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Researchers and NGOs will be necessary to ensure climate pledges are kept. Reuters

Engaging civil society will help ensure transparent and credible review of climate pledges

After two weeks of negotiations, the Paris climate talks that ended on December 12 delivered the foundations of a post-2020 climate regime.

To advance climate change mitigation efforts, the new agreement incorporates national targets for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for 2025/2030, a new five-year cycle to establish subsequent targets, a reporting and review placeholder, and official stocktaking two years prior to those submissions to compare global progress against long-term goals.

In Paris, 189 of 195 participating countries pledged action in the form of intended nationally determined contributions, or INDCs. These pledges will be assessed in 2018 to encourage countries, where possible, to increase the level of ambition.

The review mechanism agreed on in Paris is a crucial first step. The new climate regime has also been lauded for its transparency provisions, which will be essential to establishing trust in the review process.

Implementing the pledge review process laid out in Paris will not be easy, but it is necessary to have a chance of ratcheting up efforts over time to meet the agreement’s ultimate goal of limiting global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius.

It is here that research universities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) will have an important role to play.

A transparent review process

A functioning review process will require open and collaborative participation of signatory countries but should not rely solely on an expanded global bureaucracy. The vast majority of third-party analysis on countries’ energy and climate policies comes from academic and nongovernmental organizations, which should be strengthened following Paris.

Official reporting and review processes have existed since the framework convention in 1992. Over time, they have evolved to include periodic communications and highly structured reviews – differentiated by developing and developed countries – performed by a small set of accredited UN experts and other countries themselves. Paris strengthened these requirements by requiring, among other items, all major economies to submit biennial reports and a unified review of all countries’ submissions.

Many parts of the current agreement are placeholders for detailed provisions to be decided over the coming years. We argue that in the new architecture of bottom-up pledges, the international community has an increased responsibility to assess levels of effort and abilities to scale up successful approaches.

Because of the complexity of nations’ institutions, these mechanisms should be designed to enhance both the quality and impact of research outside formal UN processes. In particular, to both assess and support country pledges with an aim to accelerating global emissions reductions, we need significantly more transparency on pledges and policies and a flexible review process that can respond to concerns from academia.

Measurable and model-able pledges allow research communities to arrive separately at their own assessments of countries’ relative levels of effort and progress toward national commitments.

For example, using a countrywide energy-economic model of China, our collaborative team of researchers from Tsinghua University and MIT estimated annual reductions of over four Gigatons CO2 per year in 2030 in a scenario consistent with that country’s Paris pledge compared to a no-policy case. This reduction would equal approximately three times Japan’s CO2 emissions in 2014. More importantly, this work helped policymakers in and outside of China understand how policies then under consideration could help the country reach peak CO2 emissions in 2030, with the help of a CO2 price.

Many other groups arrived independently at estimates of available CO2 emissions reductions from the Chinese economy. It is exercises like these that offer transparency, credibility and – perhaps most importantly – an opportunity to probe and enhance a shared understanding of the implications of national commitments that remain at arm’s length from the political arena.

Beyond pledges

Assessments of pledge progress reports would naturally be more convincing if accompanied by a suite of policy actions and planned changes in existing institutions and processes to facilitate implementation.

To reinforce pledges, countries are called on in the agreement to submit “information necessary to track progress.” More concretely, they should be asked to compile a list of implementing directives, challenges faced and proposed pathways, given that most governments are establishing domestic policies prior to announcing them on the global stage in future climate talks.

For instance, the US’ Clean Power Plan, a crucial policy in the absence of nationwide climate legislation, will face significant court challenges.

Reporting requirements should explicitly recognize these domestic policy constraints, allowing the scientific and modeling community to consider their implications and investigate, as needed, alternative policy pathways.

Data challenges

A transparent, arm’s-length review process will also help to generate internationally credible assessments of GHG abatement efforts in developing countries, where accounting challenges are significant.

As a case in point, China, which targets a 60%-65% reduction in its CO2 intensity in 2030, relative to 2005 levels, is well known for its challenges in reporting accurate data. The country recently revised upward how much coal it has been burning every year by as much as 17%.

Indeed, data revisions will occur, particularly in developing countries that are in the process of establishing data collection systems.

The biennial reporting requirement agreed to in Paris can provide a regular avenue to incorporate revisions. The research community can also help by incorporating revisions into models and assessing implications for meeting emissions goals.

Negotiators further agreed that national commitments should be communicated to “facilitate clarity, transparency and understanding.” This should extend to the range of assumptions and calculation methodologies.

For example, conventions for calculating the nonfossil share of primary energy differs among countries and agencies. China uses the coal-equivalent method, which equates electricity use to the coal use it displaces, while the International Energy Agency employs the direct-equivalent method, which yields smaller percentages for a given level of deployment.

Another benefit of engaging research communities is scaled-up technical analysis and support, while added redundancy allows for multiple independent assessments of progress. These assessments can help identify and laud when countries exceed their goals, encourage upward revisions by expanding successful programs, identify reasons for slow progress and inform technological and policy solutions.

Peer-reviewed pledges

Transparency is critical, and redundancy will further limit – although not entirely avoid – any efforts to undermine the integrity of the process.

Building on previous pledging systems, an important change in Paris was to create a common technical expert review, composed of a limited number of accredited experts with special training. These experts could play an important role in knowledge assessment and synthesis of the country analysis outside experts deliver. In addition, the review should be constructed to allow for official clarification of methodologies such as those raised above.

Stocktaking processes will also be decided over the coming years, and galvanizing a wide range of civil society researchers will likewise be critical to success. The range of emissions gap reports in advance of Paris, a case in point, illuminated important assumptions for future trends such as expected levels of future efforts, or ratcheting.

The requirement to take stock every five years has the potential to become a focal point for wide-ranging studies on long-term goals.

Engaging the broader community

The Paris agreement institutionalizes a periodic review of pledges such that countries are expected to come back both with increased commitments and progress reports. This process will be absolutely critical if we are to come close to achieving the most ambitious climate change mitigation goals embodied in the Paris agreement.

Engaging the broader research community in the review process is our best hope for generating credible estimates of how we are doing as a planet. A critical part of this will be equipping researchers in developing countries to participate as equal partners in this assessment effort.

Up to now, pledges have been the key measure of a climate regime’s success. But only if it devotes just as much ambition to review as it does to pledges can the new global climate regime truly deliver.

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