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Rethinking air travel in a globally connected world: Beyond Flying?

Benito Müller

It must be rare to be referred to as one of the most destructive voices in modern climate dialogues. How did I obtain this epithet?

On 16 May this year, Rod Janssen, publisher of the weekly Energy in Demand (EiD) newsletter, requested his readers to take a few moments to rethink air travel. Let us know what you are doing to make your mobility more sustainable! I followed the request and sent him the following Comment:

Air travel/transport is in danger of becoming to be regarded as ‘intrinsically evil’ which I personally think is completely the wrong reaction to the problems it no doubt poses in its current form. I do not think abolishing air travel and replacing it with 19th century slow travel alternatives is a sustainable answer.

As I tried to argue over a decade ago (“Food Miles or Poverty Eradication? The moral duty to eat African strawberries at Christmas’) Abolishing air transport would also have disproportionate negative impacts on those who rely on it to sell their agricultural produce to the globally more affluent.

What we need is not to abolish air travel/transport but to make it more sustainable, not just by offsetting, but by switching to renewable energy based planes and by supporting the poorest and most vulnerable globally in their efforts to build resilience against residual impacts, as proposed in the Corporate Air Passenger Solidarity initiative.

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In comes ‘Leslie’ (nom de plume) with this riposte: Benito Müller seems one of the most destructive voices in modern climate dialogues: he is proposing with the CAPS initiative to keep on flying and pay for adaptation (not even loss and damage) rather than reducing emissions and pay the climate financing that developed countries has promised with the Paris Agreement, including adaptation finance. The argument of only financing adaptation is a short-circuit of climate action with the underlying assumption that we can just adapt to any climate change. […]

I have no idea how s/he arrived at the preposterous conclusion of me having ever advocated that “we can just adapt to any climate change”. The point of CAPS is to redress the neglect of adaptation in the debate on air travel and climate change, not to supplant mitigation, which is obviously critical. 

What we need is to make flying sustainable. That does not mean we have to abolish it altogether (‘The only good plane is a grounded plane!’). What we need to do is eliminate not flying but its carbon emissions, while also supporting the most vulnerable in enhancing their resilience to the adverse impacts which have already been caused (by unsustainable air travel).

‘Rethinking air travel’ in Janssen’s request refers to an Ecologist book review by Rose Bridger of “Beyond Flying: Rethinking air travel in a globally connected world”.[1] It begins with the observation that: For today’s tourists and travellers the elephant in the room is the jumbo jet which whisks us to our destinations – but pollutes the air, promotes destructive development, and isolates us from the real world.

While fully acknowledging the point about pollution, I have my reservations about ‘promoting destructive development’, and I have to draw the line at the isolation from ‘the real world’, or, as a review heading goes: “How air travel narrows the mind“.  According to Bridger, the book celebrates the joys of substituting flight with surface travel, and also addresses the difficulties. People need the luxury of time to undertake intercontinental journeys by buses, trains and boats, which take days or weeks instead of the few hours for a flight. […] A theme touched on by all the travellers is embracing the journey, engaging with the places they are passing though. Their psycho-geographical insights are a marked contrast with the experience of air travellers, who are, in one sense, broadening their horizons, yet are also extraordinarily blinkered, fixated solely on desired destinations while flying oblivious over everything in between.

Indeed, not everyone has the money, connections, or time to commandeer a racing yacht for an Atlantic crossing[2] (and even if one has, it is doubtful how much more ‘psycho-geographical insights’ one would gain in such a crossing). Moreover, CAPS is about corporate travel, which is generally not about broadening travellers’ horizons: Business travellers would prefer to be beamed to the meeting and straight back. Unfortunately this technology is not yet quite as user-friendly as one would wish, and while we have made great strides with Zooming across the world, there is no doubt in my mind that face-to-face meetings will remain critical in doing business. Fortunately, the solution is in the making: United [Airlines] will purchase 15 of Boom’s ‘Overture’ airliners, […] with an option for 35 more aircraft. Slated to carry passengers in 2029, the net-zero carbon aircraft will fly on 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).[]

Top:The Guardian 23 January 2015; Bottom:”UNITED GOES SUPERSONIC

The trouble with SAFs is they are not without their own problems, particularly bio-fuels (see, for example, “The Biofuel Controversy“), which until recently was the only SAF type I knew of. On 7 December, I received a bulletin from SWI, the news and information service of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, introducing me to How sustainable fuels created from thin air could solve the energy crisis:

ETH Mini Solar Syngas Refinery

Perched on a roof in central Zurich, the white installation looks like a satellite dish from a James Bond film as it emerges from its casing and points to the skies. But it is not tracking secret communications. The unique device – a mini solar refinery – was built by scientists at the federal technology institute ETH Zurich to show that it is possible to produce carbon-neutral fuels from just sunlight and air.

I was frankly bowled over by the idea. To extract carbon from the air with solar power, like bio fuel but without (necessarily) competing with arable land: genius! Of course, it is not totally problem-free either, as acknowledged in the article: it is much too expensive. But this is not an insurmountable obstacle: Simonetta Sommaruga (Swiss Environment Minister), for example, has publicly supported the introduction of “a blending quota for synthetic fuels in aviation to help create a new market”, something which, according to a recent Nature paper, could do the trick.[3]

Large-scale solar syngas refineries of the type demonstrated at the ETH will require a large amount of territory to be deployed, and it would obviously not be sensible to use arable land for this. Fortunately, there are countries with large tracks of non-arable territory they could use to produce fuel for the world by extracting carbon from the air (as opposed to from the ground).

As to the future of CAPS, I have to admit, Leslie’s riposte did give me food for thought.  Maybe a twinning of CAPS with an initiative that supports the scaling up of (truly) sustainable aviation fuels could be the way to promote sustainable aviation while avoiding Leslie’s misunderstanding?


