementation of these commitments, particularly as the Paris Agreement lacks an enforcement mechanism or punitive measures for non-compliance. The Paris Agreement framework primarily relies on countries responding to international pressure in order to deliver. But because there is no vested authority in the COP process, countries are able to comply or ignore agreements they make.  

Despite attempts to focus on sectoral implementation, discussions tend to remain at the surface level, highlighting principles or technologies to consider. This is partly a result of Party representation at the COP, which tends to be dominated by diplomats and negotiators, who – whilst very skilled at navigating the complexities of the UNFCCC – are not usually technical experts on domestic implementation. But this also stems from the reality that implementation is so region and country specific, and reliant on socioeconomic and political context.  

COPs increasingly defined by ‘sector deals’ 

This has led to the emergence of ‘sector deals’ that run parallel to the UNFCCC negotiations, such as the Global Methane Pledge or the Breakthrough Agenda at COP26, or the Global Decarbonisation Alliance that will be launched at COP28. These sector deals tend to bring together a smaller set of countries and/or organisations to act as first-movers, setting high-level ambition and taking steps towards, for example, a globally significant action. 

Despite happening parallel to negotiations, they are typically orchestrated by the COP Presidency to match key themes that are of high priority to their administration, such as coalitions, targets and forums for collaboration that are showcased at COP. This means that these initiatives tend to have their moment at COP but are then superseded by a new set of initiatives announced by the next presidency the year after. This naturally leads to a lot of pledges, targets and promises that can easily slip into pure “symbolic politics” territory. 

To address this, attempts have been made to put measures in place to ensure the legacy of COP presidency initiatives, for example by identifying co-chairs that will take forward initiatives once a presidency is over (e.g., Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use), creating a Secretariat and housing them in pre-existing bodies (e.g., Mission Innovation is supported by the International Energy Agency (IEA)), creating reporting processes that shine a spotlight on progress made towards those initiatives, providing advice to Government and investors on how to implement an initiative (e.g., the Transition Plan Taskforce), and ensuring regular meetings of the coalitions to discuss progress and next steps.  

However, without clear and continued leadership, buy-in from those implementing the commitments, and translation into domestic regulation, those signed up are unlikely to feel the pressure to deliver on what was agreed. Sector deals have become a very prominent feature of COP, but this proliferation of face-value announcements has attracted more and more scrutiny – they cannot be accepted as a workaround to sclerotic central negotiations around the Paris Agreement. 

Recommendations for a way forward 

COPs have evolved from technical discussions on an issue that was regarded as niche back in the early 1990s into something bigger, louder, and far more complex. As a result, they’ve also become a lot messier. 

Whilst COPs provide a useful convening point, implementation depends on economic, political and regulatory context, meaning the emergence of sector deals becomes increasingly inevitable as countries grapple with how to deliver their climate targets at home. Sector deals signal a real appetite for more ambition and granular targets related to implementation, but they often suffer from a lack of real organisation and a Secretariat to administer them. The UNFCCC creates a unique space for country-driven collective and representative agreement that sector deals can neither replicate nor replace.  

There are a number of steps the UNFCCC could take to set itself up for implementation, including:  

  1. Continuing to provide political signaling through cover decisions, that further facilitate binding commitments, can help to provide investor certainty and confidence in Governments’ continued commitment to tackling climate change. Using the ambition cycle and the Global Stocktake to raise awareness of the gap to meeting the Paris Agreement goals, to highlight which sectors will be important, and provide the space for countries to collaborate, can also help to amplify the need for and advance further action globally. 
  1. The UNFCCC Secretariat should be empowered to track the targets included in sector deals and cover decisions, with Parties held to account for any lack of progress. Targets could be tracked through specific negotiations tracks, for example the Mitigation Work Programme, or through Parties being required to report on progress towards these targets in their Biennial Transparency Reports.   
  1. Maintaining a focus on the need for systems transformations is useful at a high-level, to ensure that Parties consider their energy transitions as part of a whole-systems approach. However, attempting to agree wide-ranging sectoral targets or detailed policy actions for implementation could risk slowing the progress of ambitious countries and markets, agreeing a meaningless target, or creating a race to the bottom (i.e., a lowest common denominator target). Instead, Parties should be mandated to include sectoral targets in their NDCs, something that could be discussed in outstanding negotiations on “Features” (a contentious negotiating item that seeks to define the required elements of NDCs, and will come back for discussion next year). 
  1. The UNFCCC should support trilateral or regional progress to enable region and country-specific implementation. Regional Climate Weeks have begun to play this role and should continue to facilitate country-to-country exchange on policy options and approaches to implementation.  
  1. Sector deals should continue to facilitate first-movers, but be designed with follow-through from the beginning, with clarity on what it means to sign up before countries make new commitments. For collective targets, signatories could negotiate effort sharing before signing up to the commitment (although this is likely to be politically challenging), and for targets where each country aims for the same outcome (e.g., a proportion of renewables in the energy mix), individual country progress towards this outcome should be tracked. 
  1. Country delegations should increasingly involve domestic experts who can participate in discussions focused on implementation, for example as related to industry and transport decarbonisation. 
  1. The global community must find a real way to increase the collective pressure on countries to implement their commitments, and to put a spotlight on those who have failed to do so, particularly those whose action is critical to achieving the Paris Agreement goals i.e., the G20, particularly China and the US. Big players such as the EU could regularly convene the largest emitters outside of the COP process to maintain accountability and drive further implementation. Civil society organisations also have a key role to play here, both ahead of and at the COP, in tracking country progress towards these initiatives, and working with the media to raise global awareness where they are off track. 

As we enter the 28th annual Conference of the Parties, it is well worth considering how we can make the core process more effective – and fit-for-purpose to drive implementation in the real world. The UNFCCC’s convening power and ability to bring global attention to the issue of tackling climate change should not be underestimated, but there is a palpable sense that the circus of global leaders, media and hangers-on that come along with COPs has elevated the sideshow over the main event. 

Let’s hope for the Global Stocktake discussion at COP28 to take centre stage, highlighting the need for implementation and providing a bulwark against the noise that has become a core part of the COP experience. Hopefully, in one year’s time, we can look back at COP28 and mark it as the beginning of a new era of the UNFCCC process – one focused on implementation above all else. 

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