The movie version of the final hours of the UN climate conference in Glasgow is surely already in storyboard. As India’s Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav prepares to use his veto power to force the removal of a call to accelerate the “phase out” of coal burning from the Glasgow Climate Pact, the scene cuts to what is going on in his country, where people are choking in a Delhi smog, as city authorities in the world’s most polluted capital shut schools “so that children don’t have to breathe polluted air.”
Fade back to Yadav in a conference-hall huddle with China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua, whose influence over other delegations allowed the Indians to engineer their coup. And from there back to an announcement in Beijing earlier in the week by China’s National Development and Reform Commission that the country’s coal output had just reached the highest daily figure ever — almost 12 million tons — as the nation stoked boilers to revive its economy from the pandemic downturn.
In a dramatic conference maneuver, the world’s two largest coal-burning nations had insisted that the Glasgow delegates replace “phase out” coal with “phase down.” This change, which watered down a central element of the agreement that negotiators thought had been settled, introduced a bitter note to the end of the conference.
Of course, conference declarations are just bits of paper. They don’t themselves change anything. Governments and investors do that. And many delegates headed home heartened by a series of gains from their two weeks of deliberations.
Almost unnoticed, the conference moved the goalposts for climate action, says Piers Forster, an atmospheric physicist at the University of Leeds and long-time author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “1.5 degrees Celsius rather than ‘well below 2 degrees’ [the wording in the Paris Agreement] is clearly recognised as the main aim,” he said.
While the world is a long way off from limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C, the pact at least recognized that fact.
And, while the world is a long way from being on track to meet that aspiration, the pact text at least recognized that fact. Nations agreed they should up their game in time for the next meeting, in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, this time next year. They agreed by then to “revisit and strengthen the 2030 [emissions] targets in their nationally determined contributions (NDCs)” and to make sure those targets are consistent with the pledges made by many of them to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century.
By the time they meet in Egypt, governments should also have met their decade-old target for providing $100 billion annually in climate finance for developing nations and begun a “dialogue” to create a UN facility to manage a separate fund making payments of recompense for loss and damage caused by climate change. This was a second issue that, along with the proposed coal phaseout, came close to derailing the conference in its final hours. But on this, China held its fire.
Activists in Glasgow were divided between those pleased to applaud the advances made and those angry at what was left undone. Even some senior international figures were appalled. The result was “a failure of leadership and a failure of diplomacy,” said The Elders, a grouping chaired by former Irish President Mary Robinson that also includes former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon.
Scientists were similarly split in their public reactions. The outcome was “a big step forward,” said Corinne Le Quéré of the University of East Anglia, co-author of the authoritative Global Carbon Budget published in the first week. “We are still on the road to hell, but Glasgow has at least created an exit lane,” said David Reay of the University of Edinburgh.
Jeffrey Kargel, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona, cautioned that, with or without an end to coal burning, we are likely to be victims of time lags in the world’s climate system. “There is some pent-up warming that is yet to take place … locked in due to the heat capacity of the oceans,” he told Yale Environment 360. “I am pessimistic that a 1.5-degree threshold will hold.”
Glasgow was the 26th UN Conference of Parties (COP) on climate change. Many question the value of these great annual events, with their huge carbon footprints as thousands of delegates descend on some apparently arbitrary city to deliver much less than they promised on the most pressing issue of our time. Some argue that the complex bureaucracy and requirement for consensus agreements among the almost 200 nations present slow down the necessary action, rather than speeding it up. The hijack of the language on coal would be a case in point.
The alternative was also on display in Glasgow. Most of the two weeks, as we reported here, were dominated by public pledges made by ad hoc groups of nations that were not tied to the UN process. Glasgow was just a convenient place to announce them.
These coalitions of the willing — ranging in size from a dozen or so to more than 100 — promised to cut methane emissions, end deforestation, banish coal, end exploration for new oil and gas, switch auto production to electric and other low-carbon vehicles, and develop new technologies for low-carbon steel and concrete to decarbonize construction. Big emitters such as the United States and China joined some, but not others.
Similarly adrift from the UN climate process were last Wednesday’s U.S.-China joint statement on taking climate action and the series of the announcements just before the conference that most of the world’s leading nations would no longer fund fossil fuel plants outside their own borders.
India and China may have misjudged the reaction when they unleashed their last-minute choke hold on the agreement.
The likely impact of many of these unilateral pledges on emissions is hard to assess. Some are vaguely or ambiguously expressed; and others, including the much-discussed U.S. commitment on methane, are already at least partly accounted for in existing nationally declared contributions (NDCs), the formal declarations given to the UN by nations on their plans for cutting emissions. Still, these unilateral pledges may turn out to have made more difference to the global climate outlook than anything submitted to the UN system during the conference.
Despite this proliferation of independent initiatives, those watching the conference’s final hours — and prevented by mask from lip-reading the wheeler-dealing huddles on the conference floor — could not doubt that these events matter. They apply pressure on recalcitrant nations.
India and China may have misjudged the reaction in the final plenary session when they unleashed their last-minute choke hold on the pact. The anger did not come just from rich developed nations already phasing out their coal. A succession of developing-world nations that the two superpowers would normally count as their allies also joined in. They included Pacific Island states such as Fiji, and Caribbean nations such as Antigua and Barbuda, who thought the lifeline for coal might consign their nations to the history books.