[1] Chris Watson (ed.), Green Books (2014).

[2]Climate activist Greta Thunberg made a double crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in 2019 to attend climate conferences in New York City and, until it was moved, Santiago, Chile. She sailed from Plymouth, UK, to New York, United States aboard the racing yacht Malizia II, returning from Hampton, Virginia, to Lisbon on the catamaran La Vagabonde.“[Wikipedia: “Voyage of Greta Thunberg“]

[3] Given their high initial investment cost, solar thermochemical fuels require policy support to see widespread deployment, leading to concomitant cost reductions initially through scaling effects and process optimization, and then through mass production of key components and learning-by-doing. Regulatory frameworks progress over time to match three phases: initial R&D and technology demonstration, market creation and system development, and market competitiveness.

… we propose an aviation sector support scheme that would create a near-term market for the first generation of commercial solar fuel plants. … this would take the form of a jet fuel quota scheme, mandating aviation fuel retailers or airlines to provide proof that a certain proportion of their fuel comes from solar fuel sources. The initial costs of such a policy would be small enough to be politically practicable because the initial quota would be very low relative to overall jet fuel demand. …

This would start solar fuels’ journey down the learning curve, which is the main aim of the policy. Technological learning at the same pace as for [concentrated solar power] – approximately 60% generation cost reduction in 15 years – seems feasible for solar thermochemical fuels as well. Importantly, solar drop-in fuels can utilize existing storage, distribution, and utilization infrastructure and thus require no new technologies beyond the production chain.[Remo Schäppi et al. ‘Drop-in Fuels from Sunlight and Air’ Nature 3 November 2021]

Enough with the Madness!

Benito Müller

My favourite simile for the negotiation process is that of a roving village of about 5000 people, with an ever increasing number of tourists, which in Glasgow has reached an all-time high of over 30’000.

The figure above is an extension of figure in the Executive Summary of a recent ecbi Policy Report on Future Arrangement for Intergovernmental Meetings under the UNFCCC. This Report proposes that COP sessions (COPs) should be slimmed-down in size considerably to deal with technical matters related to implementation. Political elements, meanwhile, can be dealt with in processes outside the COPs that have already been established to support implementation on the ground – such as the Climate Action agenda, the Marrakech Partnership, the Regional Climate Weeks, and the technical meetings and workshops that support countries in formulating and implementing policies and measures in support of climate ambition.

To do justice to the increasing importance of High-Level Segments and non-state actor targeted activities, the Report proposes a new dedicated event: an annual high-level Global Climate Action Week (GCAW), organized by the UNFCCC Secretariat to be settled in Geneva, the location of one of the UN Headquarters.

The Report concedes there may be occasions “for instance, when Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are submitted or communicated, where highest-level participation could be desirable as part of an ‘NDC-submission High-Level Segment’ during the GCAW. This could be done as Climate Ambition Summits, such as the one co-convened on 12 December 2020 by the United Nations, the United Kingdom and France, in partnership with Chile and Italy.”

To be clear, the numbers used in the above figure are those available in the relevant participant lists, which for Glasgow extended to over 1600 pages! It is not completely clear to what extent these correspond to actual (physical) attendance figures, in particular since in Glasgow, there was also the option of purely virtual attendance.

Keeping this in mind, it does however stand to reason that the physical presence of 120 world leaders did have an effect on the (physical) participant numbers.

COP 26 Participant figures

As someone who attends the COP sessions to meet friends from the roaming village, COP 26 was a doubly frustrating experience: not only was the village swamped with tourists, but it was nigh impossible to recognise anyone in the mass of people due to the covid masks.

When I therefore read that the Glasgow Climate Pact, “invites the Secretary-General of the United Nations to convene world leaders in 2023 to consider ambition to 2030″[para. 86] I immediately thought of the Global Climate Change Summits proposed in the ecbi Policy Report! So there is a genuine chance of starting to redress the otherwise unsustainable growth in COP participant numbers if the UN Secretary-General were to convene his summit as part of a Global Climate Action week in Geneva, in partnership with the COP 27 and COP 28 Presidencies as venue for (some if not all of) the ‘Green Zone’ climate action events.

COP26: Clouds and silver linings

David Robinson

David Robinson, Senior Research Fellow, OCP

In view of the climate emergency we face and the short time we have to address it, no single COP outcome will ever be sufficient to meet the challenge. COP26 is no exception to this rule. Indeed, the sense of urgency has never been greater following the IPCC report in August that gave the world less than ten years to halve global emissions to have a reasonable chance of avoiding climate catastrophe. A process that requires consensus among 200 countries could never be radical enough or move quickly enough. The inevitable compromises and slowness of the process are bound to disappoint almost everyone, but especially the young, whose future is in play, and the people living in the areas most vulnerable to the effects of climate change who have no responsibility for causing it. The sense of injustice is especially acute following the Covid-19 pandemic and the absence of solidarity related to vaccine distribution.

Furthermore, a global treaty – like the Paris Agreement (PA) – that relies on voluntary pledges (Nationally Determined Contributions, NDCs) to mitigate emissions growth is always going to disappoint if one compares those pledges with what the science requires. National self-interest, special corporate or political interests and the tendency to free-ride (let others pay) will almost always make global agreements weaker than they need to be to secure global public goods. At COP26, the power of a few major emitters (US, China, India) to weaken the global pact to phase out coal is an illustration of the problem of reaching ambitious agreements. The unwillingness of the wealthy countries to compensate the poorest for losses and damages was also depressingly predictable. But the failure of the wealthy countries to meet their 2009 commitment to funnel $100 billion/year to the developing countries by 2020 was even worse since it illustrated the failure to deliver on pledges.  The sense of disappointment and injustice on the part of developing countries is particularly problematic because it undermines the support that is essential to meeting the global crises of climate change and poverty. In particular, failure to pursue sustainable economic development in the global south will lead to emissions growth that overwhelms reductions in the global north, accelerating climate change and contributing to geopolitical insecurity. 

