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October 3, 2023

In case you missed it, in September there was yet another UN report about how the world is not on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and that the window for limiting warming to 1.5°C is rapidly closing. Yay.  

This specific report is the Technical Summary for the Global Stocktake, prepared by the two co-facilitators for the process after hundreds of hours of engagement with countries and some civil society stakeholders and thousands of pages of written submissions. This huge volume of input was somehow packaged into 46 pages of text with 17 key recommendations.  

The report itself is slightly disappointing, if not surprising. I cannot imagine that anything written in here would be surprising or shocking to anyone who has paid any attention to international climate change politics in the past decade. It avoids discussions of fairness, equity, and who should be taking the lead as much as humanly possible. For a technical and “factual” report, it seems to go to some lengths to avoid discussing the specifics of how the world reached this point.  

Per UNFCCC tradition, no specific countries are named at all – not even a list of current or historical emitters. It also has a concerning habit of talking about “unabated fossil fuels” instead of just being clear about the need to phase out fossil fuels (the IPCC did this way better). The conclusion that the world is not on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement is correct and necessarily stated, but in no way surprising or new information. Plenty of research and information discussing the shortfalls in ambition exist and are easy to find.  

However, this is not just another report, even though it feels that way. This paper is the first part of the GST. The Global Stocktake is the primary mechanism under the Paris Agreement to assess progress towards the overall goal of the agreement and to pressure countries to improve their pledges. 

One of the major debates in the very early days of negotiations over the Paris Agreement was whether it would be top-down, with countries accepting prescribed emission targets as in the Kyoto Protocol, or bottom-up, with countries making voluntary pledges. The U.S. fought hard and ultimately won a bottom-up approach, with each country bringing their own “Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs),” arguing that the U.S. (and likely other countries) would never be able to accept a top-down system. There was a broad recognition, though, that these initial pledges were never going to be ambitious enough. This resulted in a “pledge and review” process being encoded into the Paris Agreement, where countries make NDCs every five years (the pledge), and in between, the GST occurs for a collective check-in on progress (the review). This process informs the next round of NDCs, creating pressure to ratchet up ambition.   

This is why the GST is so important. It’s been set up to be a turning point to collectively drive increasing ambition. The Paris Agreement structure is betting that collective pressure, from civil society and between governments, through the Global Stocktake would drive more ambition in the following NDCs. Without this pressure, the “pledge and review” is more of just a pledge-only process, with no accountability whatsoever, and so far, that is simply not generating anywhere near enough ambition.  

Fortunately, the technical part of the Global Stocktake is just the first part. Countries are starting negotiations on the format and content of the political portion, which will be a negotiated outcome at COP 28. It’s crucial that the political outcome has more teeth to it. Another nothing document that merely states what everyone already knows – the world is not on track – would be devastating. We need a GST that drives an increase in ambition, particularly in the form of more ambitious and equitable NDCs.