What reforms does the UNFCCC Expert Review Process need to prevent the Paris Agreement from failing?

May 22, 2019, by Michael Gillenwater

The Paris Agreement is built on a framework of transparent reporting by countries that demonstrate they are fulfilling their climate commitments, thereby holding governments accountable. But a key part of this framework will break down without new reforms.

The major achievement of the latest climate negotiations was to produce a detailed “rulebook” on this national reporting of greenhouse gas emissions, mitigation actions, adaptation, climate finance, and more. A somewhat hidden part of these UNFCCC processes is the technical review of official national reports and data by independent experts. The regulatory or treaty analogy would be compliance inspectors.

Past technical review processes under the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol have focused on developed countries. Now they are being dramatically extended. The first national reports under the Paris Agreement—referred to as biennial transparency reports, or BTRs—will be submitted by all countries by the end of 2024.

In response, we have released a provoking discussion paper on this core element of the Paris Agreement, entitled Challenges and Proposed Reforms to the UNFCCC Expert Review Process for the Enhanced Transparency Framework.”

We show that the current UNFCCC review and technical analysis processes are not currently sustainable, and that they are not capable of being scaled effectively to support the Paris Agreement. Instead, we reveal why it is necessary to rethink and redesign a process that can support effective and efficient BTR reviews. And so we provide recommendations for these needed reforms.

Why are these reforms needed? Because the Paris Agreement introduces a dramatic increase in the scale and complexity of review, involving several major changes relative to the existing UNFCCC processes:

We tackle issues near and dear to the hearts of many GHGMI alumni, as many of you already participate in reporting and/or reviews (technical analysis) of GHG inventories, biennial reports (BR), biennial update reports (BUR) and/or national communications (NC) under the UNFCCC or Kyoto Protocol.

The Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015. Hasn’t everything been decided?

In December 2015, when the Agreement was adopted within the plenary hall in Le Bourget, France to roaring applause and emotion from the international community, those giving the standing ovation were not necessarily thinking about the work ahead. They were celebrating a momentous occasion of global cooperation. All countries had come together to chart a collective path to addressing climate change.

The Paris Agreement introduced some new concepts – nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and a periodic global stocktake of country efforts. Both are built upon a process for monitoring progress, called the Enhanced Transparency Framework (ETF).[3] But, most of the operational details for implementing the Agreement were left for later. The people in Le Bourget that night were not yet worried about that.

But now they are.

Last December, we took a step forward. At COP24 in Katowice, Poland the rulebook for implementing the Agreement was (mostly) completed.[4] Specifically, key decisions were adopted by Parties clarifying what countries are to report to show they are meeting their commitments and how this information is to be reviewed by independent Technical Expert Review Teams (TERTs).

So, with the adoption of the rulebook in Katowice, aren’t we now ready to implement the Paris Agreement? Well, not fully.

In this paper, we examine the modalities, procedures and guidelines (MPGs) agreed in Katowice (decision 18/CMA.1), which is the name given to a core part of the rulebook. These MPGs build on the 20+ years of experience we have under the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol on the reporting and review of climate information. But, the MPGs still leave many operational details unaddressed.

Specifically, it is still necessary to design the operational details of the review process for the Paris Agreement. While doing so, we have two fundamental choices. We can simply carry out reviews as we have done in the past, or we can reform and improve. Again, doing what we have done in the past for the review of GHG inventories, Biennial Reports, National Communications and the technical analysis of Biennial Update Reports is unlikely to succeed.

Challenges in the current review processes

The paper explores several key challenges in the current review and technical analysis processes that must be acknowledged and addressed to successfully implement the ETF under the Agreement, namely:

How to create a functioning review process for the Paris Agreement?

The reforms we recommend be made to the UNFCCC expert review and analysis processes to meet the requirements for the Paris Agreement include:

These recommendations are built on experience that begins with the first UNFCCC reviews in 1999 and continues through to the present day. We passionately are committed to its success and credibility, having committed our careers to it. And we feel strongly that implementing these recommendations is necessary for review under the Paris Agreement to succeed. There are surely additional ways to improve the review process, and we welcome creative and forward-thinking approaches that build on these recommendations. The full discussion paper provides vastly more detail on the specific challenges and recommendations we only introduce above.

Click here to download the full report.

Authors: Lisa Hanle (GHGMI); Michael Gillenwater (GHGMI); Tinus Pulles (retired); Klaus Radunsky (Environment Agency Austria)

Epilogue: Broader issues left to be addressed for Paris Agreement implementation

As noted above, the rulebook was mostly completed. A key decision remains for Parties to clarify the rules for voluntary cooperative activities between and among Parties, such as internationally transferred mitigation outcomes (Article 6). Further work also is needed on technical elements, including: reporting formats for inventories and other climate information; outlines of the BTR, national inventory document and the expert review report generated during the technical review of these elements; and the training program for experts participating in this review process.[5]

This discussion paper is the first in a planned series of papers that will address key challenges with operationalizing the Paris Agreement. They are being published through the Coalition on Paris Agreement Capacity Building. The expert authors under the Coalition are committed to providing thought leadership throughout this critical period during which the structures of the Agreement are being built that will strongly influence its success or failure.

[1] At the time of the writing, 185 Parties had ratified, accepted, approved or acceded to the Paris Agreement. https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=XXVII-7-d&chapter=27&clang=_en. There are 197 Parties to the UNFCCC (196 States and one regional economic integration organization)

[2] To date, few developing countries have submitted their BURs and had them analyzed within the requested two-year cycle.

[3] Yes, negotiators due seem to need to come up with a new term for everything, as each time the previous used term carries too much political baggage.

[4] https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/paris-agreement-work-programme/katowice-climate-package

[5] 18/CMA.1, para. 12


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