Many observers expect too much from a COP.  Negotiators come to the COP with a clear idea of what they can agree to and what are the red lines. When Ministers arrive in the second week, they too have clear instructions. There is always some room for negotiations, but not nearly as much as most people seem to think. The logic of the PA is that pressure will build over time on governments to enhance the ambition of their national pledges, but the latter will always be limited by national interests and reluctance to bear the burden. This almost ensures that COPs will disappoint those who expect major breakthroughs.

Even positive news at COP26 is open to question. The strength of pledges to cut emissions is undermined by the fact that key countries do not sign them, most notably a ‘Powering Past Coal’ alliance that leaves out China, India and other major coal producers.  Commitments to climate neutrality in 30-50 years ring hollow when not accompanied by detailed transition plans. Add to that the serious doubts about whether the net-zero pledges by governments and companies are greenwashing and whether there is any way to ensure compliance.

In spite of the very legitimate reasons to be alarmed at the inability of COPs – and COP26 in particular – to address the global climate crisis and the underlying problems of injustice, there are reasons to be encouraged and to continue to fight for more ambition. To begin, COP26 reflects and will accelerate the process of de-carbonization. The dramatic decline in the cost of renewables, batteries and electric vehicles confirms the potential for policy support, innovation, competition and scale to change the game. The pressure on the fossil fuel industry will intensify as global finance increasingly focuses on green energy. Stranded fossil fuel assets are inevitable. Although the world will continue to rely on fossil fuels for some time, the hydrocarbon industry is acutely aware that their future depends now on becoming part of the solution. That is why investment in oil and gas has been falling and why investment in renewables has been growing quickly (although not nearly fast enough).

Second, the many ambitious pledges by State and non-State actors are a reflection of the pressures they face to act and the fact that action is now increasingly attractive from an economic perspective. In particular, the agreement signed by 100 countries to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030 will have an important impact on greenhouse gas emissions, provided the commitments are realized. Likewise, COP26 saw governments, cities, major automakers, financial institutions and others sign on to an agreement to transition to 100% zero emission sales of new cars and vans by 2040 globally and by 2035 in “leading markets”. Although these pledges do not include all key countries, they are a sign of increasing ambition from State and non-State actors. Indeed, it is fair to say that we are witnessing competition among major regional political actors and industrial groups to be the first to get to net zero emissions and to develop the technologies and business models of the future. 

Third, COP26 has begun to address issues that had previously been ignored or inadequately treated. The Paris Agreement does not refer at all to energy. But under the final Glasgow Climate Pact, 196 countries agree to “accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and phase-out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”; definitely not as bold as most countries demanded, but certainly progress. COP26 has also anchored permanently the ocean in the multilateral climate change regime.

Fourth, progress is especially evident in the engagement of the private financial sector. Over 400 of the world’s largest financial institutions – managing over $120 trillion – signed the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero. These companies are not promising to invest all their assets in net zero activities, but they have agreed to use science-based guidelines to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, cover all emission scopes, include 2030 interim target settings and commit to transparent reporting and accounting in line with Race to Zero criteria. This is a game changer. When banks hear that the world must invest $4 trillion a year to address climate change, they now begin to calculate how many deals that amounts to for them.

Fifth, COP26 has finalized the rule book for the Paris Agreement, in particular on transparency, to ensure that signatories make pledges that can be verified, on a common time frame that leads to greater ambition, and on a carbon trading framework that should enable global decarbonization at lower cost. The rules are far from perfect, but they provide a necessary framework; like a chessboard with rules that allow this critical global game of chess to be played.

Sixth, China and the US reached an unexpected agreement at the end of COP26 to work more closely to combat climate change with urgency this decade. Although the agreement is light on details, it does state that both countries will work to lower carbon and methane emissions and employ technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration. As the two largest emitters, this agreement has the potential to encourage other countries to be more ambitious, much as the US-China agreement in 2015 was instrumental in making the Paris Agreement possible.

Seventh, there was some limited progress on finance commitments. Developed countries agreed to double their adaptation finance from 2019, by 2025; the Glasgow Dialogue between parties on loss and damage will convene from 2022 to 2024; and the final text urges developed countries to fully deliver on the $100 billion goal “urgently” through 2025.

Eighth, going into the COP, the UN estimated that NDCs would lead to 2.7ºC of global warming by 2100, well below the estimates above 3ºC following the PA. Taking account of net zero national pledges, new NDCs before and at the COP and other commitments (especially the Global Methane Pledge), estimates of global warming by 2100 could now range from 1.8ºC to 2.º4C, assuming the pledges are fully implemented. Certainly not good enough, but definitely progress towards the goal to limit warming to 1.5ºC.

Finally, the most positive message from COP26 is the evidence that citizen activism matters and can have an effect, especially in countries with democratic systems. Of course, activists will be disappointed with the COP outcome; it would never deliver what they demand. On the other hand, their actions before the COP have an impact, as does their presence at the COP. We have witnessed this power in successful court cases brought by young people against companies and governments, and through action that has led to more climate-friendly policy and corporate decisions. Although activists are not actively involved in negotiations at COP26, their presence inside the venue and outside (and the sound of helicopters controlling their movements) is a constant reminder to all state and non-state participants at the COP and to the world at large that they are watching and will never be silenced or satisfied.

The Common Time Frame has landed!

