Q&A: What development organizations should know about the 'Paris rulebook'

Will McGoldrick, director of climate strategy at the Nature Conservancy, speaks with Isabel Studer Noguez, executive director for Mexico and North Central America at the Nature Conservancy. Screenshot from: The Nature Conservancy

KATOWICE, Poland — Sometimes the highly technical nature of international climate change negotiations can make it difficult to understand how their outcomes might affect organizations and communities working to mitigate and adapt to climate change on the ground.

At COP24 in Poland, negotiators have sought to craft a Paris Agreement “rulebook,” which will provide the specific details about what countries are required and expected to do when the historic climate treaty takes effect in 2020. Implementing the Paris Agreement represents a massive undertaking for developed and developing countries alike. It will also have implications for development organizations and donors, as they work to align their programs with countries’ climate change plans, or — in COP-speak — nationally determined contributions.

“But every year we delay getting the international rules set, is a year that we delay the national level drive — and then another year before you get the actual money.”

— Will McGoldrick, director of climate strategy at the Nature Conservancy

Devex spoke with Will McGoldrick, director of climate strategy at the Nature Conservancy, about why the specific details of these dense and hotly-debated texts should matter to the development community. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

As an implementing organization doing development and conservation projects on the ground, what do you have at stake in these negotiations? Why are you watching these negotiations so closely?

At one level is a fundamental need to see strong rules, strong frameworks at the international level to drive up ambition in the near term. All the data's in. We know the need to rapidly decarbonize the global economy. Without that you don't have a healthy planet for people and for nature. For us, it's fundamental to our mission to see strong global ambition to respond to climate change.

At a more practical level, we're starting to see the effects of climate change on natural systems. But more importantly — and this is probably something which people don't always understand about TNC — is that most of our work on the ground is done in partnership with communities, with people who live in that environment, so to speak. They are both having to respond to the impacts of climate change — which we feel duty bound to be able to support them in that response — but they also see themselves as solution providers and communities that can support the transition to low-carbon development.

So for example, in Papua New Guinea, we're working with communities to restore and protect mangroves. This is being driven by these really inspiring women in their community, who see themselves as stewards of the mangrove forests; they depend on the mangrove forests for their food, so it's a food security issue. They also recognize that they have responsibility at a global level to protect these carbon sinks. We come and provide financial, technical, and other support. Sometimes it's more fundamental capacity support around organizing — organizing collective management of the resource.

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Are there other ways in which the specific potential outcomes of these negotiations might impact your ability to implement programs like that? Is it the financing that ends up being attached to this stuff, or is it the way that developing countries are treated vis-a-vis developed countries?

There's sort of a virtuous cycle. Countries are more willing to take strong action at home — whether that's policies addressing land tenure in Brazil, or whether it's policies supporting indigenous land rights in Indonesia — if they know that every other country's doing the same. If these negotiations go well and we get continuous development of the agreement, countries are likely to go home and say, “hey, America's doing it” — well, maybe America's a bad example. But critically, ultimately, that's going to be part of it, because if [the United States doesn’t] come back to the table, then it sends a signal to other countries that they shouldn't bother either. What's been still positive in these negotiations is that most of the countries have actually said, “we're still in it.” That's really important for this virtuous cycle.

What's happening here in Poland is that they're trying to work out the Paris rulebook. It's easy to say "the Paris rulebook," but actually within it are specific rules around, for example, how carbon markets will work, how carbon can be traded or not between countries, how that gets accounted. Now, we want to see rules around that drive up ambition.

There's rules around environmental integrity — so no double-counting, all of those sort of things which are critical for the environmental integrity ... If you are talking about a forestry concession in Indonesia that has — with us — come up with a methodology to implement sustainable logging practices and to measure the carbon benefit of that ... the only way it's going to work is if they can get a payment to offset some of the additional costs associated with that. Now they can only get a payment for the carbon if the rules — in Poland and wherever the COP is next year — actually enable that to happen. So it does flow through in a very practical way.

At the moment we know that investors who are willing to buy the carbon have their hands in their pockets because they're worried about the future risks that might be associated with the rules of the Paris Agreement.

So this could create some predictability, consistency, and transparency.

It allows those sorts of deals and arrangements, which still need to be translated to national level rules as well. But every year we delay getting the international rules set, is a year that we delay the national level drive — and then another year before you get the actual money. So we're just slowing down the transition. We spend a lot of time talking to investors and talking to corporations that are willing to make commitments, but no one wants to go out on a limb and risk a lot of money if the rules here are going to work against them in three years’ time.

What are you seeing this year?

We're at a funny stage of the negotiations, a stage where the data still keeps pouring in around the need to increase ambition and the need to accelerate the negotiations to get these rules in place. However, the timeline that was baked in back in Paris is around 2020. And if you tell negotiators they've got until 2020 ... they're going to take until 2020 to iron out the details.

What's encouraging is that they have made a lot of progress here. They've removed some of the issues off the table, but there's also some big ones that are still there. The challenge is — what we're urging countries to do, basically — is to channel the spirit of compromise that happened in Paris and be willing to be the country that says, “you know, that issue that I've been making a big deal about the last two years, actually is not that much of a big deal. I'm willing to take it off the table.” That will lead to a cascade of other countries taking non-critical things off the table. For observers, it's very hard to know what's a critical issue, and what's a non-critical issue for a country.

Because they make everything seem critical?

It's a great negotiating tactic. We need countries now to start signaling where their red lines are and knowing that they've got the trust in their opposite number across the table that they're going to respond in kind, getting down to what are the real issues here we need to resolve. Because until you get to that point, it's very hard to actually do the deal or get the job done.

“We need to see increasing amounts of finance. We need to see governments being willing to put more aid money on the table.”

— Will McGoldrick, director of climate strategy at the Nature Conservancy

Is there an issue that you think that the development community should hold as a red line? If your interest is in eradicating extreme poverty and advocating for people who are most vulnerable to climate change, what's the big issue that they shouldn’t sacrifice?

It seems a little bit wonky, but all the rules around transparency and reporting and all of that sort of stuff, what they're really about doing is encouraging trust between countries ... so that countries feel more comfortable putting stronger policies on the table back home and start to implement them. So that's critical. If you don't get that transparency or clear rules around reporting ... you get a deficit of trust from these negotiations and then that flows through to slower progress back home.

The other one that I think is really important for the development community and the conservation groups to keep pushing on is finance. We need to see increasing amounts of finance. We need to see governments being willing to put more aid money on the table, straight grants ... just getting that out there, but also being willing to carry some of the risk around some of the more innovative stuff that needs to come from the private sector.

For example, the insurance industry — there's a lot of opportunity to provide insurance products for industry in countries that are exposed to extreme weather, but also potentially communities to respond to extreme events. But a lot of the legwork that needs to happen depends on grant work. We developed an insurance product in Mexico. We did that with philanthropic funding. So there is a very clear need for the public sector to step into that space and carry some of the early stage development and then, of course, hopefully, the private sector come in and actually hold the policies.

Insurance is not the silver bullet for everything, but it does have a role to play, particularly if you can get the private sector carrying some of the risk, and therefore doing the payout ... Where it makes sense that should, in theory, free up the public money to be going towards the most vulnerable as opposed to public money going in to rebuild a reef next to a place where billionaires holiday. That doesn't really make sense.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.