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Carbon Copy: The state of play on the six key issues at UN climate conference COP26

The Glasgow meeting is all about limiting warming - meaning the world needs to make deeper, faster cuts to emissions from burning fossil fuels or deforestation.
The Glasgow meeting is all about limiting warming - meaning the world needs to make deeper, faster cuts to emissions from burning fossil fuels or deforestation.PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - The United Nations climate change conference, COP26, will begin on Oct 31 in Glasgow.

The meeting aims to finalise details of how the Paris Agreement can be implemented. The Straits Times highlights six key issues that negotiators will be discussing.

Background

In 2015, almost 200 nations adopted the Paris Agreement, which sets out global aims, but not how they can be achieved.

After three years of negotiations, nations agreed in 2018 to adopt the Paris Rulebook - a guide on how the Agreement can be implemented - at COP24 in Poland.

Currently, the Rulebook is like an almost complete jigsaw puzzle that is missing a few key pieces: The main outline is there, but a number of thorny issues need to be worked out for a global consensus to be reached.

Aims of the Paris Agreement

- Limit global warming to well below 2 deg C, preferably to 1.5 deg C, above pre-industrial levels. This threshold is needed to avoid harsher climate impacts.

- Achieve net zero emissions by 2050

- Take action to adapt to climate change impacts, such as building coastal infrastructure to keep out rising seas.

- Direct capital towards a low-carbon future.

1. Bolder climate pledges

The Glasgow meeting is all about limiting warming - meaning the world needs to make deeper, faster cuts to emissions from burning fossil fuels or deforestation.

COP26 host Britain says a key outcome is to "keep 1.5 deg C within reach".

The only way to achieve this is for nations to beef up their climate pledges, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).


Wind turbines at the Sidrap Wind Farm in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. PHOTO: ST FILE

Why is it important?

Under the Paris Agreement, new climate pledges must be submitted every five years. The first round of pledges was made in 2015.

This year's conference - which was postponed by a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic - marks the second round of submissions from countries.

Countries are expected to collectively pledge much more ambitious emissions reductions.

But in an analysis of submitted NDCs in September, the UN said the pledges still put the world on a path to warming by 2.7 deg C by the end of the century.

Sticking point

Rapid emissions cuts would require trillions of dollars of investment in renewable energy and slashing reliance on fossil fuels, something many countries, especially developing nations, are unable or reluctant to do.

2. Climate finance

If the Glasgow conference is all about cutting emissions, it is money that is going to make this happen.

Poorer nations want wealthier ones to make good on a pledge they made over a decade ago to channel US$100 billion (S$135 billion) in annual climate finance by 2020 to green their economies and help them adapt to climate impacts.

Why is it important?

Developing nations are the least responsible for the decades of planet-warming emissions in the atmosphere. But they are feeling the impacts most keenly, from rising sea levels and more powerful storms that batter their coastlines and wipe out homes and crops to severe droughts and heatwaves.

Climate cash has become an issue of trust, that rich nations will do as they say.

Sticking point

Rich nations have dragged their feet on this issue, with climate funding hitting only US$79.6 billion in 2019.

3. Loss and damage

The issue of finance also extends to the irretrievable loss and damage caused by climate impacts, such as loss of life and damage to infrastructure.

Poorer nations are seeking additional finance to cope with the rising and repeated costs of climate change.

Why is it important?

This is a critical issue for the poorest and most vulnerable nations, such as small island nations greatly threatened by rising sea levels and storms.

Repeated losses and damage threaten livelihoods and economic development.


Damaged buildings and debris after Typhoon Chanthu passed through the Philippines last month. PHOTO: REUTERS

Sticking points

This has been a long-running issue as vulnerable nations regard themselves as innocent victims of impacts caused by big polluting nations.

While a mechanism has been created to help look at the issue, developing nations want commitments on new and additional financial resources. But there remains knowledge gaps on the scale of loss and damage and the financing and technical assistance needed.

Industrialised nations are also wary of liability risks and compensation claims.

4. Carbon markets

The outcome of discussions on carbon markets, coded under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, will determine whether countries can trade carbon credits to meet their NDCs.

It will also establish rules on who emissions savings accrue to if one nation pays to set up a green initiative - say a wind farm instead of a coal plant - in another country.

Why is it important?

This is the biggest unresolved piece of the Paris Rulebook, and the only one that failed to reach a consensus at COP24. A consensus was also not reached at COP25.

Carbon markets can enable cost-effective emissions reductions.

In the short term, for example, it might be cheaper for one country to pay to conserve a forest elsewhere rather than replace its entire fossil fuel-based energy grid with one based on renewables.


Poland's Belchatow Power Station, Europe's largest coal-fired power plant. PHOTO: REUTERS

Carbon credits can also direct public and private capital to green ventures, such as clean cookstoves for poor villages or forest conservation projects.

But an international carbon market that lacks clear rules could increase global emissions if, for example, both buyers and sellers of carbon credits claim the reductions under their NDCs.

Sticking points:

The problem of double counting - where the countries selling the carbon credits count the carbon savings under their own national targets - could be tough to overcome.

The aim is still to achieve a reduction in overall emissions, so carbon markets will have to go beyond offsetting, but there may be conflict over which carbon credits are to be set aside and not used for any country's NDCs.

A debate is still ongoing on whether a porting over of credits generated under the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism, which expired in 2020, to the Paris Agreement, with opponents saying this could prevent new, additional mitigation activities from being developed.

5. Enhanced transparency framework

Nations agreed at COP24 in 2018 to adopt the enhanced transparency framework by 2024.

This framework requires all countries to report, among other things:

- Their greenhouse gas emissions;

- Their progress in achieving their NDCs;

- How they will be impacted by climate change and how they plan to adapt to these impacts;

- The support they have received from others, such as financial aid or training, and how these were used.

Presently, the reporting requirements and the timetable for the submission of national reports are different for developed and developing countries.

The current framework is also less onerous in that countries mainly have to report their emissions inventory, and not other aspects such as adaptation plans or support received.


A coal-fired power plant in China. PHOTO: REUTERS

Why is it important?

Transparency in measurement, reporting and verification of emissions will allow observers to monitor progress in limiting global warming.

Sticking points:

Some countries have NDC targets that aim to reduce emissions across their entire economy, while others focus on emissions reductions from certain sectors, such as their energy or forestry sectors. It will not be easy to finalise a common reporting format that can accommodate these different types of pledges.

An enhanced framework will require nations to find common ground over the kinds of technical assistance that will be provided to developing countries to help them meet it.

6. Common timeframes

Currently, NDCs have different end dates. Some countries set five-year targets, while others set 10-year ones.

For example, Singapore's NDC is a 10-year one. In its second NDC announced last year, Singapore said it will aim to have its emissions peak around 2030.

Countries had agreed at COP24 that NDCs should have a common timeframe from 2031.

Why is it important?

Further delays on setting common timeframes will mean that countries have less time adjusting their domestic planning and review processes to meet their targets.

There is also a concern that a longer timeframe will lock in high-emitting infrastructure, such as new fossil fuel plants, that would make it more challenging to limit global temperatures in the long term.

Sticking points:

There is likely to be negotiations over the three options on the table: Whether NDCs should follow a five- or 10-year cycle , or a 5 + 5 cycle that would require countries to use a five-year timeframe with tentative 10-year targets.

  • Sources: Carbon Brief, Melissa Low, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, World Resources Institute

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