But the Ambition Cycle is still in need of completion

At the arrival gate in Glasgow. Photo credit: Kiara Worth/UNFCCC

In December last year, following the Technical Climate Dialogue on Common Time Frames convened by the Chair of the UNFCCC Subsidiary Body on Implementation (SBI), an OCP blog announced:  ‘Ambition Cycle on course to land in Glasgow’ and I’m pleased to be able to confirm that (at least part of) it has landed.

The Glasgow CTF Decision

I have had the honour of being part of a group of stakeholders that has been working tirelessly and doggedly over the past seven years to bring about this outcome, even though the odds were 4:1 stacked against us: We were advocating 5-yearly synchronised NDC end-years – para. 1 of the Glasgow Ambition Cycle (GAC.1), see Box – while almost 80 percent of the first NDCs communicated by 2020 had a 10-year time frame (ending in 2030).

It is difficult to say when the balance tipped towards the five-year frequency of NDC end-years but it was an uphill struggle – clearly the preference expressed by the EU Environment Council at the beginning of October “for a common time frame of five years for all Parties’ NDCs ” did accelerate the acceptance of the five-year frequency.

Having dwelled over and over on why this particular common time frame is absolutely key in completing the Paris Ambition Mechanism  – see, for example, Müller and Kumarsingh (2020) or Müller (2021c) – I do not wish to go into any details but simply stress that the Glasgow CTF decision is a significant step towards a fully functioning and ambition facilitating rule book of the Paris Agreement.

COP 26 Mural by Cécile Girardin

However, there is still something missing. The Glasgow CTF decision corresponds to GAC.1, but it does not include the request for regular (5-yearly) synchronised ambition updating, referred to GAC.2.

As Matt McGrath, BBC environment correspondent commented in his initial analysis of the  draft Glasgow cover decision: The document may be just seven pages long but it attempts to steer COP26 towards a series of significant steps that will prevent global temperature rises going above 1.5C this century. Perhaps the most important part of that is getting countries to improve their carbon cutting plans. To that end this draft decision urges parties to “revisit and strengthen the 2030 targets in their nationally-determined contributions, as necessary to align with the Paris Agreement temperature goal by the end of 2022”

Revisiting and strengthening the ambition of NDCs that have been communicated earlier is indeed key to harnessing much needed additional overall ambition; but to maximise the additional ambition, the process needs a time table for regular (5-yearly) synchronised updating, as stipulated in GAC.2

What to do? Fortunately, GAC.2 can easily be interpreted as the sort of guidance referred to in Art. 4.11: “A Party may at any time adjust its existing nationally determined contribution with a view to enhancing its level of ambition, in accordance with guidance adopted by the [CMA]”.

So, let’s all try and land this guidance in Sharm el Sheik at COP 27 next year!

The long journey: October 2014 to November 2021

Rolling Time Frames … the Article 4.10 landing zone in Glasgow

Informal Ministerial Consultation on Common Time Frames for NDCs, 7 September 2021

A rolling Double Gloucester, NOT a rolling time frame

Benito Müller


On 7 September 2021, Minister Mujawamariya of Rwanda and Minister Sommaruga of Switzerland, invited by the COP 26 Presidency to consult with ministers on Common Time Frames (CTF) for NDCs, convened a virtual informal ministerial CTF consultation. This was preceded by an OCP/ecbi prep-meeting on 3 September.

Simonetta Sommaruga and Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya

Judging from the interventions during the consultation, there remain only two ‘process options’ of what Parties to the Paris Agreement are meant to be doing regarding communication in 2025, namely to:

[1]     communicate a 2040 NDC, i.e., an NDC with a time frame up to 2040 (10-year Option put forward by Saudi Arabia on behalf of the Arab Group), or

[2]     communicate a 2035 NDC and repeat every 5 years (5-year Option endorsed by everyone else who referred to such a process option).

To be clear, Saudi Arabia did not insist that everyone adopt a 10-year time frame, but only that developing countries be given the flexibility to choose between a ten-year and a five year one, with developed countries required to adopt the latter. While one may well wonder why only developing countries are meant to be given this flexibility (could it be because the 5-year Option is recognised as intrinsically better for the planet?), the real question must be whether developing countries are actually interested in having that flexibility; and the answer, judging from the relevant group interventions at the consultation (see below), is most likely negative.

Yet, there are clearly some who would like to be able to choose Option [1]. How can they be accommodated?  Hugh Sealy (Barbados), during the prep-meeting, described [2] as the combination of a 5-year with a ‘rolling’ 10-year time frame (i.e. with overlapping 10-year implementation periods), and is simple to come up with an Option that achieves the same combination for [1], namely:

[1+] communicate a 2035 and a 2040 NDC (and repeat every five years).

Nota bene: Option [1+] is as compatible with the Glasgow Ambition Cycle language (as referred to in the intervention by Colombia on behalf of AILAC, see below) as Option [2], and they do have a common time frame, in the sense of having common end-years for all NDCs.

For more see the Technical Paper on “Common Time Frames Reducing the Options for a Decision in Glasgow” produced for the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), or the kick-off presentation given at the prep-meeting

The Consultation: Opening, Closing, and Group Statements

In his opening statement, Alok Sharma, UK COP 26 President designate, reminded participants that “almost six years have passed since we agreed in Paris to resolve common timeframes, and despite the progress we have still not reached the solution. … after years of negotiations we are familiar with one another’s positions. What we now need to do is to focus on finding solutions and developing consensus, if we are to put the Paris agreement into full operation and keeping 1.5 degrees within reach, as well as, of course, protecting our precious planet.”

He was followed by Marianne Karlsen, Chair of the UNFCCC Subsidiary Body on Implementation (SBI), who very eloquently reminded participants that: “CTF is central to a well-functioning implementation of the Paris Agreement. For the NDC communication cycle, for accounting, cooperation under Article 6 and the global stock take. But more importantly, CTF enables parties to go together towards a low emission future. In different ways – nationally determined, but with the same rhythm. In that way Parties have the certainty that taking a step forward is not a step you take alone, it’s a step that everyone else will take too. No one can or will deliver on the Paris Agreement alone.”

