Increasing mitigation ambition: establishing 'mitigation reference points' to trigger mandatory greenhouse gas reductions.

Author:Wold, Chris
Position::Author abstract
 
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  1. INTRODUCTION II. REFERENCE POINTS IN FISHERIES REGIMES III. LESSONS LEARNED FROM IMPLEMENTATION OF PRECAUTIONARY REFERENCE POINTS IV. MITIGATION REFERENCE POINTS IN THE CLIMATE CHANGE CONTEXT A. Mitigation Reference Points 1. Atmospheric GHG Concentrations 2. Sea Level Rise 3. Natural Impacts 4. Human Actions and Inactions B. Positive Feedback Mechanisms 1. Sea Level Rise and Melting Ice 2. Permafrost Thaw 3. Forest Loss V. PREDETERMINED ACTION WHEN MITIGATION REFERENCE POINTS ARE REACHED VI. CONCLUSION I. INTRODUCTION

    As part of the Cancun Agreements (1) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), (2) States pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by certain percentages or take other action to limit their GHG emissions. (3) However, at the 2011 climate change negotiations in Durban, the Parties acknowledged the "significant gap" between their pledges to reduce GHG emissions by 2020 and the goal of limiting global average temperature below 2[degrees]C or 1.5[degrees]C above pre-industrial levels. (4) The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) concluded that, in 2020, the current mitigation pledges included in the Cancun Agreements will be eight to twelve GtC[O.sub.2]e short (5) of limiting average global temperature increases to 2[degrees]C above preindustrial levels--the stated goal of the climate regime. (6)

    To bridge this gap, UNFCCC Parties must raise their level of ambition and make additional mitigation commitments before any new agreement under the Durban Platform comes into effect in 2020. (7) Yet, they have struggled to do so. (8) As the clock ticks toward 2015, when UNFCCC Parties have agreed to conclude new pledges to mitigate climate change that would take effect in 2020, (9) the Parties have made little progress. (10) Moreover, they have made no progress on increasing ambition before 2020, although they have established a program of work for doing so. (11)

    One strategy for increasing ambition before 2020 is to adopt "mitigation reference points" that would trigger automatic pre-determined mitigation action by the Parties. (12) These reference points could include, for example, atmospheric GHG concentrations reaching a specific threshold, global average temperatures rising to a specified level, ice sheets melting at a particular rate, and sea level rising to a certain point. When a reference point is reached or exceeded, automatic action, such as increasing commitments by an equal or prorated amount, would be required. As discussed in Sections II and III, the strategy is modeled on the precautionary reference points that have been established by the U.N. Fish Stocks Agreement, (13) which has embraced them to avoid overfishing. Sections IV and V describe how "mitigation reference points" could be developed to increase ambition within the climate change regime.

  2. REFERENCE POINTS IN FISHERIES REGIMES

    The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 57% of marine fish stocks were fully exploited in 2009 and 30% were overexploited, (14) conditions that have significantly worsened since 1974. (15) To halt the continued overexploitation of marine fish stocks, the Fish Stocks Agreement grants coastal states, among other things, new enforcement and inspection powers. (16) In addition, it requires states to "apply the precautionary approach widely to conservation, management and exploitation of straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks." (17) To implement the precautionary approach, the Fish Stocks Agreement directs states to "implement[] improved techniques for dealing with risk and uncertainty" (18) and to "be more cautious when information is uncertain, unreliable or inadequate." (19)

    To address risk and uncertainty more effectively and to act more cautiously, the Fish Stocks Agreement mandates that states adopt "precautionary reference points." (20) Precautionary reference points guide fisheries management by estimating stock-specific values that correspond to the state of the resource and the relevant fishery. (21) The Fish Stocks Agreement identifies two types of precautionary reference points. Conservation, or limit, reference points "set boundaries which are intended to constrain harvesting within safe biological limits within which the stocks can produce maximum sustainable yield." (22) The Agreement further specifies that the minimum standard for limit reference points should be "[t]he fishing mortality rate which generates maximum sustainable yield" and that fishing mortality must not fall below this level. (23) In the Northeast Atlantic, where 62% of stocks are fully exploited and 31% are overexploited, maximum sustained yield was recently adopted as the standard limit reference point. (24)

