Geneva’s Iran nuclear agreement and Warsaw’s climate outcome

“A recent set of international negotiations in a cold European city concluded with a landmark agreement, one that while far from comprehensive, represents a breakthrough in building trust among the different countries. If successfully implemented, it could pave the way for a broader, more far-reaching agreement in the near future that is able to bridge thornier, longstanding differences that have previously proved insurmountable, and make real progress on this issue of wider international concern.”

This was, of course, not the report coming out of the end of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 19th Conference of Parties meeting in Poland last month. But while hundreds were huddled in Warsaw for its late-running closing, this was the news from Geneva over the same weekend, where the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) were successfully concluding a round of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Excitement at the Geneva agreement has been striking in comparison with the despondency at the Warsaw conclusions. While the two issues at stake – climate change and nuclear weapons proliferation – may appear distant, some broad parallels may be apt in how a process towards an international agreement is built through monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) procedure.

Monitoring Iranian nuclear enrichment
The broad shape of the Geneva agreement is a commitment whereby Iran will limit its various uranium enrichment activities, and in exchange will receive ‘sanctions relief’ from Western countries. This is an interim agreement, to be implemented over the next six months as a prelude to further discussions on a comprehensive, permanent settlement. It comes on the heels of over a year of Israeli threats to unilaterally strike Iranian nuclear facilities to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability – and many more years of international diplomacy on the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which Iran insists have only peaceful intentions.

Stages of enrichment: Benjamin Netanyahu’s diagram of Israel’s red line in his 2012 UN General Assembly address. Photo: Reuters

The agreed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment, however, are meaningful only in the context of assurances that these restrictions are being implemented and lived up to. A core element of the Geneva agreement, therefore, is an increased monitoring process by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors – daily access to Iran’s uranium enrichment plants, increased access to other nuclear-related facilities, and updated information about its heavy-water plant (a key part of the plutonium production process).

While the overall restrictions are themselves significant, it is in this monitoring and inspection process that success of the Geneva agreement (and any long-term agreement) rests. The P5+1 countries brokering the Geneva agreement (and their allies in the region) will need to be satisfied that the agreement is being implemented satisfactorily in order to move towards longer-term issues. Put in more general terms, this is little more than the core challenge of international cooperation (amid international anarchy etc.): how do you work towards realising joint gains amid uncertainty about others’ intentions and the possibility of being taken for a ride?

Thus, this IAEA process is intended to assure Western countries that Iran is indeed in compliance with the agreement by providing greater transparency on Iran’s nuclear activities. More extensive monitoring and inspection processes raise the likelihood, for Iran, of being caught conducting secret enrichment activities and thereby raises incentives to remain in compliance with the terms of the Geneva agreement. It agrees to bind itself – despite its professed ‘nuclear rights’ – as a means of demonstrating its credibility to its Western interlocutors. A term used frequently in arms control processes (but less familiar in environmental contexts) to describe the value of this stage of negotiation is as a “confidence-building measure”. As Brookings analyst Kenneth Pollack put it, the Geneva agreement is such a step towards reducing suspicions and demonstrate good faith, necessary towards a more comprehensive future deal:

“Neither side trusts the other, but both sides needed to see some tangible manifestation ahead of time, that the other would be willing to do what would be required in a final deal. We needed a demonstration of Iran’s willingness to halt its nuclear progress, give up much of what it has already accomplished, and submit to more comprehensive inspections. And Iran needed to see that the international community (read: the U.S.) would be willing to provide sanctions relief and allow Iran to retain some limited enrichment capacity, albeit with guarantees and safeguards that it would be solely for civilian purposes.”

These elements of the Geneva agreement – the importance of reporting and verification, and the larger process of building mutual confidence – are instructive in turning to the outcomes of the Warsaw climate conference.

Monitoring climate progress
While much of the headlines at COP19 and its aftermath focused on progress (and lack thereof) on loss and damage, finance, and the Durban Platform process towards the envisaged 2015 agreement, on two other issues agreement was more forthcoming: the climate regime’s MRV (monitoring, reporting and verification) processes, and detailed rules on deforestation (REDD+), the latter being described as COP19’s “singular achievement”.

