A scene from the 2017 Bonn climate summit. Photo by: UNFCCC

This op-ed was originally published on Medium.

The start of 2018 marked the beginning of a process called the Talanoa Dialogue, which aims to check how countries are faring in meeting their Paris Agreement commitments. But the goal in essence is to prod them to be more ambitious in reducing their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to mitigate climate change.

Experts have noted that the countries’ voluntary commitments to mitigate climate change known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs, would not be enough to meet even the minimum overall goal of limiting global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The NDC, as per the Paris Agreement, indicates a country’s “highest possible ambition, reflecting its common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.”

I’ve been to several of these global climate change talks, and let me tell you this: It’s likely this dialogue will end in an impasse and disappointment, just like many times in the past, unless the approach to climate negotiations changes.

From the 1990s through the Kyoto Protocol process, climate change negotiators applied the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” by classifying countries according to their level of economic development and historical contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions. Developed nations, which compose part of Annex I countries, must then not only reduce their emissions but also fund initiatives so the rest of the world can cope with climate change. Other countries need not do the same. It essentially pitted the so-called developing world against developed nations.

The approach to “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” changed a bit for the Paris Agreement. Developing countries also now commit to reducing GHG emissions. As to the basis for these commitments, it’s everyone’s guess.

All those approaches have led to friction among countries because they were too pragmatic. The classification of Annex I countries was too pragmatic. Even determining the NDC was likewise too pragmatic.

There’s a tendency to simplify complex matters to facilitate agreement. This has also happened in climate negotiations. The deals reached, however, were not that optimal. But we can do better.

I’m proposing a novel way to do climate change negotiations. This approach will not only make the burden of sharing responsibilities equitable, but it will also make the negotiations efficient, because it is based on evidence. I call it the E3 climate negotiation approach.

I developed this approach following years of literature review and analysis. It was also based on observations during my time as part of the climate negotiation team for Peru from 2009 to 2011.

The E3 approach will systematically group countries according to several factors, which take into account national circumstances that affect their capacities to deliver contributions to climate change and their abilities to report about these contributions. They, needless to say, go beyond economic indicators and historic emissions contributions. As such, it focuses on providing a solution rather than pinpointing the blame on anyone about the state of the climate.

In selecting these factors, I focused on the land sector — which comprises agriculture, livestock and forestry — to illustrate how this approach could work. These factors, as such, would change if applied to other specific sectors or the whole country.

I used factors from the land sector as it is a major contributor to GHG emissions. Both developed and developing countries likewise have commitments relating to this area.

The factors used in this case are: (1) control of corruption, (2) political stability and absence of violence, (3) voice and accountability, (4) rule of law, (5) government effectiveness, (6) gross domestic product, (7) forest area, (8) deforestation rate, (9) biodiversity conservation, (10) fertilizer consumption, (11) permanent crops land and (12) livestock density.

To come up with a systematic classification of countries, I did a cluster analysis to classify countries in 2010. I then used an algorithm to explore whether there were changes in national circumstances that could affect that classification and formed the basis for a clustering of countries in 2015.

The maps below show the location of countries under the different clusters for 2010 and 2015.

A map showing the geographic location of countries under different clusters for 2010. Source: A. Castro-Nunez

A map showing the geographic location of countries under different clusters for 2015. Source: A. Castro-Nunez

The E3 approach promotes impartiality, as the factors use widely accepted, freely available global datasets.

It also allows for flexibility. Because these datasets are updated regularly, a country that may be part of a different classification in 2015 may move to another classification when the time comes to take stock anew of the progress in meeting Paris Agreement commitments, such as perhaps in 2020.

So how will this clustering method factor into climate negotiations?

During the COP16 summit in Cancun eight years ago, I saw delegates from Mexico, Liechtenstein, Monaco, the Republic of Korea and Switzerland, which make up the Environmental Integrity Group (EIG), agree among themselves about some of their positions. It wasn’t clear why and how they came together, but it happened naturally. Later on, each of those countries would approach other negotiating alliances that they also belonged to in an effort to build trust and reach consensus. In my view, that was what the Mexican delegation was trying to attain.

That approach proved to be effective. It contributed to getting most countries to agree between themselves that we were a few “yeses” away from an accord. And this alliance building continued over time, resulting in the Paris Agreement.

Now that we are taking stock of the progress in meeting commitments to the Paris Agreement, we need to build on this negotiating approach. We can standardize this good practice by grouping countries based on shared characteristics. This I believe will make for a smoother process in facilitating talks about increments to climate mitigation targets, or any international negotiation for that matter.

So under the proposed approach, comparison of mitigation targets in the land sector will be between “peer countries” or countries that belong to the same cluster.

Based on that, Indonesia should hold talks with Nepal and Egypt. These countries share characteristics based on their performance on control of corruption; political stability and absence of violence; land areas with permanent crops; livestock density; and areas used in biodiversity conservation.

Meanwhile, Chile, Spain, South Korea, Ghana and Estonia should be talking among themselves about adjustments to their climate mitigation targets. The countries share characteristics based on their performance on freedom of expression, the rule of law and effective governments; the ability of their citizens to participate in political process and enjoy freedoms of expression and association; and areas of land with permanent crops.

Though this type of grouping, countries from different regions come together and talk among themselves. This would be unlike what happens in many international conferences where nations gravitate to those belonging to the same region or that share the same development conditions.

As such, the approach will promote empathy, as an Asian nation will gain understanding of where its African or Middle Eastern counterpart is coming from. That would then be in line with the aim of the Talanoa Dialogue: to “build trust and advance knowledge through empathy and understanding.”


Additional information:

I’m happy to discuss the approach. If you’re interested in this, or have suggestions to improve it, you may message me. I’d also like to acknowledge the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) for funding and data on NDCs.

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