International climate talks have resumed following an 18-month absence, with diplomats from around the world attempting to negotiate the final rules of the Paris Agreement via the online medium of Microsoft Teams.
The “intersessional” meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) “subsidiary bodies” (SBs) normally takes place in the German city of Bonn, halfway between two conferences of the parties (COPs).
After Covid-19 ruled out last year’s events entirely, this year it was forced online as nations tried to set the groundwork for the delayed COP26 in Glasgow later this year.
The event took place from 31 May to 17 June, with delegates allowed an additional week than is usual in order to make up for lost time.
However, the online talks were kept “informal”, meaning their outcomes have no legal status, with no formal decisions being made until diplomats meet in person.
Discussions were marred by technical difficulties and made little progress on most of the key issues, with an unmet $100bn pledge on climate finance looming over the talks.
There was also a lack of clarity on how the UK intends to go ahead with an in-person COP26 climate summit in November, despite its pledge to provide attendees with vaccines.
Virtual climate talks
The decision to go ahead with a virtual event came after months of speculation over how and when negotiations would resume.
However, there was general agreement that progress needed to be made ahead of COP26 and the UNFCCC stated that “effective participation and engagement of observers will be enabled in the same manner as during in-person meetings”.
In a letter from April, COP26 president-designate Alok Sharma wrote:
“Whilst I am the foremost advocate for in-person negotiations given the very human nature of this process and the subject matter it addresses, it is clear to me that we cannot afford to put formal work on hold.”
He noted that there were “valid concerns about virtual work that need to be taken into account” and said that the UNFCCC secretariat would try to address issues, such as connectivity and working across time zones.
Sharma’s concerns turned out to be well-founded, with many sessions marred by technical issues as speakers had difficulty unmuting their microphones, lost their internet connection or were interrupted by family members.
A “bloopers” Twitter account was even set up to catalogue the “dangers of virtual climate diplomacy”. Sharma’s own connection failed as he tried to dial into a final press conference at the end of the sessions from Ankara in Turkey.
The talks were held across three different time zones, changing each week. Diplomats were left exhausted after three weeks of negotiating at unsociable hours.
Quamrul Chowdhury, climate negotiator for the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Group of 77 (G77), tells Carbon Brief that while these issues affected everyone, “the southern delegations suffered the most”:
“I myself struggled at times to have my coordination with my fellow negotiators on some critical agenda items or lost connection while making a statement or sharing my reflections.”
To partially overcome some of these issues, African negotiators gathered at a “hub” in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. UN Climate Change executive secretary Patricia Espinosa told the closing plenary that there are efforts to create more of these regional hubs.
Diann Black-Layne, lead negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), tells Carbon Brief that the biggest drawback was “the inescapable limitations of the format itself”.
As the decision was made to keep all virtual sessions “informal”, they could never “replace the finality in decision-making” of an in-person event, she said.
Adrián Martínez, director of Costa Rican climate NGO La Ruta del Clima, told a press conference held by CAN International, a coalition of climate NGOs, that their participation had also been impaired:
“We came with certain reservations about this virtual format. It’s a new challenge – something that is placed on top of existing barriers that we already had, especially NGOs and people from the Global South, to be able to participate and observe.”
He said civil society groups had not been given time to speak and had even been actively excluded from some sessions by parties, emphasising the need for in-person meetings. China, in particular, had blocked NGOs from attending meetings.
An “informal note” released by the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) chair considering the engagement of NGOs and other organisations “encourag[ed]” parties to “open meetings to observers as appropriate”.
Espinsoa told a press conference the UNFCCC would “do everything in our power” to ensure broad participation and stressed that 90% of talks were kept open to observers.
Moreover, the UNFCCC released a statement noting that the virtual sessions had allowed an additional 2,400 delegates to participate compared to the previous sessions in Bonn.
Despite the “enormous challenges” of the new format, Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, chair of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA), said during an interview in the closing week that he felt some of the initial issues had been overcome and ”parties have been engaging with a greater degree of confidence”.
Jennifer Tollmann, a senior policy adviser at thinktank E3G, tells Carbon Brief that while technical blunders hampered proceedings, the fundamental issues were familiar:
“Progress is pretty slow if not non-existent at this session, but I wouldn’t just blame it on the virtual format.”
The issue of parties refusing to move from their starting positions is hardly new to climate negotiations, she says, although the process was not helped by the inability for negotiators to meet “over a coffee to informally discuss compromise options”.
While this is small relative to the challenges of dealing with and attempting to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, delivering on the pledge is widely seen as a “matter of trust”.
