Continuing deadlock over carbon market rules and frustration over access to vaccines and missed climate funding pledges means pressure is mounting on diplomats ahead of COP26
A week that began with blistering criticism of the G7 Summit’s failure to delivering a significant increase in climate funding for the developing world, ended with reports the latest round of preparatory negotiations on the rulebook for the Paris Agreement had ended in “stalemate”, fuelling fears this autumn’s COP26 Summit could yet end in failure.
Three weeks of online talks closed on Wednesday with participants and observers warning that a long-standing stand-off over the rules governing the global carbon market and a proposed reporting regime for national climate action plans was no closer to being resolved. At the same time, developing nations stepped up their warnings that without improved access to vaccines COP26 could yet fall foul of both logistical challenges and growing resentment at the international community’s handling of the pandemic and its failure to deliver on previous promises to mobilise $100bn a year of climate finance for poorer countries.
As co-hosts of COP26 the UK remains broadly optimistic that the Glasgow Summit should deliver on many of its core goals. After all, many of the world’s largest economies are already signed up to sweeping net zero emissions targets and are preparing increasingly ambitious national decarbonisation strategies centred on the phasing out of coal power and internal combustion engines, coupled with a surge in clean technology and infrastructure investment. Meanwhile, the upcoming UN General Assembly provides a forum where officials hope more governments will come forward with climate funding commitments to ensure the $100bn goal is honoured.
But over the past week this optimism has been somewhat dented. At the G7 welcome progress on mandatory carbon reporting rules for corporates and an end of overseas coal financing was offset by the reluctance of the US and Japan to set a firm coal power phase out date and provide a policy boost to electric vehicle transition, and overshadowed by a row over sausage imports to Northern Ireland. The sense that now near universal support for the net zero transition is struggling to overcome the political constraints applied by coal state senators and hybrid-touting automakers was palpable.
Meanwhile, the three weeks of talks intended to identify the “landing zones” for an agreement to be finalised at COP26 may have been conducted online, but they followed precisely the same format established by UN climate negotiations over the decades, that it to say lengthy discussions about process and a seemingly intractable stand-off between emerging and industrialised economies.
The talks, which thanks to the virtual format were denied formal negotiation status, passed off without any major rows, despite an acknowledgement from the UN that the use of online platforms had made the discussions particularly exhausting for delegations. But there was negligible progress on the two crucial issues of how to finalise Article 6 of the Paris Agreement and establish clear rules for global carbon trading mechanisms and how to align national climate action reporting from 2031 onwards, with some observers suggesting that if anything the talks had edged further away from an agreement.
Speaking to reporters, UN Climate Change chief Patricia Espinosa said the “very intensive” talks had been broadly positive, but that “in many cases, divergent views and options remain on the table”. One senior climate diplomat put it more bluntly, telling Climate Home News that the talks on carbon markets and the proposed transparency regime had reached a “stalemate”. In a moment entirely in keeping with the sometimes surreal nature of UN climate talks, discussions on transparency were reportedly closed to civil society observers at the behest of China.
With less than five months to go until the start of COP26 the fear is that time is running out to tackle issues that have proved irresolvable for much of the past five years. The Paris Agreement rulebook was meant to be finalised at COP25 in late 2019, but a small but influential group of countries has remained implacably opposed to efforts to reform carbon market rules to tackle risks of double counting and limit the transfer of historic carbon credits into the new trading regime enabled by the Paris treaty. Meanwhile, disagreements over how funds raised through carbon markets should be allocated to climate-related projects are ongoing.
At the same time, perennial tensions over transparency and reporting are at risk of being further inflamed by the Biden administration’s desire to take a tougher line with authoritarian regimes. Both China and Saudi Arabia were accused of using points of order to disrupt talks on how to establish a more aligned system for countries to report on their climate action plans and decarbonisation progress.
Speaking at the closing session of the three week long meeting, Saudi Arabia’s Ayman Shasly reiterated that the entire exercise had “no legal status and should not be used as a basis for negotiating or taking any legal decisions”.
The lack of progress presents the UN and the Summit’s UK and Italian co-hosts with a significant challenge. There is a path to securing more climate funding and additional net zero pledges and climate policy commitments from governments in the run up to COP26, even if convincing rich nations to increase their climate funding pledges remains a big diplomatic lift. But any failure to broker an agreement on the more technical side of the talks could threaten the success of the entire Summit and dilute the market signals to the businesses and investors that will have to drive the acceleration of the net zero transition over the next decade.
As such, the UK government has reportedly invited a group of ministers to an in-person meeting in London on 25-26 July and has tasked Singapore’s environment minister Grace Fu and Norwegian climate minister Sveinung Rotevatn to lead a series of informal ministerial discussions on carbon market reforms.
These last ditch attempts to end the deadlock are overshadowed by growing tensions over rich nations continuing failure to make covid vaccines available to poorer nations and deliver on the $100bn climate funding target. At the close of this week’s meeting the AOSIS group of island states warned that at both a logistical and diplomatic level, COP26 was facing serious challenges.
“The road to COP 26 remains nebulous. COVID-19 remains a serious concern for many of us, and travel restrictions continue for many countries,” said Ambassador Black-Layne of Antigua and Barbuda. “Access to vaccines and testing facilities is still a challenge in island States, and the safety of our delegates is priority…. A significant portion of our membership face onerous travel restrictions regardless of their personal vaccination status. Some islands in the Pacific have just two flights per month, with one month of quarantine, while other islands still have closed borders. This will not change unless their entire populations have vaccine access.”
She also reiterated the need for increased funding for developing nations if they are to bolster their climate resilience and accelerate their emission reduction efforts. “Parallel to these negotiations, we have taken note of the G7’s restated intention to deliver on the 100 billion goal, originally promised for 2020,” she said. “COP26 fast approaches, where we must in good faith look toward the determination of a new, scaled up finance goal in Glasgow that is truly accessible to the climate vulnerable like us who need it. Some sage advice; when it comes to the delicate art of building trust, actions will always speak louder than words.”
COP26 President Alok Sharma reiterated the UK’s offer that “all delegates who are not able to get vaccines from their own countries will be able to get support from us” and acknowledged that delivering on the $100bn a year climate finance goal was “a matter of trust”.
But observers warned that until the funding goal was honoured there was little chance of meaningful progress on other fronts. “The past three weeks have made one thing very clear – the most dangerous stumbling blocks on the road to COP26 are political, not technical,” said Jennifer Tollmann, senior policy advisor at think tank E3G. “Parties know each others’ positions, it’s the will to find compromise options that drive ambition that’s frequently missing. Meanwhile, the failure to give developing countries confidence that the promised $100bn a year in support will be delivered hangs over the process. The UK will have to navigate this environment and rebuild trust and confidence – particularly that issues of high priority to vulnerable countries – predictable finance, support for adaptation and dealing with loss and damage – are given proper political attention – by the G7 and UNFCCC process between now and Glasgow.”
Sharma stressed that the final countdown to the crucial Glasgow Summit was now clearly underway. “We cannot be complacent and we all understand that there is still a significant amount of work that needs to be done to ensure COP26 is a success,” he said. “The next few months are vital as the UK Presidency continues to reach out to Parties, driving progress and creating space to reach compromises. It is important that we meet in Glasgow having done our homework ahead of COP26.”
But as with all UN Climate Summits over the years, there is only so much diplomats can do finesse a compromise agreement if their political bosses are reluctant to make the concessions necessary for any international accord. The hope is that they can be convinced into translating their warm words on the net zero transition into the credible legal texts and ambitious domestic policies that can drive real world action.