The COP26 climate conference enters a crucial phase on Monday, as delegates now must focus on thrashing out details over how countries will work together to try to meet emissions-reduction commitments and set new ones in future.
The first week of the United Nations summit was filled with world leaders and business tycoons making bold announcements. These included agreements to stop deforestation, reduce coal use, halt international financing of fossil-fuel projects and marshal trillions of dollars of private capital toward sustainable investments.
But the final five days in Glasgow will be dominated by hard-nosed negotiators, environment ministers and experts in the nitty gritty of the disputes they are trying to resolve.
On Sunday, host Boris Johnson set the tone by urging negotiators to “pull together and drive for the line.” Countries “must come back to the table this week ready to make the bold compromises and ambitious commitments needed,” the British Prime Minister said.
Many of the key issues facing delegates have bedevilled similar conferences since 2015, when the Paris Agreement on climate change was struck but not entirely finalized. The concerns include how to set up a system to trade carbon credits, how to assess whether countries are meeting their emission-control commitments, and how to set common standards for those promises in future.
Meanwhile, richer countries are under pressure to emerge from the conference with new commitments to help poorer ones reduce their emissions and adapt to already unavoidable climate-change effects.
“I do not underestimate the difficulty of the task which is ahead of us,” COP26 president Alok Sharma told a press conference on Saturday. “We’ve been discussing a whole range of these issues for six years without resolution and I think that shows you just how challenging this is.”
One of the biggest challenges is finally resolving the Paris Agreement’s Article 6, which is supposed to create a mechanism to enable countries struggling to meet emissions-reduction targets to buy credits from those exceeding theirs. The plan hasn’t been implemented, falling apart at several previous meetings of the annual conference because of a fierce debate over how a market would work.
Among the obstacles to an Article 6 deal so far have been disagreements over how to avoid double counting (in which both sides of a credits sale wound up counting the emissions reduction against their targets) and how to ensure transparency.
Another difficulty is what to do about pre-existing credits that some countries hold from a past market set up after the 1997 Kyoto Agreement (which were obtained more easily than would be the case in the new market).
What emerges from the Article 6 negotiations will be watched closely by environmentalists. That’s not just because of concerns about lax rules lessening the burden for countries in meeting their targets, but also because the talks could influence standards for private-sector offset trading as well, as companies make commitments to net-zero emissions in their operations.
Another contentious issue in the talks revolves around the timelines for future national emissions-reduction plans, or NDCs. Currently, there is a range of target dates for those pledges, with some considerably further in the future than others, complicating assessments of whether each country is doing its part. Some negotiators are hoping to emerge with a plan for common time frames, in which each NDC would be for the same period.
There is also discussion around whether the targets should be set more often than every five years, as has been the case to date.
Projections presented during COP26 have shown even in the unlikely event that all countries lived up to their recently updated emissions-reduction pledges, the world would still not be on pace to limit global warming to 1.5 C above preindustrial levels.
That ceiling is the Paris Agreement target meant to avoid catastrophic consequences. So some negotiators have been pushing for new target-setting again soon, to try to maintain momentum and press countries that have weak NDCs to move faster.
Amid all the negotiating, several days have still been set aside for more public presentations and announcements on policy themes – including gender, transportation and “cities, regions and the built environment.”
Monday’s theme will be climate adaptation, which ties in to another crucial subject of the negotiations: setting frameworks for developed countries to provide climate-specific aid to developing ones. Many of them are facing the worst effects of climate change despite being responsible for fewer of the world’s accumulated emissions.
Richer countries are belatedly on pace to meet a previous commitment to provide US$100-billion annually in climate finance, likely in 2022 or 2023. Work during COP26′s lead-up to secure that total, which was led by the Canadian and German governments at the host British government’s request, has helped somewhat to restore trust that was battered by a failure to deliver that annual funding by 2020 as promised.
But there is now hope from poorer countries of an increased total in future, along with stronger accountability measures around its delivery and how much is provided through grants versus loans or other mechanisms.
And there is discussion about how much goes specifically toward adaptation and covering losses and damages from climate effects, as opposed to emissions-reduction investments for which it can be easier to raise private capital.
Progress on this front is acknowledged by representatives from both sides of the negotiation as key to collaborative global climate efforts going forward.
Mr. Sharma, who is a British cabinet minister, said some progress on many of the issues has been made in Glasgow, and stressed there was a growing consensus among environment ministers that solutions had to be found.
But when Britain’s lead negotiator Archie Young was asked to assess the mood of those working in the back rooms, he was more circumspect. “It is tense right now,” he said Saturday. “People are having to take tough decisions, as they should.”
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