One way of ensuring equity in mitigation is to first assess the remaining carbon budget in line with warming limits of 1.5C and 2C and then divide it relative to the budget that has been expended thus far by countries. Photo: UNFCCC

Mitigation work programme: Equity gone, rich countries push hard to shift emission cuts to Global South at COP27

“Historically big emitters” vs “big emitters”: Push from Global North risks fracturing principles of Paris accord, instead of implementing it 

The COP27 text for Mitigation Work Programme (MWP) also turned out to be quite a struggle as developing countries battled numerous attempts by their developed counterparts, responsible for the bulk of historic emissions, to shift the burden of cutting emissions to the former and dilute the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR) in the text. 

The MWP was set up at COP26 when countries decided to “establish a work programme to urgently scale up mitigation ambition” through 2030, after several reports warned that the current climate pledges, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), were inadequate to limit global warming to 1.5°C, and for that emissions need to fall 45% by 2030. During COP27, countries decided on the programme’s structure, principles and the timespan.

No “reiteration” of CBDR, principles of equity

Developing countries didn’t want the MWP to alter the norms of the Paris Agreement and shift the burden on developing countries, nor did they want it to duplicate the Global Stalk Take (GST), the first formal assessment of progress on the Paris Agreement’s goals, also aimed at enhancing ambition in the NDCs. Their demand was that the MWP should “reiterate” and be guided by the UNFCCC’s principles of CBDR and equity, which rich countries at COP27 did not agree with. The text “recalls” but does not reiterate requests to “revisit & strengthen” NDCs.

Global North shifts burden of cutting emissions to the poor

The difference emerged at the June 2022 climate conference in Bonn, but on Day Two of COP27, Switzerland demanded equity to either be dropped from MWP or the introduction of a clause requiring “major emitters”, including India and China, to have a “special responsibility” to scale up their mitigation efforts, as opposed to historic emitters such as the US, UK, and the EU, whose historic emissions outpace those of the “major emitters”. Switzerland’s per capita emissions were twice that of India in 2020.

Instead of reducing its own emissions, Switzerland has been accused of delaying climate action by going to Ghana, which has low emissions, and paying the country to install cleaner stoves to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and claiming credits for the same under provisions of Article 6.2 of the Paris Agreement. This has delayed climate action in the Global North while the global poor cut emissions for them.

No new targets: What will scale in the “critical decade” of 2030

The fig leaf for the Paris principles of differentiated responsibility was offered in the final MWP text, which says the process should be “non-prescriptive, non-punitive, facilitative, respectful of national sovereignty and national circumstances” and “not result in new targets or goals”. The text could work both ways, and could also be used by developed countries to cite exigent short-term circumstances to shirk responsibilities of scaling mitigation.

The rich countries wanted discussions on MWP to continue until 2030, while developing countries wanted it to end by 2024. Both settled for MWP talks to conclude by 2026. The four-year work programme decided to come up with recommendations based on broad thematic areas and include all sectors covered in the 2006 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories, and thematic areas in the contribution of Working Group III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC. 

The many themes of MWP

Countries struggled over whether the MWP should include sectoral/thematic timelines, targets or benchmarks. The text lists 51 possible themes, including 2030 emissions gap for specific sectors, fair carbon budget shares, finance, 1.5°C mitigation gaps, pre-2020 pledges, 2030 “real zero” for developed countries, carbon colonialism, domestic carbon markets, renewable energy auction design, energy efficiency standards etc. 

Some countries found common objectives of mitigation prescriptive. Japan wanted all countries to be a part of mitigation ambition in the cover text. 

The MWP identifies no new targets beyond Paris, which basically means that the MWP will only help in identifying sectors on which work can be done and how those are reported through 2026. It was decided that at least two global dialogues shall be held each year as part of the work programme.

Carbon budget fair shares remain a no-go

One way of ensuring equity in mitigation is to first assess the remaining carbon budget in line with warming limits of 1.5°C and 2°C and then divide it relative to the budget that has been expended thus far by countries. This approach would provide a clearer picture of which countries deserve greater space to pursue equitable development, and which need to pursue urgent emission cuts in order to make up for past emissions. While the timeframe for the application of such a methodology would have to be subject to discussions and arrived at through consensus, it at least offers a somewhat equitable solution to the question of which parties should be required to take up cuts and by how much. The issue was raised during discussions on the Second Periodic Review (PR2), which is a two-year science-based process to review the sufficiency of long-term temperature goals. It remained a sticky issue with earlier versions of the text containing an option on the inclusion of the evaluation of fair shares of the remaining carbon budget based on equity and the right to pursue development for developing countries. But it was removed in the final version of the PR2 decision text and replaced with weak language that simply notes the role of national circumstances and differing capabilities in pursuing long-term climate action.

Developed countries prefer instead to use low-emissions pathways compliant with 1.5°C and 2°C as ascertained by the IPCC, which have been shown to not include variables that would effectively reflect equity in development scenarios.

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