In interviews after the close, conference President Alok Sharma said “China and India will have to explain themselves and what they did to the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world.” That could prove uncomfortable. They may be wary of attempting the same trick in future.
But others said the 11th hour maneuver would not halt the inevitable demise of coal. “The last-minute watering down is unfortunate, but is unlikely to slow down a strong momentum past coal, a dirty fuel of an earlier era,” said environmental economist Nicholas Stern, of the London School of Economics. That momentum will be strengthened if another landmark conference decision, which called on nations to end “inefficient” subsidies for other fossil fuels, is adhered to.
UN agreements operate through rule books, where every word has to be agreed by every nation. This is why, six years after the Paris Agreement, the Glasgow conference still had to resolve two important parts of the Paris rule book. Both reached a conclusion. Rules were agreed on transparency — the details of how countries report their NDC pledges — and on what became known as Article 6 — how countries can collaborate on meeting their targets, including through carbon trading.
The latter has proved controversial. Environmental groups disagree strongly about carbon markets, under which schemes to reduce emissions can generate carbon credits for purchase by countries or companies who want to “offset” their emissions.
Some say the trade can provide the necessary finance for nature-based solutions, emphasized in the Glasgow Climate Pact’s declaration of “the importance of protecting, conserving and restoring nature and ecosystems to achieve the Paris Agreement temperature goal, including through forests and other terrestrial and marine ecosystems acting as sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases.” These nature-based solutions could help the world to net-zero emissions.
Others see carbon markets as little more than an accounting trick, open to fraud and designed to allow fossil fuel companies and their customers to stay addicted to carbon-based fuels.
If Brazil cracks down on deforestation to gain carbon credits, ranchers may just cross the border and ravage Paraguay.
The route to unlocking private cash lies in allowing the booming market in “voluntary” offsets set up by corporations seeking to “green” their businesses to also be used to help countries deliver on their national emissions pledges. The new rules allow governments to buy carbon credits generated by “voluntary” projects, such as forest protection or installing solar panels, and use them to offset emissions they declare to the UN in their NDCs.
Some call this double-counting, if the companies also continue to claim those same offsets reduce their emissions. Other say that doesn’t matter, so long as two countries don’t claim the same carbon offset at the UN.
There is a big appetite for this loosening of offsetting rules. Brazil wants to claim credits for restoring 12 million hectares of former forests by 2030 — an area almost the size of England — even as deforestation continues elsewhere in the country. In Glasgow, Brazil’s representative hailed the agreement as providing the private finance to achieve this. Australia wants to buy carbon credits generated in other countries to offset continued fossil fuel emissions.
The problem is that the voluntary market has a bad reputation for probity and accountability. Forest and other projects that generate carbon credits should be able to show that, without the intervention, there would be more carbon dioxide in the air. But this requires a counterfactual narrative that can be hard to prove. Would the forest really have been chopped down without the conservation project, for instance? And if deforestation was genuinely prevented within the project area, did the clearing of forest just happen somewhere nearby? Would a forest company or NGO have planted a woodland even if there had been no credits to sell?
There have been widespread claims that cheap credits in the voluntary markets sold to polluting companies such as oil giants or airlines do nothing for the climate. So allowing the credits to be used as part of national emissions pledges at the UN rings alarm bells.
The hope is that the Article 6 deal, which includes a central hub for approving trading, will raise standards rather than unleash carbon fraud.
There is hope among some carbon-credit practitioners that the agreement in Glasgow will achieve that. The text in the Glasgow pact allows “voluntary carbon markets that also supports emissions reductions in countries hosting carbon market activities,” says Kelley Kizzier, a vice-president at the Environmental Defense Fund. By doing so, the agreement has cleared “a path to get private capital flowing to developing countries,” and would create a “robust, transparent and accountable carbon market to promote more and faster climate ambition.”
Others are more cautious. “The worst and biggest loopholes were closed, but there is still scope for countries and companies to game the system,” according to Mark Maslin of University College London. Charlotte Streck of Climate Focus, a Germany-based international consultancy involved in climate finance, says it will be hard to prevent deforestation crossing borders. If Brazil cracks down on domestic deforestation to gain carbon credits, ranchers may just ravage neighboring Paraguay.
One concern is that the rush to turn forests into tradeable carbon will damage the rights of those who live there.
Controversially, the Glasgow deal allows carbon credits created under a largely discredited carbon-trading system developed under the Kyoto Protocol to continue being traded under the new regime, provided they are no more than eight years old. Guy Turner, of the consultancy Trove Research, reckons that more than 60 percent of these old credits had, at best, questionable climate benefits. He believes their inclusion will be a cash “windfall” for holders of such credits, which could be used to offset some 500 million ton of emissions.
Another concern is that a rush to turn forests into tradeable carbon will damage the rights of those who live in and depend on them. Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and the Environment in India, which campaigns on such issues, was pleased that “human rights have been mentioned in the text,” with an independent body to address grievances. But she was upset that Indigenous peoples’ rights to free, prior, and informed consent to allowing others to use natural resources on their land, which is enshrined in other UN law, had not been extended in the Glasgow deal to cover the value of their carbon.
From the “right” of developing nations to burn coal in the way Europeans and North Americans once did, to the rights of Indigenous peoples to the newly-discovered value of the carbon in their forests, the imperative to double down on fighting climate change is unleashing new antagonisms.
Glasgow addressed them but did not always solve them.