World Resources Institute WRI

Building the climate change regime: survey and analysis of approaches

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We are falling short. The world recognizes the urgency of the climate challenge. The risks of unabated climate change are well documented and its impacts are already affecting people and ecosystems. Yet despite a global commitment by most of the world’s governments in 1992 to stabilize anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHG) at safe levels, emissions are still on the rise and pledges of future action, in aggregate, fall short of what science suggests is necessary. This bleak outlook calls for bold thinking and determined action, building on the foundations laid in the international climate negotiations over the past two years and the determined national efforts of some countries.

Governments and observers generally agree that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) took a step in the right direction in Cancun at the sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-16) and the sixth Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (COP/MOP-6) in December 2010 in setting the foundation of a comprehensive framework to govern the world’s efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to a changing climate. Under the Cancun Agreements, Annex I Parties, or developed countries, committed to implement quantified economy-wide emission reduction targets by 2020 and deliver support to developing countries for mitigation and adaptation in the form of finance, technology, and capacity building. Non-Annex I Parties, or developing countries, including major economies such as China and India, agreed to take nationally appropriate mitigation actions. Rules will be developed to ensure transparency and accountability around these commitments. However, the pledges made in aggregate by Parties in Cancun are insufficient to realize the goal of the Convention to achieve “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

UNEP estimates that emission levels of approximately 44 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) in 2020 would be consistent with a “likely” chance of limiting global warming to 2°C. Under business-as-usual projections, global emissions could reach 56 GtCO2e in 2020, leaving a gap of 12 GtCO2e (UNEP, 2010). Depending on how the Cancun pledges are implemented, a gap would remain of 5-9 GtCO2e in 2020 to have a “likely” chance of saying below the 2°C temperature limit (UNEP, 2010). In addition, uncertainty persists over countries’ capability to live up to these commitments, let alone strengthen them over time to the level required to limit a global average temperature increase of 1.5˚ C or 2˚ C. With the UNFCCC struggling to convince skeptics that it can catalyze global action on climate change, the institution and its 194 Parties need to build an institutional architecture capable of fulfilling key functions in the climate regime.

But the UNFCCC is not the only focus for confronting the climate challenge. A constellation of actors with vested interests in a stable climate including multilateral institutions, national governments, businesses, states, cities, and citizens together form the broader stage for action. These actors have begun to make investment decisions, national development strategies, and consumer preferences that are gradually shifting towards low-carbon, climate resilient alternatives. This transition must accelerate in tandem with the multilateral commitments that the UNFCCC will govern.

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