COP-15 Accord Breaks New Ground In Voluntary Commitments from China, India and Brazil; Could an ISO GHG Management System Standard Help with Verification?

The COP-15 negotiations in Copenhagen did not produce a new treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol. This left many countries and observers bitterly disappointed. It also left in doubt the future beyond 2012 of institutions spawned by the Kyoto Protocol such as the Clean Development Mechanism and the program of Joint Implementation, both “flexible mechanisms” of Kyoto that produce tradable carbon offset credits.

But the agreement brokered by US President Barack Obama did accomplish one goal the US has long held dear. It formally committed the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, China, to concrete goals for greenhouse gas emission reductions. At Chinese insistence these goals will be based on reducing the intensity of China’s growth in future emissions rather than in absolute cuts. And for now, no text has been agreed to that will give China’s or any other country’s emission reduction targets the force of international law. Nonetheless the largest of the world’s most rapidly industrializing developing countries have agreed to set targets, and that principle is important.

Many details of the new agreement have been left for resolution to future meetings. One of the most contentious is the verification regime that will permit assessment of the progress developing countries make on achieving targeted reductions. President Obama insisted that independent verification was essential and that all countries should consent to it. Earlier in the talks the Chinese had insisted that its sovereignty was at stake and that it would certify the results of actions taken without the involvement of outside parties. While the details are not yet clear, President Obama’s direct negotiations with the Chinese premier on Friday Dec. 18 appeared to have succeeded in obtaining China’s agreement to some acceptable form of monitoring and verification.

Transparency was a major theme of the COP-15 before the international leaders arrived on the scene for conference’s waning days. At an earlier COP the principle had been agreed to that emission reductions from developing countries should be “monitored, reported and verified”—or MRV’d for short. The MRV concept specifically was to be applied to “Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions” that developing countries take on a voluntary basis. Hence the interest of having the largest emitters in the rapidly industrializing world, China and India in particular, set targets and agree to some kind of regime for monitoring and verification.

It was left to a future meeting—perhaps the COP-16 in Mexico City in December 2010—to flesh out the details for monitoring, reporting and verification. In the meantime ISO—the International Organization for Standardization—presented a concept at a side event cosponsored by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for a greenhouse gas management system standard that could be used by national governments—or regional or local subunits of governments—to manage, monitor, report and verify climate change mitigation actions. The outline of such a standard was presented by the US-based United Nations Foundation, an advocacy group, and commented on by an Indonesian delegate to the talks in his capacity as Vice Chair of ISO Technical Committee 207 Subcommittee 1 on Environmental Management Systems. Last week in my blog I described the standards published by ISO TC 207 Subcommittee 7 on Greenhouse Gas Management and Related Activities which would also support this management system approach.

The ISO approach is valuable for at least two reasons. First, it provides a framework for countries, regions, or communities to manage climate change mitigation actions at the operational level. A management system provides a ready framework for capacity building and technology transfer, which is just what the developing world needs to implement mitigation actions. Second, it provides assurance to countries furnishing climate change mitigation assistance that their investments in hundreds of locations throughout the world are properly deployed and that results are monitored, reported and verified.

ISO management system standards, in particular ISO 9001 for quality management and ISO 14001 for environmental management, are some of the most popular and widely adopted management system standards in the world. There is no doubt that a management system standard for climate change mitigation could be developed on an accelerated timetable and that it could be of enormous importance in achieving the verification objectives set forth in the Copenhagen COP-15 accord. Third-party verification could be achieved by bodies independent of any national government or the UNFCCC while at the same time augmenting the effectiveness of the Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions.

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