Climate Change

Smoking gun letter reveals British CoP president’s 7-point climate action plan

Claire Perry O’Neill’s successor, Britain’s fine civil servants and its first-rate diplomats must work with counterparts in other countries, cities states and businesses

By Kapil Subramanian
Published: Wednesday 05 February 2020

In a letter written by sacked President of the 26th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Claire O’Neill to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and published by The Financial TimesDown To Earth's “single blog post” was revealed to be the only material evidence of her poor performance overseas in the dossier prepared by No. 10 (Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office) to justify the high-profile sacking.

Given that neither The Guardian nor The Independent covered O’Neill’s only foreign engagement in Delhi, and most other coverage consists of her praise for India, this is clearly the smoking gun that reveals our small role (see The FT’s smoking gun).

The FT’s smoking gun

 But as our own analysis of the firing argued, the decision may really have been about larger issues in British politics and minister-civil service relations. Our speculation that O’Neill was set up to fail by the civil service is seemingly confirmed when the letter speaks of “black ops” in a reference to the ruthless strategies of Dominic Cummings, No. 10’s top policy advisor who was formerly director of the Vote Leave campaign.

We are nevertheless glad that we played a small role in provoking a chain of events which led to the leaking of a letter containing the British government’s seven-point CoP 26 Glasgow Action Plan, building on which is crucial to make Glasgow the inflection point that the planet desperately seeks. We shall go point by point.

1.Using the UK's incredible global diplomatic resources to ensure every Paris signatory is supported to bring forward an updated Nationally Determined Contribution this year as they are required to do under the terms of the Paris Agreement.

UK CoP 26 Glasgow Action Plan #1: Extract 2020 Paris Targets

This is seemingly trivial, given that climate reporters across the world have been calling 2020 a crucial year for the planet as the new round of targets under the Paris Agreement are due. The controversy this far has been merely about how ambitious those targets will be; a point O’Neill significantly fails to mention. For it indicates that her reputed assessment that “The Paris Agreement is dead” expressed at the Raisina Dialogue in Delhi may not be that far off the mark. In spirit if not letter.

In Madrid, Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar argued that unless a stocktaking exercise of the various pre-2020 commitments by developed countries (such as those made at Copenhagen, Cancun and Kyoto) showed that they were making significant progress, India would not raise its climate ambition for its next round of Paris Agreement targets due in 2020.

But there is a growing sense in the Indian climate establishment that India may not take any target at all. The precise legal status of the Paris Agreement’s various clauses needs re-examination in light of Boris Johnson's claim that Glasgow would result in legally “enforceable limits” on emissions, as well as O’Neill’s statement in Delhi that “There is nothing binding in the Paris Agreement”. While the Paris Agreement says that each target “will represent a progression” over the one that preceded it, even the most minor tweak may ensure compliance in letter.

Whatever the cynicism of this stand, it bears mentioning that India is the only G20 economy whose Paris target is compliant with limiting the global mean temperature rise to 2 °C, according to Climate Action Tracker, a collaborative effort between Climate Analytics and the New Climate Institute, both based in Germany.

As the UNEP reported last year, it is leading the G20 in the attainment of that target and is expected to exceed the target by at least 15 per cent. The EU by contrast is expected to fall short of its current (grossly insufficient) target by at least 25 per cent according to an analysis by the European Environment Agency.

In the face of these facts, for India to take even more ambitious targets may precipitate a final breakdown of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities. It is nevertheless hoped that this is a merely an initial negotiating posture to elicit ambition from developed countries.

2. Setting Net Zero as the clear science-based target for all climate ambition from countries, businesses, states and cities and make this the Net Zero CoP.

 UK CoP 26 Glasgow Action Plan #2: Net Zero

The mantra of net zero emerged from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, and has been key to recent British climate diplomacy from O'Neill’s speech in Delhi to the speech delivered by Charles, Prince of Wales in Davos. It is an excellent idea for all developed countries to specify their Paris target in terms of a target year to achieve net-zero carbon emissions.

It is a happy coincidence that the date “science” indicates as the appropriate target year for developed countries to attain net zero is well within the likely commitment period of the next round of Paris targets for all developed countries, most of whose current targets terminate in 2030. In-depth analysis by Climate Action Tracker which incorporates 40 studies cited by the IPCC indicates a fair-share net zero target before 2030 for developed countries.

Specifying a net zero deadline as a Paris target may effectively mean that developed countries will all be legally bound to a net zero target. This will not only substantially increase global ambition, but also mean that net zero will no longer be a distraction from the (binding and) urgent emissions cuts that science says is required within the next decade.

In the UK, Labour for a Green New Deal has argued for a 2030 net zero target, impressively backed by a multi-volume report with an extensive agenda for an economically viable just transition.

Developing countries need to be provided maximal assistance to set their own trajectories towards a later net zero so they can meet the basic subsistence needs of their poor in a climate-constrained world. Besides a substantial increase in developed-country contributions to agencies such as the Green Climate Fund, this will require genuine technology transfer, rather than just technology sales. It may be mentioned that O’Neill twice praised in her Delhi speech the Indian cement maker Dalmia which has placed a large order for CCS equipment with the Berkshire-based Carbon Clean Solutions Ltd.

3. Introducing a properly-funded global package for adaptation and resilience building.

UK CoP 26 Glasgow Action Plan #3: Adaptation and resilience finance

This is absolutely crucial, and cannot be over-emphasised. Together with mitigation and adaptation, loss and damage is the third pillar of the Paris Agreement. The progress made at Paris is a vague commitment by developed countries to help developing countries, but no funds have been committed, due to fears that this might imply an admission of legal liability, despite the Paris Agreement explicitly saying it does not.

