The COP26 climate summit is entering its final scheduled day with an agreement to cut carbon emissions still a ways off and delegates stuck on several major issues, including whether to phase out coal and fossil-fuel subsidies, and how a carbon trading market would work.
“We are not there yet on the most critical issues,” COP26 president Alok Sharma said Thursday. He has set a deadline of 6 p.m. local time on Friday but acknowledged that negotiations could run into the weekend.
Delegates from nearly 200 countries are trying to cobble together a pact that will commit all nations to measures that will hold global warming to 1.5 C above preindustrial levels, a temperature level that scientists say would limit the devastation caused by climate change.
Current national plans fall far short of that target and British officials have made “keeping 1.5 C alive” the mantra of this conference.
While some progress has been made, Mr. Sharma said several key issues remained unresolved.
Among them is a proposed pledge to “accelerate the phasing out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels.” That commitment has never been stated in a United Nations climate agreement before and several countries, notably Australia and Saudi Arabia, are believed to be firmly against including it.
However, environmental campaigners have argued that concrete action on coal and fossil fuels must be a priority, and they say even the proposed commitment is weak.
The European Union’s climate policy chief, Frans Timmermans, has strongly backed the proposal. That language “has to be part of the conclusion here today,” Mr. Timmermans told reporters in Glasgow on Thursday. “Removing it would be an extremely, extremely bad signal.”
Another critical issue is whether wealthy countries should provide financial support to developing nations to help them cope with damage they’ve already sustained from global warming.
Known as “loss and damage,” this issue has been highly contentious for years and has never been included in a final text. The draft agreement includes a section that acknowledges the issue and “reiterates the urgency of scaling up action and support, including finance, technology transfer and capacity-building.”
Leaders from several developing countries and climate justice advocates argue that doesn’t go far enough and have called for the creation of a special fund to cover loss and damage costs.
That would be in addition to the US$100-billion annually that developed countries are supposed to contribute to help poor countries take action to mitigate climate change and adapt their infrastructure to be more resilient to its effects. There is also pressure to lay the groundwork for significantly increasing that form of funding in future years.
Meanwhile, there is some sense of optimism about agreement finally being reached on regulations for international carbon-trading markets, which is the most complex form of negotiating happening around the final deal.
Article 6 of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which is supposed to allow countries that exceed their national emissions-reduction targets to sell credits to those struggling to meet theirs, has not yet come into effect because of disagreements over several of its key components.
A common sense among those familiar with the talks is that, after attempts to resolve those differences at several previous editions of the annual conference fell short, most countries are eager to get a deal done this time to avoid the embarrassment of another failure amid the summit’s general sense of urgency.
Nevertheless, as of Thursday, some of those disagreements lingered.
The most challenging of them is around how to ensure there is no double-counting, in which both countries in a credits sale wind up claiming the emissions reductions toward their targets. That issue is bogged down in extremely technical debates involving how to ensure fair accounting despite different countries setting their emissions targets in different ways.
Some countries continue to advocate for language around the accounting mechanisms that others worry would overly complicate the process and could lead to a net loss of total emissions reductions.
A second sticking point is around whether a small share of each transaction under the trading system should be levied into a fund for climate adaptation. It’s strongly advocated by developing countries, but richer ones – including Canada – are wary, arguing that it could be disincentive for any trades to be made at all.
Yet another long-standing debate around Article 6, but one that appears closer to resolution, is around what to do with credits created under an abandoned past attempt at an international carbon trading market. Countries that hold those credits, most notably Brazil, have argued they should be allowed to use them in the new system; others have contended they were created too easily and would undermine the system’s credibility.
But the two sides appear to be inching closer to a compromise, likely involving some of the pre-existing credits being eligible for a time-limited period.
There is also continuing discussion about Article 6′s incorporation of human-rights safeguards, with Canada among other countries pushing for protections for Indigenous and other communities that could be adversely affected by projects used to generate credits.
If negotiators are able to steer through all those issues, the hope is that the credit system will ultimately lead to greater collective emissions reduction than would otherwise be the case. It would be somewhat easier for countries to set ambitious targets given the additional means of meeting them, while those besting their targets would have incentive to raise their ambition further.
Not everyone at COP26, however, is convinced that a deal on Article 6 would necessarily be a victory in itself, if standards around matters such as double counting or human rights are softened in the process.
“Is accomplishing something just for the sake of accomplishing something really a win?” questioned Erika Lennon, a senior lawyer with the Center for International Environmental Law, who is monitoring the Article 6 talks.
“I definitely have concerns that in the push to make it look like there’s a win, parties will wind up ultimately compromising on things that undermine the integrity of the Paris Agreement,” Ms. Lennon said.
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