Climate Change

Climate talks need to re-focus on target-setting

Bonn offered a chance for countries to accept IPCC’s report on 1.5°C. Yet several negotiators, particularly Saudi Arabia & the US, continued in their adamancy & ignored it

By Tarun Gopalakrishnan
Published: Saturday 29 June 2019
Photo: UN Climate Change/Flickr

It is folly to openly deny the crisis today, when lived experiences are daily confirming what climate models have long predicted. Yet, the vested interests pushing denialism have not disappeared.

They have re-grouped, in the form of false laissez faire, infinite optimism in easy solutions and developed a newfound concern for the integrity of science. These tactics were in full evidence at the annual Bonn climate meeting, which concluded on June 27, 2019.

The highlight of the December Conference of the Parties (COP) in Katowice was the failure of negotiators to whole-heartedly accept the conclusions of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The 1.5°C target is written into the Paris Agreement; the report should hence serve as the basis for the second round of nationally determined emissions target, which are expected to be published by countries in early 2020. Katowice failed to set down this expectation in writing.

Bonn offered a chance to set a better tone in the lead up to this year's COP. Yet several negotiators continued in their adamancy that this critical report’s conclusions will be ignored.

The most vocal of them were Saudi Arabia and the US, who sought to block even the modest acknowledgment that the report has “enhanced” our species’ collective knowledge.

They also sought to highlight “gaps” in the IPCC’s assessment, apparently unaware of the nature of scientific inquiry.

Their real issue has always been the report’s pathways to 1.5°C, which include a complete phase-out of coal by 2050 and deep cuts to oil and natural gas.

As a result, the draft text published at the end of the meeting “considers”, “appreciates” and “thanks” the IPCC for its work, while refusing to set it up as a standard against which all nationally determined targets must be measured.

The sole bright point is that the text acknowledges the report as the “best available science”, which is a legal standard for environmental regulators in several jurisdictions.

If it stays in the final decision (due at the next COP in December), that phrase should give domestic climate advocates some (minimal) leverage to push for national targets in line with 1.5°C.

The lack of ambitious targets has not dampened the enthusiasm for emissions trading markets. The issue is a difficult one to find consensus on — it resulted in two sets of texts emerging out of Katowice, neither of which found consensus.

Consensus was similarly far from evident in Bonn — the textual outcome was, somehow, even more convoluted than Katowice.

In their concluding comments, delegates attempted to frame the meeting as progress, but each went on record to note their dissatisfaction with multiple areas of the text.

Some of these issues are a matter of building common technical understanding of how markets work. But the extent to which these negotiations have dragged on hints at a deeper problem.

The general conception of a carbon market is a ‘cap-and-trade’ mechanism. Yet, the current ‘caps’ ie, nationally determined targets, are demonstrably insufficient to meet the climate crisis.

They are not even standardised — countries have reported targets using a variety of metrics, for a variety of time periods and have very rarely covered all economic sectors.

Worse, countries like Brazil insist on carrying over older Kyoto-era credits into the new mechanism, which risks flooding the market with cheap credits.

The Article 6 negotiations have attempted to get around this fundamental problem in many ways. There have been attempts to prescribe — units, distinct accounting approaches for parties with multi-year and single-year targets, methods for baseline calculations and conditions under which older credits could be transitioned into the new mechanism.

There have been proposals to ensure that trading does not lead to a dilution of existing targets, such as requiring countries to report on how their trading has resulted in a net reduction of greenhouse emissions.

A more direct approach by small island states proposed to ‘cancel’ a portion of emission credits — improving the chances of net emission reductions and obtaining better prices for countries selling such credits. None of these ideas have escaped objections.

The truth is that talk of a global emissions trading market (or markets) is clearly premature. This is even more so because there are still doubts regarding whether the Kyoto-era trading platform — the Clean Development Mechanism — resulted in a net reduction or net increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet, because trading is a potential source of income, countries loath to move past carbon markets as a no-pain solution to climate change.

It is difficult at this stage to assess the worse outcome — a set of weak rules which justifies, even encourages, meaningless trading, or no rules, which would render modern carbon markets a new Wild West.

Either way, it is worth remembering the circumstances of their birth when trade journals in the 2020s would proclaim that carbon markets are set for robust growth in the coming quarter.

Negotiations would be better served by focusing on non-market cooperative approaches — a concept which is explicitly provided for in Article 6.8 of the Paris Agreement, but which has yet to be properly fleshed out.

Clarity on the time-frames, for which targets need to be set (5 years or 10 years) and a new long-term target for finance, to be provided by developed countries, would be welcome.

With diplomats failing to put in place these critical components of the post-Paris agenda, the pressure increases on political representatives to deliver at the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit in New York this September.

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