It is not yet clear whether the target for 2020 has been met, because formal reporting is done retrospectively and because there is disagreement over what counts towards the goal.
Lorena Gonzalez, senior associate for climate finance at the World Resources Institute, tells Carbon Brief that developed country reports on climate finance for 2019 and 2020 will be submitted next year, with a formal accounting for the 2020 goal not possible before then.
Nevertheless, it is universally assumed that climate finance is currently falling short of the $100bn goal. The most recent report on climate finance issued by the OECD group of wealthy nations in November 2020 said that some $79bn in support was provided in 2018.
Others argue the true total is even lower, as the OECD figure includes loans as well as grants. The UNFCCC will publish an assessment of climate finance flows before COP26.
Ahead of the virtual talks, the UK presidency convened a two-day meeting on finance in late May, with heads of delegation and chairs of the various negotiating groups.
A summary of the meeting says:
“Many parties noted that the achievement of the [$100bn] goal would be a key outcome for COP26, while some noted that we won’t have full clarity on achievement until 2022. We also heard from some parties that fulfilment of the goal and increased leadership by developed countries is needed to build trust.”
The meeting also began informal discussions on the climate finance goal for 2025 onwards, which is due to be formally negotiated, starting at COP26 and concluding “by 2024”.
At the virtual summit, discussions on climate finance continued at two “workshops”, taking place outside the formal meeting agenda.
The first, on 7 June, took up the long-running “long-term finance” work programme on the provision of support during 2014-2020. There is disagreement over whether this programme should continue, as part of a wider fight over the best venue for finance discussions.
A UNFCCC “synthesis report” on such information was published on 1 June, but it only covers submissions from nine parties, including the EU and UK, but not the US.
The UNFCCC will prepare reports on both workshops for consideration at COP26.
(A US-led initiative called “Build Back Better World”, or B3W, was launched at the G7 and is designed to “mobilise private-sector capital” for four focus areas, including climate, but there is little detail on how the plan will be financed and operated.)
Tollman says the G7 “very significantly under-delivered” on climate finance, despite new pledges for extra money in the years from 2020-2025, from Germany, Japan and Canada. Pakistan’s climate minister told Climate Home News the new pledges were “peanuts”.
These new pledges amounted to an extra $3bn towards the $100bn goal, leaving a gap of $17bn, according to some estimates. But the timeframes of the pledges and the lack of a wider total for 2020 make it impossible to say for sure.
In the final week of the session, Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development, wrote a comment for Reuters arguing that climate-vulnerable countries should “skip” COP26 unless the $100bn goal is delivered.
This was, he said, “a test of whether wealthy large-emitting nations will negotiate with their counterparts in the Global South on tackling the climate crisis in good or bad faith”.
If the money was not “delivered before November”, he suggested there was “little point” going to Glasgow “to do business with governments that break their promises”.
At a press briefing at the close of the virtual talks, CAN International senior adviser Harjeet Singh posed the rhetorical question of whether the summit had given confidence that the $100bn would be delivered, concluding “the answer is a big no”.
Observers point to a series of moments in the months before COP26, where further commitments on climate finance could be delivered. These include the UN General Assembly in September and the G20 summit in Italy at the end of October.
‘Article 6’ carbon markets
Negotiators have repeatedly failed to find agreement on the rules for the voluntary use of international carbon trading, under Article 6 of the Paris deal.
The impasse stems from fears that the rules, if poorly designed, could “make or break” the entire Paris Agreement. The high stakes are exacerbated by intensely political disagreements, laced with technical jargon, over a number of fundamental principles.
Key sticking points include whether to allow “carryover” of carbon credits generated under the Kyoto Protocol and how to avoid “double counting” of emissions reductions. (See the in-depth Carbon Brief Q&A on Article 6 for explanations of these issues.)
Yet a deal in Madrid proved impossible, making it clear that more technical negotiations were needed to help define the political choices for ministers.
With this in mind, at the end of March, the Chilean COP25 and UK COP26 presidencies convened a “consultation” on Article 6 with heads of country delegations, designed to identify the most pressing areas of disagreement between parties.
According to a summary of the event, there was a “very positive tone of discussion” and a “clear commitment” to finalising the rules for Article 6 at COP26 in Glasgow.
The baton then passed to Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, chair of the “SBSTA” negotiating track, who organised a series of “informal consultations / informal technical expert dialogues” to “discuss remaining unresolved issues”, which had been identified at the March meeting.