    Management, or target, reference points are intended to meet management objectives. (25) For example, the Commission for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources--a Regional Fisheries Management Organization (RFMO)--limits icefish harvest to "an annual yield which results in a 5% probability that the spawning stock biomass is reduced to below 75% of the level that would occur in the absence of fishing over a two-year projection period." (26) In other words, limit reference points identify biological harvest limits, while target reference points establish additional management objectives within the identified harvest limit. (27)

    Precautionary reference points are more than identified thresholds--they also introduce an important management mandate: States must identify the action to be taken if a stock-specific reference point is exceeded (28) because precautionary reference points "trigger pre-agreed conservation and management action." (29) For example, if a precautionary reference point relates to a fish stock reaching a specific biomass or a harvest reaching a certain tonnage, the State adopting the reference point must take whatever management action has been pre-agreed if the reference point is met or exceeded. (30) As the Fish Stocks Agreement provides, if a reference point is reached or exceeded, "States shall, without delay, take the action [previously agreed] to restore the stocks," (31) the "absence of adequate scientific information shall not be used as a reason for postponing or failing to take conservation and management measures." (32) This concept--that overexploitation of a natural resource must trigger immediate remedial action--could be integrated into the climate change regime to increase mitigation ambition.

  3. LESSONS LEARNED FROM IMPLEMENTATION OF PRECAUTIONARY REFERENCE POINTS

    Stock-specific reference points are used in fisheries management at both national and regional levels, but these precautionary thresholds have largely failed to prevent overexploitation of marine fisheries even though a majority of FAO Member States and RFMOs have incorporated precautionary reference points into their fisheries management plans. (33) FAO reports that two-thirds of regional fishery bodies (34) use stock-specific reference points, but that a majority of these reference points were either being approached or have been exceeded. (35) In fact, over-fishing is a worldwide problem resulting from poor fisheries management at the national and regional levels, with nearly 30% of global marine stocks currently overexploited. (36) At the regional level, TRAFFIC has concluded that "[i]t is difficult to identify examples of sustainable management of target stocks by RFMOs. Many stocks are over-fished despite the objectives of the responsible organization." (37) At a national level, more than half of FAO Member States have established stock-specific reference points, but most of these thresholds have been approached or exceeded as well; 68% of managed fisheries are overexploited. (38) In many ways, the failure of reference points is not surprising: The FAO reported in 2009 that FAO Members ranked stock-specific reference points as the Member's lowest priority fisheries management measure. (39)

    Three significant reasons have contributed to the lack of success of precautionary reference points. First, technical and scientific concepts like "precautionary reference points" do not appear to be clearly understood by all fisheries managers. (40) For example, African, Asian and European countries fisted fishing gear controls as an indicator of stock health rather than a basic management measure. (41) Second, very few RFMOs have developed mandatory management actions that must be undertaken when precautionary reference points are exceeded. (42) Without such a framework, RFMOs are able to justify their failure to take precautionary action on the basis of uncertainty, cost, or stock allocation issues. (43) Third, RFMOs have failed to set precautionary reference points or implement responsive management action in instances where stock population status is uncertain or unknown, (44) even though the Fish Stocks Agreement mandates that States "be more cautious when information is uncertain, unreliable or inadequate." (45) In instances where RFMOs have received scientific advice urging precautionary action due to uncertain or unavailable stock data, RFMOs have responded by noting the recommendations, requesting additional analysis, or seeking additional advice regarding potential management responses. (46)

    While these shortfalls may hinder efforts to prevent overexploitation of global fisheries, they provide valuable insight into the precautionary reference point model that could be incorporated into an international climate change agreement. First, precautionary reference points should be established at the international level as determined and agreed upon by all Parties. In the fisheries context, the regional variation among fisheries supports the regional establishment of reference points because even fish stocks of the same species may exhibit varying degrees of productivity depending on location. (47) For example, tuna...

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