Eight ministers took the floor after the SBI Chair, and they were followed by position statements of six negotiating groups.

Zimbabwe on behalf of the 55 countries of the African Group of Negotiators (AGN) confirmed that “The African Group supports a 5-year common Time frame. This position is a firm one with the view of avoiding lock in of low ambitions. We believe that a 5-year common time frame for NDCs will ensure proper alignment with the 5-year ambition cycle of the Paris agreement and will facilitate clarity, transparency, understanding and aggregation of NDCs. … Accordingly, we strongly encourage that NDCs with a common time frame must be submitted in 2025 and to be implemented from 1st January 2031 to 31st December 2035.”

Australia, on behalf of the 12-country Umbrella Group, briefly took the floor and pointed out that “This is not one of the hardest issues we need resolve, but it is a critical one for us to agree at COP 26.”

He was followed by Bhutan on behalf of the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group, who told participants that the LDC Group “supports the proposition of communicating by 2025 an NDC with a time frame up to 2035 and to do so every five years thereafter [and that countries] should keep enhancing their NDCs. Taking this into account, LDC Group emphasizes the need of calling the Parties to update their NDCs in 2025 with a time frame up to 2030”.

Saudi Arabia, on behalf of the 22-country Arab Group, began his intervention by acknowledging that CTF is as “critical agenda item that is integral to our collective efforts for implementing the Paris Agreement.” Having indicated that for his Group, “a 10-year period is the most suitable option” he re-iterated their well-known preference for what has been referred to as ‘common-but-differentiated-time-frames’ ,namely: “include flexibility provision for developing countries to choose a time frame …, while developed countries follow the five-year cycle.” He agreed that a decision should be taken in Glasgow, but “only for indices that will be communicated in 2025 for the period from 2031 to the period of 2040.”

He also contended that timeframes “have no bearing on the level of ambition,” a view clearly not shared by Argentina, who spoke also on behalf of Brazil and Uruguay (ABU), who insisted that “It is important to keep in mind that you need to establish a single time frame that is the same for all parties to support ambitious NDCs.” ABU is also of the view that “the adoption of a decision at COP26 is essential for the functioning of the Paris Agreement and the application of the principle of progression. A decision on this topic has a direct impact on the implementation of the Paris Agreement and it is also linked to many arrangements under the Agreement. The CMA should offer guidance to the Parties on the subject, in order to start their domestic processes for preparing the next NDCs.”

Last but by no means least, Colombia made a passionate intervention on behalf of the 8 members of the Asociación Independiente de Latinoamérica y el Caribe (AILAC), pointing out, in particular, that “the different options can integrate a 5-year update cycle of targets for an announced date in order to enhance ambition, using the outputs of the most recent GST and IPCC reports. For 10-year NDCs, the use of overlapping implementation periods can help this alignment. So, the critical issue is that Parties agree on the operational need to stick to the 5 years on both reporting NDC achievements and updating NDC ambition, AS STATED BY THE GLASGOW AMBITION CYCLE. [Sic!]”

As regards ambition, she emphasised that “it is important that the decision requires that all existing NDCs are updated in light of each Global Stocktake to reflect a Party’s highest possible ambition” and concluded that “practically and operationally, agreeing on Common Timeframes that allows ambition to benefit from the Paris Agreement 5-year cycle is not a difficult thing to do. … If we fail to do so in Glasgow, the world will rightly conclude that the COP is not serious about achieving the Paris goals.” In her closing statement, Minister Sommaruga (Switzerland) highlighted what she is taking away from the consultation, and specifically that there are “clear expectations from all Parties to adopt a clear decision on Common Time Frames in Glasgow” and reminded participants of what “Alok Sharma said at the beginning: we need to find solutions and develop consensus.”

What do you mean: ‘Common Time Frame’?

by Benito Müller

This blog post looks at the issue of whether it is in the mandate of the Art. 4.10 negotiations to seek a single common time frame for NDCs. Based on a comparative analysis of the six official UN language texts, the post concludes not only that this is indeed the case, but also that the outcome of these negotiations ought to include the adoption of common end-years for NDCs.

The concept of ‘Common Time Frame’ appears only once in the the Paris Agreement (PA), namely in the Article 4.10 stipulation that “common time frames for nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) shall be considered at the first session of the governing body of the PA. In December 2018, at this first session in Katowice, common time frames were accordingly considered and it  was decided that “Parties shall apply common time frames” to their NDCs to be implemented from 2031 onward (Decision 6/CMA.1), but without any further clarification as to what they might be, indeed without any clarification as to what the key ‘time frame’ concept refers to in this context.

Notwithstanding this ambiguity, or maybe because of it, there has been a heated debate about the mandate of the negotiations under this Article with regard to whether it would be permissible to negotiate a single common time frame, given the article in the English language text refers to ‘time frames’ in the plural.

The aim of this blog post is to try and understand better what Parties actually had in mind in Paris in this context.  For this, it is useful to have a closer look at the official six UN language texts of the Paris Agreement (and its implementing Decision 1/CP21), not only because it stands to reason that Parties would have insisted on changes if they disagreed with the language in their official language texts, but also because these six texts are all to be considered “equally authentic”[Art. 29,PA].

The French Art. 4.10 text, for one, refers to “calendriers communs” (common calendars/schedules/timetables), while the Spanish and Russian texts invoke common deadlines (“los plazos comunes” and “obshchikh srokakh” общих сроках, respectively), which obvioulsy can jointly make up one or several calendries communs.