These technical dialogues, each focusing on one of 10 specific areas of disagreement, started in April and were completed at the June virtual conference.
The talks are summarised by Mpanu Mpanu in 10 documents extending to some 62 pages, each noting it “is informal in nature, has no status, and does not provide negotiation text”.
These documents set out the range of views held by parties and, in some cases, describe the reasoning given for taking those positions. However, they do not attempt to distill similar viewpoints into a simplified menu of options, nor to identify potential text for agreement.
In an overall summary of the meetings, Mpanu Mpanu writes:
“Parties addressed possible options for resolving outstanding issues…The SBSTA chair called on the heads of delegation to engage in unlocking difficult issues and seeking compromise and to ensure that their technical experts are enabled and authorised to work informally to find possible solutions to unresolved issues.”
He says he will continue to convene heads of delegations for discussions “on a regular basis” and to hold technical talks “throughout the coming months” ahead of COP26.
One observer of the talks not authorised to speak on the record tells Carbon Brief that parts of the discussions “really have moved forwards”, with “modest progress” overall.
However, parties simply restated their existing positions in some of the most difficult areas, the observer says. Some of these topics were recognised as political rather than technical in nature – and, therefore, impossible to resolve until politicians get involved, they add.
There is only a 50-50 chance a deal will be reached in Glasgow, the observer says.
Gilles Dufrasne, policy officer with Carbon Market Watch, tells Carbon Brief that there were “no significant breakthroughs” during the virtual negotiations and that he is now less confident than before that a deal is possible at COP26. He puts a deal at “2:1 against”.
Some parties retreated to earlier hardline positions during the talks, Dufrasne says, though this was a good thing in areas where weak compromises had been made at COP25.
One shift welcomed by NGOs was an increase in support for language on upholding human rights under Article 6, which had been removed from the near-final text in Madrid.
It remains to be seen how this specific issue will be resolved, along with all the other knotty problems addressed at the virtual talks, if a deal in Glasgow on Article 6 proves possible.
UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa told the closing plenary that political-level guidance from ministers will be needed to resolve the well-known “controversial parts”.
Before COP26, the UK presidency will host further informal consultations on Article 6 at ministerial level, on 23 June, followed by a broader 30 June stocktake between heads of delegations and the chairs of the climate talks’ negotiating groups.
Article 6 will be one of the topics on the agenda at a ministerial meeting due to take place in July, according to COP26 president-designate Alok Sharma.
Adapting to climate change is a key concern for developing nations at negotiations and one that is tied closely with discussions around finance.
The Paris Agreement calls for an equal split between finance for mitigation and adaptation. According to the UN Environment Programme, only 8% of climate finance has gone towards adaptation so far.
The agreement also contains a “global goal on adaptation” to drive collective action, but there has been little progress on it since 2015.
The first-ever “informal workshop” on this global goal was held just before the start of the SB sessions and NGOs welcomed the negotiations as a time to advance these talks.
However, as with other high-priority items for vulnerable nations, such as finance and loss and damage, major discussions relating to adaptation were delayed until COP26
Adaptation was discussed in various streams at the sessions. Under the SBI, it came under the “matters relating to the least developed countries” and “national adaptation plans” streams, as well as discussions around the fourth review of the adaptation fund.
Under the SBTSA, adaptation was discussed as part of the “Nairobi work programme on impacts, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change”.
Despite these various streams, according to Prof Mizan Khan, a climate negotiator from Bangladesh, “nothing substantive” emerged for consideration at COP26 beyond parties sharing views on these agenda items.
He tells Carbon Brief that far more time was allocated to items such as the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture, which he considers less important.
Many developing nations including the “vast majority” of the G77 group voiced objections about the lack of prominence for adaptation on the agenda for the SB sessions, Tollmann tells Carbon Brief.
The UK has described adaptation as one of its key priorities going into COP26 and said that this subject would be discussed further at a ministerial meeting in July.
Loss and damage
Unavoidable climate impacts that cannot be adapted to are described collectively at climate negotiations as “loss and damage”.
Loss and damage is often referred to as the “third pillar” of international climate policy after mitigation and adaptation, but negotiations frequently come under fire for failing to give it sufficient prominence.
In a statement ahead of negotiations, CAN International said its members were “disappointed to see that loss and damage is not on the virtual SB agenda”. This point was echoed by many small islands and developing countries.
There was, in fact, some discussion of the topic, with a summary of the work conducted by the executive committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) for loss and damage published in the final week.
However, loss and damage advocates largely see the WIM as inadequate for delivering on this crucial area of negotiations.
