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100 days to COP26: 4 key issues that need resolution at climate talks this year

The task of operationalising the Paris Agreement, and setting the path for steep emissions reductions seems easier said than done

After the unprecedented year-long postponement due to the COVID-19 crisis, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, will take place in Glasgow in about three months’ time. While the talks were delayed by a year as the world grappled with the fallouts of the global pandemic, there has been scant respite from the climate emergency. Even as the frequency of extreme weather events rises in practically every region of the world, slow-moving changes such as the shrinking of polar ice are evidently accelerating and locking in irreversible changes in atmospheric patterns and ocean currents. A few weeks ago, average global temperature breached the 1.5°C lower limit for warming set in the Paris Agreement. Historically, this has been an indicator that this breach is likely to become a feature in a matter of years, rather than a blip, in the global climate trajectory. This, while the Paris Agreement still remains to be made fully operational.

As stated by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, 2021 is by all means a “make or break year” in the fight against the climate emergency. Although the past year has seen several loud but ambiguous declarations of decarbonisation and “net-zero” emissions ambitions, the Glasgow COP later this year will serve as a litmus test on how well immediate actions will match long-term proclamations.

A 100 days out from the climate talks, the task of operationalising the Paris Agreement, and setting the path for widespread and steep emissions reductions, however, seems easier said than done, and uncertainty looms over several critical issues. Here are four key issues that must find a resolution by the end of COP26.

  1. Agreeing on common timeframes and transparency

Common timeframes refer to the periods that cover Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and domestic action plans that all countries must submit as mandated in the Paris Agreement. Countries have to submit revised NDCs every five years, but the Paris Agreement does not specify the period of time that they should be set for. Ideally, NDCs should have a common timeframe because this makes assessing global progress on climate action easier. However, the timeframes for current NDCs do not match. For example, before the Paris meeting, the US and Brazil set five-year targets, while China and India set 10-year targets. A common timeframe also puts pressure on countries to constantly align their national targets with global goals.  

COP26 will focus on the next round of NDCs to be submitted by 2025. But the period which these NDCs will cover still remains undefined. According to experts, five-year time periods are most conducive to ensuring stronger targets are set. The details of a transparency framework also need to be agreed upon at the COP26. This will aim to keep countries accountable for their climate commitments.

2. Delivering climate finance

In 2009, developed nations promised to raise $100 billion per year in climate finance by 2020. This goal was even extended to 2025 at COP21. But amidst a lack of transparency rules and a clear definition of what climate finance entails, this goal remains on paper. Some countries have increased their contributions towards this goal, but they are still $20 billion short. The UK did bring up the goal at the G7 summit that it hosted this year, but the ambiguity must end at COP26 and developed nations must find a way to deliver on this goal.

Almost 100 developing nations gave their nod to a five-point plan ahead of the COP26, which called on richer nations to increase climate funding for poorer nations and deliver on their $100 billion a year promise. They are also seeking mobilisation of finance from the private sector. 

3. Addressing loss and damage

This has been a contentious issue between developed and developing nations for years. Poorer countries have been asking for loss and damage to be accounted for in climate negotiations. They have also been asking for a dedicated and organised structure that will help them address issues related to loss and damage as a result of extreme events. As a result, a system called the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage (WIM) was established in 2013. In 2019, the Santiago Network was established as part of WIM to avert, minimise and address loss and damage. But developing countries are still calling for rapid operationalisation of this network ahead of the COP26. Rich countries have argued that there is no need for a dedicated separate structure, as existing arrangements are enough to address the issues.  

4. The carbon markets question

Article 6 of the Paris Agreement outlines the framework for international carbon markets. This is a system where countries that are unable to make adequate emissions cuts can purchase “carbon credits” from countries that have gone beyond their emissions cut targets. This way, the country that is lagging behind can make up the emissions deficit, while the country that is going beyond the required capacity is financially compensated.

This requires a high degree of international cooperation that is voluntary. But disagreements over how to govern international carbon markets have marred the progress of this practice. Key issues that need to be resolved include double counting and ensuring overall climate mitigation of global emissions. A resolution at COP26, therefore, will be a key turning point in global efforts to combat the climate crisis. Global cooperation can lead to cost savings of an estimated $250 billion a year in 2030.

There is much work to be done for climate negotiators to ensure COP26 is a success. While negotiating is an uphill task even in normal circumstances, an increased focus on safety measures and the overall health of the attendees this year may also take attention away from the task at hand.

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