The Arabic and Chinese texts use direct translations of the two nouns that make up the English compound ‘time frame’, with the Arabic using the plural form “alatir alzamania” الاطر الزمنية (time frames).

The Chinese text allows for both a singular and a plural reading of  “kuàngjià” 框架  (frame), although the juxtaposition with “gòngtóng” 共同 (common) makes the singular reading the more natural one. In any case, the important thing here is that the Chinese text clearly allows both for common time frames and for a common time frame to be considered under the Article.   

One therefore clearly needs to be cautious with basing substantive claims on grammatical form alone:  There was evidently no agreement among Parties in Paris that a single common time frame for NDCs should not be an option. Accordingly it has to be accepted that it is as much part of the mandate of the Art. 4.10 negotiations to develop a single common time frame as it is to adopt a plurality thereof.

The different language texts of the PA also re-confirm two different basic interpretations of the key Art. 4.10 concept, namely a ‘material’ and a ‘procedural’ one: “The material interpretation is about time intervals associated with the NDCs – to be precise, about target periods and implementation periods. The procedural interpretation is about timetables for the processes of communicating and updating NDCs.”[Benito Müller, ‘Common Time Frames’: What & Why? A Contribution to the Debate on Article 4.10 of the Paris Agreement, 2018]

The English compound noun ‘time-frame’ admits both readings (Box 1), while the French, Spanish and Russian texts are anchored in the procedural interpretation.

Box 1. OED Definition

The only substantive use of the concept in the Paris outcome is in paragraphs 23 and 24 of Decision 1/CP21, where it is used to identify Parties with particular types of intended nationally determined contributions (INDC), namely those whose INDC pursuant to decision 1/CP.20 contains a time frame up to 2025 (or 2030 respectively).

As such, the content of Decision 1/CP21 would have been exactly the same if paragraphs 23 and 24 had instead referred to Parties whose INDC pursuant to decision 1/CP.20 ends in 2025 (resp. 2030).

What about the (only) other two occurrences of the concept in the Paris outcome, i.e. in paragraph 27 and Article 4.10? Could they have been equally re-expressed by reference to end-years without a change of content?

Consider the Spanish text, where the key concept can be read as being expressed in terms of ‘deadlines’:

  • Para 23 [24]: requests those Parties whose INDC pursuant to decision 1/CP.20 include a deadline up to (“comprenda un plazo hasta”) 2025 [2030].
  • Para 27: Agrees that the information to be provided by Parties … may include … the deadlines  (“los plazos”) and/or periods for implementation …
  • Art. 4.10: shall consider common deadlines for NDCs (“los plazos comunes para las contribuciones determinadas a nivel nacional”).

A simple substitution with a reference to ‘NDC end-years’ would obviously not conserve the meaning of this language, as there are other deadlines associated with NDCs than just their end-years. However, in light of paragraphs 23 and 24, the end-year of NDCs clearly must be one of the deadlines to be considered under Art. 4.10. Given Decision 6/CMA.1, this in turn implies that:

  • Parties shall (inter alia) apply common end-years to their NDCs to be implemented from 2031 onward.

It may well be that not all of the six language texts of the Paris outcome lend themselves to arrive at the same conclusion, but as long as none of the others explicitly contradict it, it can be argued that common NDC end years need to be considered as a legitimate outcome of the Art. 4.10 negotiations.

Acknowledgments: The author would like to express his gratitude for linguistic advice to Mohamed Nasr (Arabic), Marc Sadler and Pascale Müller (Russian), Xing Li and Natalie Chung (Chinese), while claiming responsibility for all remaining mistakes for himself.

Appendix: Decision 1/CP.21. Time Frames

23. Requests those Parties whose intended nationally determined contribution pursuant to decision 1/CP.20 contains a time frame up to 2025 to communicate by 2020 a new nationally determined contribution and to do so every five years thereafter pursuant to Article 4, paragraph 9, of the Agreement;

24. Also requests those Parties whose intended nationally determined contribution pursuant to decision 1/CP.20 contains a time frame up to 2030 to communicate or update by 2020 these contributions and to do so every five years thereafter pursuant to Article 4, paragraph 9, of the Agreement;

27. Agrees that the information to be provided by Parties communicating their nationally determined contributions, in order to facilitate clarity, transparency and understanding, may include, as appropriate, inter alia, quantifiable information on the reference point (including, as appropriate, a base year), time frames and/or periods for implementation, scope and coverage, planning processes, assumptions and methodological approaches including those for estimating and accounting for anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and, as appropriate, removals, and how the Party considers that its nationally determined contribution is fair and ambitious, in the light of its national circumstances, and how it contributes towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2;

A first case for the Compliance Committee of the Paris Agreement – the EU?

Christoph Schwarte, Executive Director, Legal Response International

In his review of the EU climate policy, in the most recent edition of Climate Law, Christoph Schwarte, the executive director of OCP partner organisation LRI, draws attention to the EU’s missing notification under Article 4 of the Paris Agreement.

The European Union (EU) has long sought to play a leadership role in the international climate change negotiations. On 17 December 2020 it updated its joint nationally determined contribution (NDC) on mitigation under the Paris Agreement from at least 40 per cent to at least 55 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.[1]

To date, the EU and its member states are the only parties to the Paris Agreement that have a joint NDC. Article 4 paragraph 16 of the Paris Agreement specifically provides that parties that have reached agreement on a joint NDC “shall notify the secretariat of the terms of that agreement, including the emission level allocated to each Party with the relevant time period, when they communicate their nationally determined contributions”. As a result, the member states of the EU (or any other economic integration organisation) would be jointly with the EU and severally liable for their individual emission levels (Article 16 para.18).

