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.

Copenhagen COP-15 Side Events Highlight ISO Greenhouse Gas Standards for Managing Responses to Climate Change

Negotiators at the fifteenth “Conference of the Parties” to the Kyoto Protocol, meeting in Copenhagen, enter their final week with eyes focused on the text of an agreement to reach a new international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Heads of state are gathering during the coming days to commit their countries to concrete actions to curb climate change.

At the meeting developing countries are pressing developed ones to lead the way in abating concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases that have risen steadily since the beginning of industrialization in the eighteenth century. Developed countries, the developing ones say, have benefitted disproportionately from the industry and trade that are associated with the rise from approximately 250 parts per million of atmospheric CO2 in 1750 to the 385 parts per million that now are accumulated in the troposphere. This rationale explains the “common but differentiated responsibilities” that underlie the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

One thing is sure. Reaching agreement will be difficult, as developed countries seek global participation in “nationally appropriate mitigation actions” (NAMAs) from all signatories to the UNFCCC and emission reductions that are “monitored, reported and verified.”

While the daily to and fro of high-level negotiations grab most media attention, discussions of myriad details related to climate science, sectoral emission reduction approaches, and institutional mechanisms take place on the sidelines. Two “side events” at the COP-15 involved ISO, the International Organization for Standardization. More than 160 countries are members of ISO which is based in Geneva. Since 1947, ISO has developed more than 17,000 standards in support of international trade.

One of these side events, co-sponsored by the UNFCCC, offered delegates a perspective on how a proposed international greenhouse gas management system standard might support the implementation of NAMAs at both national governmental and local levels. Another side event, sponsored by the International Emissions Trading Association, highlighted existing ISO greenhouse gas standards and their role in promoting governance, trust and integrity in emissions markets.

I had the privilege of representing ISO Technical Committee 207 Subcommittee 7 as a standards expert in these two side events. In both sessions I explained the purpose and role of published standards on greenhouse gas quantification and reporting at the organizational and project levels (ISO 14064:2006 Parts 1 and 2). I also described published standards on greenhouse gas verification (ISO 14064:2006 Part 3) and requirements for greenhouse gas validation and verification bodies (ISO 14065:2007). Our technical committee has forthcoming standards on the competence of greenhouse gas validation teams and verification teams, the carbon footprint of products, and guidance for the establishment of greenhouse gas inventories.

ISO standards facilitate capacity building by providing benchmarks for training, certification of personnel, and accreditation of the bodies that oversee these activities. They play an important role in helping organizations achieve the objectives they set for themselves—or that are set for them by local ordinance, national law or international agreement.

ISO standards define the rules by which independent verification bodies can audit the “greenhouse gas assertions” made by organizations at the entity, facility or project level. ISO greenhouse gas standards currently support emissions trading in both voluntary and regulatory markets. Future standards will offer organizations a means to identify the carbon footprint of products and thereby influence greenhouse gas emissions intensity within a supply chain.

Voluntary, consensus-based ISO standards stand ready to underpin the negotiated agreements reached by countries under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

© Futurepast: Inc., 2009

John Shideler at ISO Side Event in Copenhagen