Stamping out climate cheating – POLITICO
Press play to listen to this article
GLASGOW — The real work has started at the COP26 climate conference — and it’s all about confronting the carbon cheats.
World leaders dominated the first few days at the Glasgow summit, but attention now turns to negotiations on finalizing the Paris Agreement, with three key issues yet to be settled: deadlines, transparency and carbon markets.
These technical talks on the so-called Paris rulebook might sound less exciting than flashy promises of net-zero targets, billions in funding or limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Any agreement, however, is likely to have far-reaching effects.
That’s because tough rules on these three outstanding issues could stop countries from cheating their way out of reducing emissions. Weak rules, in turn, risk weaker climate action. But talks on these issues have dragged on for years, and getting all 197 signatories to agree is proving to be monumentally difficult.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said last week that sorting out the Paris rulebook is key to climate accountability, “to really show the world that we are getting better in fighting climate change.”
“How are we measuring success or steps forward in cutting emissions? There are a lot of percentages, a lot of dates floating around,” she said at a press conference.
Setting unified end dates for climate action should — in theory — be the simplest task for negotiators: Countries just need to agree on a number.
The Paris Agreement requires signatories to submit climate action plans, called nationally determined contributions (NDCs), every five years. But currently, the treaty sets no specific deadline for the implementation of governments’ targets, making it difficult to compare countries’ action timelines.
The talks on the so-called common time frames revolve around setting a unified deadline of either five years, 10 years, or a more flexible option. Proponents of a tighter end date say longer periods risk locking in insufficient pledges for a decade.
Among opponents of a shorter time frame are high-emitting countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia. The European Union recently decided to support a five-year deadline.
Aligning deadlines would make scrutinizing national efforts easier, and climate action more consistent. But countries are also negotiating over stricter rules for reporting progress on reducing emissions, and some countries are not keen on greater transparency.
The talks on finalizing the Paris Agreement’s “enhanced transparency framework” will come down to “how much flexibility do you give,” said Tom Evans, a climate diplomacy researcher at think tank E3G.
“At what point does the flexibility become too much?” he said, “and then you’ve kind of undermined the transparency system, versus sufficient flexibility to actually enable the system to be functional.”
Developing countries have so far been given some slack, but under the new transparency framework, all Paris Agreement signatories are soon meant to face regular reviews and submit progress reports to the United Nations. Many poorer countries are asking for flexibility, given the additional bureaucratic burden, or financial support to scale up their reporting capabilities in return for signing up to stricter rules.
Developed countries have generally been pushing for more stringent, unified rules, over concerns that emerging economies like China are not being sufficiently transparent about their emissions data.
China, for its part, has implied that capability-building aid is a precondition for it to move on transparency.
The trickiest issue to find agreement on is parts of the Paris Agreement’s Article 6, covering rules on how countries can achieve climate targets via carbon markets. Governments have been negotiating for years without a breakthrough.
The idea is a global carbon-trading system in which one country could pay for emission reductions in another country — such as by funding a climate-friendly project there — and count those reductions toward its own climate goals.
A functioning carbon market would, in theory, incentivize green investments and lower the cost of the transition for developing countries. But allowing countries to cheat the system could undermine the entire Paris Agreement.
There are two key sticking points. Countries like Brazil and China hold unsold carbon credits from the previous, failed carbon market under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and want the flexibility to sell them on any new global market.
Then there’s the risk of double-counting — if a country reduces emissions as part of their own climate action plan, but then also sells that reduction on the carbon market to a country that also counts it as part of their emissions balance.
“If one ton of CO2 is reduced somewhere, it should be counted by one country, not two or three or four. That’s just basic accounting, but it’s important we put the right rules in place,” said Gilles Dufrasne, policy officer at Carbon Market Watch.
“We also need to make sure that the system is going to incentivize new projects and new emission reductions and not rely on credits and projects from the past,” he added.
There are also other issues complicating a carbon-market deal — vulnerable countries, for example, are asking for a share of the revenues to go toward funding to help them adapt to the changing climate — and others want to include human rights standards.
“It’s a massive patchwork of positions and issues. And that’s what makes these negotiations really complex, not just technically, but also politically,” Dufrasne said.
Altogether, then, the Paris rulebook negotiations are about stamping out climate cheating — ensuring a transparent approach to reducing emissions that tracks whether countries’ actions actually match their words.
The “big wins” in Glasgow might come from elsewhere, E3G’s Evans said, with talks ongoing about climate finance, coal phaseouts and other efforts for more ambitious climate action.
But the outcome of the Paris rulebook negotiations will set the baseline.
“It’s more about minimizing the risks of a low-ambition Paris Agreement rather than actually securing high ambition,” said Evans.
“Take Article 6. Good Article 6 rules don’t guarantee that countries will take on significant emissions reductions in the future — bad ones could mean that they’re undermined,” he added. “Good rules mean that we have a basis for ambition.”
Want more analysis from POLITICO? POLITICO Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to trade, technology, cybersecurity and more, Pro delivers real time intelligence, deep insight and breaking scoops you need to keep one step ahead. Email [email protected] to request a complimentary trial.