The EU Decision, approving the Paris Agreement explicitly recognized the need to notify the secretariat of the emission levels allocated to the EU and its member states.[2] The agreements, setting out the individual commitments of member states for the first (2008-2012) and second (2013-2020) commitment periods of the Kyoto Protocol were notified to the secretariat in line with Article 4.2 of the Protocol.[3]

There is a comprehensive legal framework in place to agree, monitor and pursue the individual mitigation targets of EU member states.[4] To reflect the new 55 per cent target the European Commission has already tabled proposals for amending the relevant legislation (e.g. on the EU Emission Trading Scheme and the Effort-Sharing Regulation). So far, however, the EU and its member states have not been able notified the UNFCCC secretariat of the terms of an agreement on their joint NDC, including member states’ emission levels.

So while this notification is missing, are the EU and its member states non-compliant with Article 4.16 of under the Paris Agreement? Yes! Article 4.16 is among the few prescriptive provisions in the Paris Agreement that contains a clear procedural obligation of conduct. But is this also a case for the committee established under Article 15 of the Paris Agreement to facilitate implementation and promote compliance? No, unless the EU “self-refer” the issue to the Committee.[5]

The Committee can consider a party’s compliance on its own initiative in a limited number of cases only: if the party has failed to either communicate or maintain an NDC under Article 4; to submit a mandatory report or communication under the transparency framework of Article 13; to participate in the Facilitative, Multilateral Consideration of Progress; or to communicate mandatory information on finance under Article 9.5.[6] The requirement to notify the secretariat of the terms of a joint NDC is not mentioned at all in the Modalities and procedures for the effective operation of the committee to facilitate implementation and promote compliance adopted in Katowice.

So does any of this actually matter to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement? Probably, at least a bit: Article 4.16 ensures a degree of transparency and accountability. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol (Annex B), the Paris Agreement does not list parties’ mitigation targets. Where an agreement to act jointly fails or is prematurely terminated, the prior notification of individual emission levels would provide a degree of clarity (maybe also for future carbon markets) on parties’ responsibilities.

The Paris Agreement is largely built around procedural reporting obligations. To succeed parties will need to take all of the Agreement’s provisions seriously. Non-compliance could weaken its overall structure and the ability to function effectively. Other parties may also decide to develop and submit a joint NDC and the current situation risks setting a precedent for the Agreement’s future implementation and result in different interpretations of parties’ obligations.

So even if the European Union submits the missing notification before long, a formal decision by the COP serving as the meeting of parties to the Agreement (CMA) should therefore, address the issue of the missing notification under Article 4. To clarify the procedural expectations and their relevance in the future implementation of the treaty, such a decision could, for example, invite all parties that act jointly under Article 4.2 to notify the secretariat as soon as they have reached an agreement or, pending the conclusion of such an agreement, provide additional information on the likely outcome of their internal discussion or on the specific problems encountered concluding their deliberations.

For a comprehensive legal analysis of the current EU climate policy see Christoph Schwarte, EU Climate Policy under the Paris Agreement, Climate Law 11 (2021), pp.157-175, 

ecbi Guide to the Paris Agreement App

[1] Germany and the European Commission, on behalf of the EU and its member states, Update of the
NDC of the European Union and its Member States, Berlin, 17 December 2020 available via

[2] Council of the EU, Decision on the Conclusion, on Behalf of the European Union, of the Paris Agreement Adopted under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 
(EU) 2016/1841, 5 October 2016.

[3] UNFCCC Secretariat, Note on the Agreement between the European Community and its Member States under Article 4 of the Kyoto Protocol, document FCCC/CP/2002/2, of 12 June 2002, which summarises the process and disseminates the agreement amongst parties. General Secretariat Council of the EU, attachment to Note Verbale, Brussels, 21 December 2017, available at

[4] Commission proposal for amendments supra note 8.

[5] Paris Agreement, decision 20/CMA.1, Annex, Modalities and procedures for the effective operation of the committee referred to in Article 15, paragraph 2, of the Paris Agreement, para.20.

[6] Paris Agreement, decision 20/CMA.1, Annex sub-paragraph 22 (a) i-iv).

Completing the Paris Ambition Mechanism in Glasgow

Key Message for Policy Makers

The Current Situation

The ‘Ambition Mechanism’ of the Paris Agreement is currently given by two interlocking five-year cycles:

  • A communication cycle: All Parties must communicate a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) every five years (Art. 4.9).
  • A ‘Global Stocktake’ review cycle: To take stock of the implementation of the Paris Agreement, and to assess the collective progress towards achieving its purpose (Art.14.1).

The Challenges


At present, there are NDCs ending in (“with a time frame up to”) 2025 and others in 2030. Not having the same end-years makes global accounting very difficult, if not impossible. This applies not only to the Global Stocktake, with its backwards review of the state of implementation and its forward assessment of the collective ambition, but also to issues such as the avoidance of double counting in global emission trading (Art.6).

Enhancing Ambition

There are currently no instructions in the Paris Agreement and its rulebook about reconsidering the level of ambition of one’s NDCs once they have been communicated, other than an acknowledgment that Parties can enhance the level of ambition, if they wish to do so (Art.4.11)

This is sub-optimal because Parties are unlikely to ‘spontaneously’ enhance the ambition of their previously communicated NDCs on their own – or at least not as much as they would be willing and able to in coordination with their international partners and competitors, and such a coordinated ambition enhancement requires an advance notification of the initially proposed levels of ambition

The Solution

Addressing these challenges requires:

  • a single universal Common Time Frame, i.e. simultaneous end years for all NDCs;
  • a sufficient advance notification of NDCs;
  • a timetable for regular consideration of enhancing the level of ambition of previously communicated NDCs.