“The issue is much bigger than a small body that was created with a limited mandate to report on its work and we all know that the executive committee has not been well resourced,” CAN International senior adviser Harjeet Singh tells Carbon Brief.
Instead, many NGOs and developing countries are pinning their hopes on the relatively new Santiago Network, which was created at COP25 to “catalyse technical assistance” for loss and damage, but which remains largely theoretical at this point.
Developing nations want to see a decision on the Santiago Network at or before COP26, that deals with governance, how it operates, its mandate and how much money it is allocated.
Singh says this view is not universally shared. “On the contrary, developed countries are imagining the Santiago Network to be not more than a website,” he tells Carbon Brief.
There were also broader calls to make loss and damage a standing agenda item with adequate space carved out for the topic, rather than something confined to a single negotiating stream.
This would mean discussion of not only the Santiago Network, but also finance for loss and damage, a major battleground at the last COP. Such finance was not discussed during these sessions at all.
COP26 president-designate Sharma mentioned loss and damage as one of the key issues that would be discussed in a ministerial meeting in July to lay the groundwork for the summit.
The Paris Agreement includes a five-yearly “global stocktake” that is meant to assess countries’ collective progress towards its long-term climate goals, including mitigation, adaptation, finance, as well as means of implementation and support.
The stocktake is a crucial part of the Paris “ratchet mechanism”, under which countries successively make pledges, assess progress and then raise their ambition.
As it stands, there is a considerable gap between what nations have committed in terms of cutting emissions, enhancing adaptation and providing finance, and what is actually required.
The results of the global stocktake are meant to indicate to nations how much more needs to be done and, in doing so, enhance overall ambition.
The structure of the global stocktake was largely finalised at COP24 in 2018, but there remain a handful of details that are yet to be agreed.
There is a sense of urgency given that the first stocktake is meant to start right after COP26 and last until 2023. The process will then be repeated every five years.
Ahead of the negotiations, the chairs of the SBI and SBSTA released a “non-paper” – that is, a paper with no formal status – seeking to assist the preparations for the stocktake.
The paper includes a set of “guiding questions” concerning topics such as past and present trends of greenhouse gas emissions and financial barriers facing vulnerable countries.
Many negotiating groups, parties and CAN International provided their feedback on the stocktake in general and the non-paper specifically. (See for example submissions from the US, LDC group, G77 group, India for the LMDC, the EU and AOSIS.)
In its statement, the G77 group said that while the document was comprehensive, “we feel that there are some priority issues that are of key interest to developing countries that have not been given adequate treatment or balanced treatment”.
These issues included perennial topics for developing nations such as the inclusion of loss and damage in the guiding questions proposed.
At the SB sessions, parties discussed “sources of input” for the global stocktake and observers noted that the talks were productive. “It’s been one of the few rooms that does really seem to have made progress,” Tollmann tells Carbon Brief:
“There is a strong sense that they already have a good indication of the type of documents that need to go into it, that they do want input from non-state actors, that they want it to be based on the best available science.”
A final informal note issued by the SBSTA chair acknowledges calls from some parties for the UNFCCC secretariat to be provided with resources to assist NGOs and observer groups, notably those from developing countries, in providing their input into the stocktake process.
Road to COP26
The subsidiary body sessions came to an end on a slightly sour note, with negotiators accepting that a lot more work would be required ahead of COP26 in November.
Prof Mizan Khan, a climate negotiator for Bangladesh, tells Carbon Brief he was “really frustrated” with the outcomes of the meeting.
“Not even summaries of discussions have been agreed upon in some cases…I believe we are set to witness another charade of ‘active inaction’ at the upcoming COP in Glasgow.”
Lead UK negotiator Archie Young acknowledged in the closing plenary that there had been limited progress and even an expansion of options on the table at the SB talks.
The SB chairs said that ahead of COP26 they would prepare “scenario notes” and identify ways to proceed at the coming negotiations through “textual proposals”.
Crucially, the “informal notes” that have emerged from the talks will only have formal status if parties decide to take them up at the summit in November.
In a closing press conference, COP26 president-designate Sharma confirmed that the UK would convene a ministerial meeting, with nations from all the key negotiating groups, on 25-26 July in London to sketch out a desirable outcome that will “keep 1.5C alive”.
Up for discussion will be topics that were largely overlooked at the SB sessions, including adaptation, finance and loss and damage, as well as further Article 6 talks.
However, after the somewhat chaotic virtual sessions, there remain significant concerns around how an in-person COP will go ahead.
