Amid fresh warnings and new evidence suggesting worsening of the climate crisis, negotiators from around the world are assembling in Glasgow, Scotland, from Monday next week to tie up a few loose ends of the Paris Agreement that have remained unresolved for over two years. COP26 (or the 26th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) was scheduled to be held last year, at the same venue, but had to be put off for the first time in its history because of the pandemic.
The official agenda of the two-week meeting is to finalise the rules and procedures for implementation of the Paris Agreement, which was supposed to have been completed by 2018. However, most of the discussions ahead of the meeting have been around an effort to get all countries to commit to a net-zero target by a specific year, somewhere around the mid-century. Carbon neutrality is a state in which a country’s emissions are compensated either by absorption of greenhouse gases, as is done by trees and forests, or by physical removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using futuristic technologies. Net-zero is an extremely contentious subject, deeply dividing the developed and developing countries.
The COP meetings
The annual climate change meetings are part of a UN-backed process initiated in the early 1990s after the world realised that greenhouse gas emissions were powering a rise in temperature that would slowly make the Earth uncomfortable to live in. Over the years, these meetings have had remarkable success in bringing climate change to the top of the global agenda, and ensuring that every country has an action plan to tackle climate change. This process has also delivered two international agreements — Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and Paris Agreement in 2015 — aimed at cutting down global emissions (see box).
The outcomes of these meetings, however, have not matched the scale of the response required. The original objectives, in terms of the amount of emission reductions and the principles that would govern the international climate architecture, have been diluted severely. Most industrialised countries have failed to deliver on their initial promises, not just on emission reductions but also on their commitments to help with finance and technology. As a result, the climate crisis has worsened in the last 20 years, manifesting itself in more frequent and intense extreme weather events.
Despite the shortcomings, however, these meetings remain the best bet to put the world on a path away from climate disasters.
The rules and procedures of the landmark Paris Agreement of 2015 are still hanging because countries are yet to agree on some of the provisions related to creation of new carbon markets. Carbon markets are an important instrument to facilitate emissions reductions, and were an integral part of the Kyoto Protocol that has now given way to Paris Agreement.
Under the Kyoto Protocol, a set of rich and industrialised countries were allotted specific emission reduction targets. One of the indirect ways to achieve these was to let countries buy carbon credits from developing countries. The latter had no obligations under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce their emissions, but if they were able to do so, they could earn carbon credits. Developed countries could buy these credits and count them towards achieving their targets. Developing countries did not lose anything, and instead received payment to finance their switch to cleaner technologies.
Because emission reductions anywhere helped the entire globe, this was seen as a win-win situation for everyone. There were a couple of other methods through which carbon credits were traded, for money, both within and between countries.
Over the years, developing countries like China, India, and Brazil accumulated large numbers of carbon credits, which at one point, were in great demand as developed countries had to achieve their targets, and this was often a cheaper way than to reduce emissions by upgrading their own industrial facilities.
However, as the clamour grew for a new agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which rich industrialised countries found constraining, the motivation of the developed countries to move towards their targets reduced. Countries realised that non-achievement of their targets did not carry any penalty. So, most never met their targets. Several others even walked out of the Kyoto Protocol. The result was a big drop in demand for carbon credits, and a consequent fall in the price of carbon.
But countries such as India, China and Brazil continued to earn carbon credits in the hope that demand would return, once a successor pact to the Kyoto Protocol was in place. That happened with the Paris Agreement.
Carbon markets are envisioned in the Paris Agreement as well, but a new problem arose. Developed countries said they would not allow the transition of the earlier carbon credits to the new market mechanism, claiming many of these were dubious and did not accurately represent emission reductions. They sought more robust methods to grant carbon credits. The developing countries are insisting that their accumulated carbon credits, worth billions, remain valid in the new market.
This remains the last stumbling block in the finalisation of the rules and procedures of Paris Agreement. Most other issues were negotiated at the previous meeting in Madrid in 2019. Settling this is one of the main objectives of the Glasgow meeting.
An agreement on carbon markets would involve intricate negotiations. The discussion on net-zero targets, in the meanwhile, is much more attention grabbing. Incidentally, the issue of net-zero, or carbon neutrality, does not find a mention in the Paris Agreement, and therefore, does not form part of the process. But this is not the first time that an issue that has not grown organically from the COP meetings has come to dominate a session.
More than 50 countries have pledged to carbon-neutrality by middle of the century. China has said it would achieve this status by 2060; Germany has announced a target of 2045. India is the largest emitter that still does not have a net-zero commitment, and has said it does not intend to commit mmediately. Several other developing countries have also been resisting such targets, arguing it is the developed world’s way of shifting their own burden of reducing emissions on to everyone else.
Last week, in a virtual meeting, ministers of 24 nations, which call themselves ‘Like Minded Developing Countries’, or LMDCs, denounced the efforts to force a net-zero target on everyone, saying it went against ‘equity’ and ‘climate justice’. India is a part of LMDC, and interestingly, so is China. Other members include Indonesia, Malaysia, Iran, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
Reminding the developed world that the COP meetings were a history of their “broken promises”, the LMDC said it was lack of adequate action on the part of rich nations that had led to worsening of the climate crisis.
“Despite their lack of ambition shown in the pre-2020 period, as well as in their Paris Agreement NDCs (nationally-determined contributions), major developed countries are now pushing to shift the goal posts of the Paris Agreement from what have already been agreed by calling for all countries to adopt Net Zero targets by 2050. This new ‘goal’ which is being advanced runs counter to the Paris Agreement and is anti-equity and against climate justice,” the ministerial statement said.
“Demands for ‘Net zero’ emissions for all countries by 2050 will exacerbate further the existing inequities between developed and developing countries,” it said.
It is clear that discussions on net-zero are also likely to lead to fireworks at Glasgow.
The meeting that set up the architecture for negotiations on an international climate change agreement. It finalised the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the mother agreement that lays down the objectives and principles on which climate action by countries are to be based. It acknowledged that developing countries had fewer obligations and capabilities to bring down emissions. Developed countries agreed to a non-binding commitment to take measures aimed at returning to their 1990 emissions levels by 2000.
Attempt to finalise a new agreement to ended in failure. Over 110 heads of nations assembled, but differences were too deep to be bridged. Countries agreed to try again a few years later. Developed countries committed to mobilising $100 billion every year in climate finance for developing countries from 2020.
Delivered the Kyoto Protocol, precursor to Paris Agreement. The Protocol assigned specific emission reduction targets for a set of developed countries, to be achieved by 2012. Others were supposed to take voluntary actions to reduce emissions. The Kyoto Protocol expired last year as Paris Agreement took its place.
It reaffirmed the principles of CBDR in the efforts to find a replacement to the Kyoto Protocol, which developed nations were getting increasingly uncomfortable with, especially after the emergence of China as the world’s leading emitter. Developed countries want emission reduction targets for everyone, or for nobody, their argument being that without stringent action from China and India, the success of any climate action would not be possible.
The successor agreement was finally delivered. The Paris Agreement does not assign emission reduction targets to any country. Instead, it asks all to do the best they can. But the targets they set for themselves must be reported and verified. The objective is to limit the global rise in temperatures to within 2°C from pre-industrial times.
Was supposed to be held last year but postponed because of Covid. The rulebook for implementation of Paris Agreement is still to be finalised. The main remaining hurdle is an agreement over creation of future carbon markets, and the transition of pending carbon credits with some developing countries to that new market.
Newsletter | Click to get the day’s best explainers in your inbox