The UNFCCC conference of Paris (“COP 21”), which will take place during the first two weeks of December this year, will need to square many circles in order to become a success. One of the more vicious ones concerns the level and quality of climate change mitigation commitments from Parties.
A “protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention” (Decision 1/CP.17) is up for negotiation. Yet, it is increasingly unlikely that nations will replicate the firm quantified emission limitation and reduction obligation (QUELRO) approach of the Kyoto Protocol. Instead, intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) are the best offer negotiators have come up with (following a decision taken at COP 19 in Warsaw). The terminology associates everything but a firm legal commitment, and Parties were quick to add that any contributions to be announced – the UNFCCC agenda put March 2015 as a deadline, but many Parties are late with theirs – were “without prejudice to the legal nature of the contributions”.
INDCs follow a bottom-up, country-specific approach. They may still come in the form of absolute, economy-wide emissions targets, as put forward by Switzerland, the first country to make a formal INDC submission, and the European Union. Most developing countries, however, are likely to choose between either a deviation from business-as-usual (BAU) emissions (e.g. Mexico), a peak emission indication (as given recently by China) or an intensity target (GHG emissions per unit of GDP), provided countries put forward a numeric target at all.
Whatever the variety, the risk is, of course, that the overall level of ambition will prove modest (i.e. insufficient to achieve the 2 degree C target) or patchy in terms of coverage and oversight (MRV). The reporting framework so far agreed remains somewhat rudimentary (see Table 1).
Nonetheless, if this is the only offer, best to work with it. The malleable nature of INDCs may, in fact, help to address, and substantially reduce, emissions from land use, land-use change, and forestry (LULUCF) in high carbon areas such as peatlands across the globe than the 1997 Kyoto Protocol ever has. There is also some reason to be optimistic:
- First of all, the mitigation opportunity presented in LULUCF emissions – a large segment of which (2 billion tCO2 annually) is made up of emissions from drained peatlands – are by now universally recognized, and LULUCF has taken centre stage in the Paris negotiations.
- Second, there is increasingly common ground among negotiators that Parties should embrace comprehensive reporting and accounting for emissions across sectors, including LULUCF.
- Third, for a vast majority of countries mitigation action on LULUCF – including action to rewet drained peatlands – complements action on adaptation; thus, the motivation to formulate LULUCF (including peat- and other wetland targets) as part of their INDCs is strong.
- Fourth, the INDC proposals released so far include LULUCF in the INDC coverage. Switzerland even announced its intention to “switch to a comprehensive land based approach”.
It is too early to say whether LULUCF related emissions will become a standard element of INDCs for both industrialized and developing countries, and on what terms. Let us not forget, in the context of drained peatlands in particular, that a reduction commitment against a recent baseline (such as 1990) may not be too hard to achieve for an industrialized country, whose peat drainage activities have mostly started before and whose peat-related emissions are, thus, mostly absorbed by the baseline. A higher level of ambition for industrialized countries would be to commit to absolute reductions in peat-related emissions on top of the all-sector baseline commitment.
Developing countries, by contrast, are given a wide range of options to commit to substantial peat emissions mitigation output as part of their INDCs. A country-wide moratorium for new peat drainage activities would certainly be an important one. So would be a commitment to include de-forested peatlands in a country’s REDD+ target.
Whatever the approach, this is our advice to countries (whether developing or industrialized): Make sure to treat LULUCF, in general, and peatlands, in particular, as part of your INDC, and make the INDC-for-PEAT meaningful.