While I am not an expert in the details of either topics, both are crucial building blocks for the prospect of stronger commitments in the future. The MRV outcomes included agreement on the the ‘team of technical experts’ to carry out the ‘international consultation and analysis’ (ICA) process in developing countries; new guidelines for reviewing periodic reports (i.e. national communications, GHG inventories and biennial reports) by developed countries; and general guidelines for the domestic MRV of domestically supported actions in developing countries. These MRV provisions for developing countries are not insignificant (once upon a time, wariness at developing countries having to ‘report’ anything about their emissions to the international level led to the original Framework Convention on Climate Change’s reporting procedure being called ‘national communications’), and were first outlined back in 2010 at the Cancun COP. Agreement on their terms of operation is an important step forward and sets the stage for “2014 being a big year for MRV” with many of the first deadlines for these new procedures looming. Indeed, the rather uneven levels of commitments being taken (some states are Kyoto Protocol members, others are not; different countries use different frameworks of measurement, and so on) has highlighted the importance of MRV processes to ensure that different types of action are indeed “comparable” in the bigger global picture.

Monitoring, reporting and verification issues also loomed large on the REDD+ agenda and reached a package of related decisions (see fuller summaries of the COP19 REDD+ progress here and here). The question of how developing countries should be supported for reducing deforestation/forest degradation has centrally been about how progress is to be ‘MRVed’ in order for “results-based finance” to flow: how are safeguards for impacts on indigenous communities to be met; how are baselines against which progress is to be judged to be measured; how countries will report on and show that emission reductions from deforestation are genuine, and so on. The gestation of the REDD+ agenda has also been a long-winding one since its formal entry onto the UNFCCC agenda in 2005, and agreement on the important scientific minutiae of how to count progress on reducing deforestation/degradation is, to a certain extent, playing catch-up with action taking place outside of the UNFCCC sphere.

In both these areas the main concern is the same –  as it is with the Geneva agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme: building a set of rules that can provide transparency about the action that governments are taking, in order to prevent backsliding and provide a basis for more far-reaching international cooperation. The same trade-offs exist in both the climate and nuclear domains, between intrusions on sovereignty and providing assurances to others about the sincerity of one’s actions and intentions – the hope being, of course, that this making this trade-off will help all to realise mutual benefits (respectively, more robust global climate action and a world less at risk of nuclear war).

But it is that phrase above, confidence-building measures, that may also help make sense of this area of progress in the climate negotiations. MRV processes are not in themselves going to do much to address climate change if the overall commitments are weak, and much of COP19’s conclusions were indeed weak. But without such MRV processes, countries are going to be much less willing to act jointly – and this applies as much to the MRV of ‘actions’ as it does to the MRV of ‘support’ (the triumvirate of finance, technology transfer and capacity building) to implement emission-reducing activities. Investing time and energy in designing and reviewing the MRV system is a key purpose of a genuinely ‘multilateral’ system, so that everyone can be sure about the rules that others are playing by. As confidence grows that others are indeed playing by the rules they signed up to, then both commitments and their verification can be deepened.

(For an excellent discussion of this deepening process has worked in arms control negotiations, and lessons for the climate process, see this 2012 World Resources Institute report).

Certainly, important gaps remain to be filled in the reporting framework for future climate action, and the COP19 MRV provisions are far from the whole picture. But my point here has been, amid the general pessimism at 2013’s climate change progress (Christiana Figueres excepted), to suggest reason for a little bit of cheer from the Warsaw conference. How to count carbon and measure actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are never going to be the headline outcomes from the international effort to address climate change. But like the parallel talks on nuclear non-proliferation, the details of MRV processes, and their role in edging parties in a stepwise fashion towards mutual ‘trust’ and confidence in each other, are essential to the prospect of any longer-term action.

(A final footnote: in the period between Warsaw/Geneva and writing this post, a new WTO agreement was concluded in Bali, a conclusion to the Doha Round launched back in 2001 and repeatedly stuttered in the ensuing decade. For some time now, the sluggishness of the UNFCCC process has been compared to this ‘dead’ WTO one. Without delving into any of its substance here, though, may there be other lessons for multilateral cooperation?)

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