Given that the loss and damage agenda in Madrid merely resulted in a “Santiago Network”, funding for adaptation and resilience building seems more realistic avenue to channel funds to countries most affected by climate change, while the Network fights it out.

Given that the true picture is not that far off from minister Javadekar’s claim that developed countries had met barely two per cent of their commitment to provide $ 1 trillion in total climate finance in the ten years since the CoP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009, (and reiterated in the Paris Agreement) a target itself widely deemed inadequate, developed countries will need to take tough financial decisions.

4. Placing nature-based solutions at the heart of the climate recovery agenda, with more funding, a new global transparent Nature Exchange for all carbon credits, a new global goal for tree protection and planting and an international rollout of plans for more sustainable supply chains.

UK CoP 26 Glasgow Action Plan #4: Forestry and “nature-based solutions”

In last year’s special report on Climate change and Land, the IPCC estimated that the sequestration potential of forestry was at best a sixth of annual global fossil fuel emissions. Over time, sequestration tends to zero. Forests make for uncertain mitigation given they are subject to “future risks” from fires, floods and poor management, a spectacular reminder of which was seen in Brazil and Australia in the past few months. Trees have incalculable local environmental and economic benefits but they are not a panacea for climate change whatever Trump might think.

New Zealand famously met its Kyoto commitments despite a substantial rise in emissions by planting a few hundred thousand hectares of “Kyoto forests”, due to be harvested in the 2020s (Kyoto’s second commitment period ends this year). But the trading of credits from forestry is particularly problematic.

 Cheap credits from forestry were a key reason for the total breakdown of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM, the Kyoto Protocol’s carbon trading scheme) which led to a net rise in global emissions. The new proposed Sustainable Development Mechanism (SDM), the rulebook for which has spilled over from Madrid’s Agenda to Glasgow’s, must prevent this. Only credits resulting from genuine technology transfer (formalized as a floor price per tonne of carbon traded) must be allowed on an international marketplace.

5.Embedding in CoP 26 and future events a strong Clean Growth agenda, including: a financial and strategic package to accelerate coal phase-out; a single global measure of the emissions reduction plans of companies, cities and states; new Net Zero sector deals from some of the hardest to decarbonise sectors and a repurposed Mision Innovation focussed on outcomes like scaled up green hydrogen production.

UK CoP 26 Glasgow Action Plan #5: “Sector Deals”

In outline, all of these are excellent ideas though the devil lies in the policy detail. The UK must push on nation-states on ambitious carbon mitigation targets this year. Crucial “non-state and subnational action” (actions by “companies, cities and states”) as has appeared to be the push by O’Neill in Delhi and Charles in Davos can provide a useful supplement to this, though not a substitute, as UNEP has powerfully argued.

Indeed, many officials and researchers in the Global South feel that given that they are unenforceable under Paris, non-state action is a mere fraud. The question of what precisely “sector deals” are to be, given that some have called for the UNFCCC to be dismantled in favour of a sectoral approach needs to be explained.

6. Aligning global financial flows with emissions reductions and pricing of physical climate risk, working with private finance, development banks, central banks and regulators.  

UK CoP 26 Glasgow Action Plan #6:  Climate Finance Czar

Former Bank of England governor Mark Carney (of Quantitative Easing fame) has been appointed as the finance adviser to CoP 26; the so-called Climate Finance Czar. But the end goal must not be lost in the exclusive emphasis placed by both Charles and O’Neill on climate action merely as a new arena for Big Finance to earn a commission.

Indeed to O’Neill, fixing the corrupt CDM was a mere distraction from the “hundreds of millions of dollars flowing from sources to sinks”. Like other sectors, finance will need to tighten its belt and be less profit-hungry in a climate-constrained world. As the former British Chancellor George Osborne said, “We’re all in it together”.

7. Aiming  to close the Paris Rulebook on time this year, while recognising that implementation can begin immediately among the countries who have “opted-in” to the rules already agreed and opening the negotiations and CoP processes to public scrutiny so the citizens of the world can be our audience.

UK CoP 26 Glasgow Action Plan #7:  A two-speed market

Markets are the key element of the Paris Rulebook that remains to be closed and the consequences of a hasty two-speed implementation cannot be determined. Like in other sectors, markets have shown that they can operate in rather perverse when it comes to carbon. More thought to an air-tight rulebook is prudent.

At her speech in Delhi, O’Neill called for cameras at all CoP negotiations. But that has already been the case for years now; indeed it has enabled our high-quality coverage of Madrid without having to leave the Global South.

A proposal to extend the reach of cameras to back-room negotiations will be a welcome step towards climate justice. For it will obviate the need for Global South media and non-profits to send people to Glasgow, at a high travel, visa, visa-risk, and administrative cost.

The UK’s seven-point CoP 26 Glasgow Action Plan provides a useful starting point which the world can build on to ensure a transformational outcome at Glasgow. Claire Perry O’Neill’s successor, Britain’s fine civil servants and its first-rate diplomats must work with counterparts in countries across the world, all of whom must also work with cities states and businesses; the world needs to apply every viable solution.

Such an outcome in November may be celebrated with a trek in the Scottish Highlands; a march of multinational diplomats, scientists and policy researchers from government and civil society, as well as climate activists. For a walk would be the most appropriate way to celebrate the moment the world gave up its dirty fossil-fuel habit.

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