Vaccination programmes have not even begun in some countries and many foreign nationals are currently banned from entering the UK due to Covid-19. NGOs stated that rich nations must move beyond “vaccine nationalism” to ensure COP26 goes ahead.
Sharma has repeatedly promised that this will be the “most inclusive COP ever” and in the briefing he emphasised that he wanted it to be a physical event, while also mentioning the expansion of virtual efforts.
The UK government has provided cause for optimism by announcing it will hand out vaccines to delegates from nations where they are not available. This will include foreign media and NGOs.
However, when pressed on details of the plans, such as how the vaccines would be delivered globally, Sharma did not provide further clarity:
“We will set all of this out. I completely understand why people want answers to this – that is right and proper…we are working through all that right now.”
Sharma has previously set out the UK’s aspirations for COP26, including urging nations to set 2030 emissions targets that are compliant with net-zero and climate adaptation plans, as well as pushing rich countries to meet the $100bn climate finance target. Another goal was to encourage a strong role for civil society in the talks.
These ambitions were reiterated by a “road to COP” statement released by the UK after the close of the SB talks, from its position as president of the G7.
Other issues the UK presidency says it intends to push at the COP include new commitments from countries on phasing out coal power, ending the sale of petrol and diesel cars and ensuring a green recovery from Covid-19.
As it stands, many of the UK’s targets are facing strong headwinds.
Key nations, including China and India, have still not registered new climate targets under the Paris Agreement, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs).
The UNFCCC secretariat has set a 30 July deadline for the inclusion of new NDCs in a report it is preparing, on the combined impact of these pledges for COP26.
Under the Paris Agreement “ratchet mechanism”, this round of NDCs is meant to be more ambitious than previous pledges. However, preliminary results suggest their combined impact will be nowhere near what is required to limit warming to 1.5C.
While the G7 summit included talk of climate finance and support for adaptation, Maria Laura Rojas, executive director of Transforma, told a press briefing that “these announcements were abstract in nature and not backed up by pledges”.
There will be more opportunities to discuss climate finance in the coming months, including at the UN general assembly and the G20 summit.
The view of many observers was summarised in a World Resources Institute press briefing by Prof Chukwumerije Okereke of Alex-Ekwueme Federal University Ndufu-Alike in Nigeria:
“There is a huge gap between intention and outcome, so effort has to be put into ensuring that all these warm words and aspirations translate into outcomes on the ground for people who are actually bearing the brunt. The UK cannot just assume that a magic wand can be waved to get these sort of outcomes.”
Countries are currently updating these climate pledges, or submitting new ones, as part of the Paris “ratchet mechanism” designed to raise ambition over time.
For now, these pledges will continue to cover different periods of time, at the discretion of each party, but COP24 in 2018 agreed that all NDCs should cover a “common timeframe” from 2031, with the length of the timeframe to be decided later.
Discussions at COP25 in Madrid were unable to reach agreement on what the common timeframe should be and failed to narrow down a lengthy list of 10 options that included five-year timeframes, 10 years, a choice of either, or hybrids of the two.
Some parties argue that climate pledges are “nationally determined” and that this discretion should continue to apply to the timeframe for NDCs.
Others argue that 10-year cycles could “lock in weak ambition”, whereas five-yearly NDCs would allow plans to be updated more regularly in light of falling technology costs and the gap between ambition and targets.
Lutes sets out the positions of various key negotiating groups and writes:
“Why are common timeframes critical? If countries are allowed to pick and choose…many essential functions of the multilateral climate regime become more difficult…It will be harder to build momentum and pressure to align national targets with agreed global goals, when those targets cover different periods.”
Negotiations on the issue resumed afresh at the virtual talks, effectively scrapping the list of options from Madrid. The talks were characterised by procedural wrangling, but did manage to produce an “informal note”, with suggested options for consideration at COP26.
The note sets out just four options for common timeframes, in language described as “elements for further consideration” – effectively draft negotiating text. However, another eight “proposals” from parties are listed in an annex to the note.
The “elements” begin with language in square brackets – indicating undecided text – that would “request”, “invite” or require (“shall”) parties to communicate by 2025 their new NDCs, in line with the yet-to-be agreed common timeframes.
The text then sets out the four options for common timeframes: five years; 10 years; “five years + five years”, where parties would submit two five-year NDCs every five years, on a rolling basis; or “five or 10 years”, where parties could choose.
Countries are “still bickering” over the question of common timeframes, Yamide Dagnet, director for climate negotiations at the WRI, told a CAN International press briefing.
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