The Glasgow Ambition Cycle

All this can be provided by adopting the following very simple Decision – to complete the Ambition Mechanism of the Paris Agreement in Glasgow: The CMA

  • requests Parties to communicate by 2025 a nationally determined contribution with a time frame up to 2035, and to do so every five years thereafter;
  • also requests Parties to consider in 2025 updating/adjusting their existing nationally determined contributions with a view to enhancing levels of ambition, and to do so every five years thereafter.

A more comprehensive version of this decision text is provided in the GAC blog:

This post is taken from a Technical Paper produced by OCP/ecbi for the Alliance of Small Island States.

2 ‘update’ or not 2 ‘update’ every 5 years, that is the Q4

Some comments on the informal consultations on Common Time Frames (CTF) in the recent session of the UNFCCC Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI)

by Benito Müller

The Guiding Questions

The substantive work on this SBI agenda item began on 10 June promisingly with the presentation of the following four guiding questions by the co-facilitators, Kishan Kumarsingh (Trinidad and Tobago) and Andrew Rakestraw (US):

The aim of this blog is to respond on the basis of the Glasgow Ambition Cycle (GAC) proposal to some comments that were made during that consultation.

In its most detailed version (with explanatory comments in square brackets) the GAC is given as follows: The CMP

  1. requests Parties to communicate by 2025 inter alia a nationally determined contribution with a time frame up to 2035, and to do so every five years thereafter, in line with Art. 4.9 [five-yearly communications];
  2. also requestParties to consider in 2025 adjusting their existing nationally determined contributions with a view to enhancing its level of ambition in line with Art. 4.11, as well as Art. 2.2 [Equity], Art. 4.3 [Progression], and Art. 4.9 [informed by the outcomes of the relevant global stocktake] of the Paris Agreement, and to do so every five years thereafter.

The relevant Paris Agreement Articles(pertinent language highlighted in italics)

  • Art. 4.11. A Party may at any time adjust its existing nationally determined contribution with a view to enhancing its level of ambition, in accordance with guidance adopted by the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to this Agreement
  • Art. 2.2. This Agreement will b implemented to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.t
  • Art. 4.3. Each Party’s successive nationally determined contribution will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition, reflecting its common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.
  • Art. 4.9. Each Party shall communicate a nationally determined contribution every five years in accordance with decision 1/CP21 and any relevant decisions of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to this Agreement and be informed by the outcomes of the global stocktake referred to in Article 14.

I. Q1 to Q3

The discussion of the first three guiding questions revealed that the proposed language of the GAC may have to be strengthened with a stipulation that post 2030, the time frames of successive NDCs are to be five years apart, namely 2035, 2040, 2045, and so on.

It also exposed a possible mis-reading of para. 1 of the GAC as implying that Parties can only communicate a 2035 NDC in 2025. This is not the case: Parties could also communicate a second, or indeed a third NDC by 2025 and be GAC compliant, provided the first one ends in 2035, and the others in 2040 and 2045, respectively, as reflected by the ‘inter alia’ in para. 1 of the GAC language.

II. Q4

What was surprising, at least to me, in the context of the fourth guiding question was the almost allergic reaction of some participants to the very concept of ‘updating’. Two reservations in particular caught my attention.

1.1 What ‘updating’?

The question arose of what exactly ‘updating’ means. First of all, it needs to be high-lighted that, while it does not occur in the Paris Agreement itself, the term is part of the Paris terminology (cf. para. 24 Decision 1/CP.21). Second, I think there is a common understanding that, in good faith, it means to re-communicate an existing NDC with its ambition enhanced.

Accordingly, it is not a new form of communication of NDCs: Updated NDCs are communicated like all the others. Nor does a cosmetic change (e.g. through the provision of new information) satisfies the term in this good faith reading.

1.2. Introducing perverse incentives for ‘gaming’?

It has also been said that to introduce a regular invitation to ‘update’ might create ‘perverse incentives’ and lead to ‘gaming’ as regards to the ambition one is willing to communicate.

First of all, it needs to be stressed that this could only occur if we assume the above-mentioned good-faith interpretation of ‘updating’: for someone who interprets ‘updating’ as, say, the provision of additional information only, there is no incentive to game with regard to ambition.

The perverse incentive, I take it,  is meant to be that a Party which could take on a target of  x would be tempted initially to communicate a less stringent target (x+y) so when asked to update they could ‘update’ this back to x. Consider the situation illustrated in Fig. 1: Let’s say some Parties have determined that the maximum they can contribute is 100 which, when there is no request for regular updating, they proceed to communicate at T1. If they are expected to update regularly, the gaming argument goes, they would communicate instead a less ambitious target, say 125, in order to be able to ‘reduce’ something in the next communication round at T2 (in the same way in which some retailers may artificially inflate the original price, so as to be able to provide a ‘discount’ in the next sale).

Now, let us assume that by T2 it is indeed the case that the situation has not changed and they can still only contribute 100. What will therefore happen in T2? In the scenario without a request for regular updating, the NDCs remain unchanged at 100. If there is regular updating, they can now ‘update’ the NDCs originally communicated in T1 by increasing their ambition from 125 to 100. In short, ambition-wise, the end result in T2 is the same with or without the request for regular updating.

It is however not the same if one considers that the request for regular updates allows Parties to raise ambition together simultaneously, which I strongly believe results in greater overall ambition than the status quo, where Parties are left to enhance ambition ‘spontaneously’ on their own. For more on this, see:

Click image to read the post, in particular the sections on “Locking in of low ambition due to a lack of an updating time table” and “Combining the advantages of Plan A and Plan B while avoiding their shortcomings”

In short, I do not believe there really is cause rejecting a request for regular updating on these grounds. However, it would also not be wise to let oneself become a hostage to fortune for purely terminological reasons. This is why para. 2 of the GAC proposal only uses agreed Paris Agreement language.