Adaptation in NDCs: To Include or Not To Include, That is the Question.

You could definitely feel the awkwardness in the conference room during the APA 1-7 agenda item #3 negotiations.This agenda item addresses the mitigation section of the 1/CP.21 decision (where we got the Paris Agreement). What caused such tension? Well, the parties have different positions on what to do with adaptation in NDCs, but were hesitant to speak about it during the session. The draft text for this negotiation issue briefly mentions suggested language for mandatory adaptation commitments within NDCs. But the history of international climate change negotiations hasn’t given much guidance on the issue.


The UNFCCC first mentioned adaptation, but only to build climate change resilience in least developed countries. The Kyoto Protocol essentially ignored adaptation, and favored very stringent mitigation commitments for Annex I countries (a designation, assigned for the UNFCCC, for a party who could provide financial support to other countries). After over a decade of focusing solely on mitigation, the parties at COP21 decided to develop a new agreement with balanced representation of both adaptation and mitigation. As you can imagine, old habits are hard to break. And that was quite apparent in today’s session.

The developed countries tried their best to eliminate adaptation discussions from today’s informal consultations. The general statement in their interventions basically said that talks about adaptation were inappropriate at this session because it was being discussed elsewhere. If a party did decide to speak more on adaptation, the next typical response would reference the history of mitigation priority in previous COP decisions. The history of previous commitments shows an obvious pattern for making mitigation the priority for achieving UNFCCC climate goals. And although COP21 wanted to balance adaptation and mitigation, subsequent decisions did not reflect that goal. Instead, past guidance on NDCs has emphasized mitigation more than adaptation. Furthermore, the language of Article 4 (National Commitments) of the Paris Agreement (the treaty that created the concept of NDCs) outlines the general commitments of the parties without leaving any room for anything adaptation related.

Alternatively, the developing countries–primarily the African countries–(briefly) noted in their inventions the importance of including adaptation into NDCs. Though this issue has its own agenda item, some developing countries expressed their concerns about discussing adaptation at this session. Looking at the language of the Paris Agreement, Article 3 (NDCs) is ambiguous enough to include adaptation into the NDCs. Also, Article 7 (Adaptation) paragraph 11 lists NDCs as a document that may include adaptation communications. The purpose of the Paris Agreement itself is to increase adaptation consideration into climate change action. With such an open door, why not require adaptation commitments within the NDCs?

Negotiations are successful when parties talk through their differences to reach an acceptable compromise. Though today was just an informal consultation, it foreshadowed a rather frustrating next few days. With the constant dismissal of adaptation in this negotiation, it’ll be interesting to see how the advocates for adaptation will respond to the lack of dialogue at the table. Parties won’t be able to ignore the oversized elephant in the room for much longer.

Understanding the Complex Organized Chaos of UNFCCC Negotiations

FractalA fractal is a never-ending mathematical pattern that is self-similar across different scales. Every time you look closer, you see another layer.


The UNFCCC negotiations have a similar pattern. Every time you look closer, you see another layer. The news reports coming out of Paris are using a confusing array of terms: ADP contact groups, spin-off groups, and informal informals. What looks like a bewildering arrangement of groups has a structure and purpose as countries move towards a final agreement on a post-2020 climate regime.


COP 21 negotiations take place in layers. Each layer reduces the number of participants and increases the intimacy. The negotiations start at the ADP, the body tasked with producing the negotiating text for Draft Agreement and a Draft Decision that will be presented to the Conference of the Parties on Saturday December 6. The COP will then be responsible for finalizing the climate agreement.


The ADP process has 196 Party participants and it is shepherded by two Co-Chairs who oversee the ADP contact group. The ADP contact group serves as the organizational heart of the negotiation process. The ADP contact group has spent three years of painstaking negotiations trying to build consensus on the shape, scope, and content of a post-2020 climate agreement.


With only a few days left to find a consensus, the Co-Chairs are using more focused discussion to spur movement from the Parties. The Co-Chairs are creating spin-off groups to discuss specific portions of the Draft Agreement and Draft Text. Spin-off groups discuss specific Articles and related portions of the Decision text. The spin-off groups are lead by a facilitator selected from the Party delegates. The facilitators are tasked with focusing the discussion and seeking areas of common agreement. The spin-off groups break their work load into clusters or themes. The clusters are made up of related paragraphs and sections. For example, the Article 9 spin-off group has created five clusters that will be discussed individually on topics such as Principles and the post-Paris Work Programme.


When spin-off groups bog down on a discussion of a specific portion of the text, the facilitators are creating a smaller discussion group known as an informal informal. The informal informals bring together interested parties from the spin-off group to draft text that can resolve the dispute.


While the negotiating proceedings get smaller and more focused, the reporting structure works in the opposite direction. Informal informals report their work back to the spin-off group. The spin-off groups can accept the work done by the informal informal. If the spin-off group accepts the new text, then they report their work back to the ADP contact group.


The reporting structure ensures transparency and equality between the Parties. The ADP process has 196 Parties with vastly different capacities. Developing countries can staff and participate in all of the spin-off groups. Least developed countries can struggle to cover all of the meetings and follow the discussion. Requiring the spin-off groups to report back to the ADP contact group ensures that information is presented in an open and transparent forum.


As you peer into the ADP negotiation process, the layers reveal themselves. What looks confusing has a purpose and a goal. What appears chaotic has a structure. What appears disorganized has a plan. Move the world closer to a post-2020 climate agreement. Make sure that Week 2 of COP 21 can complete the task set out three years ago.