The annual COP (Conference of the Parties) is an interesting event, with a melting pot of people from around the world and from all walks of life.
There are many streams of activity – action hubs, formal side events, observer organisation pavilions, information meeting rooms, and ultimately, the plenary rooms with their translation booths and overhead screens.
These are all the spaces available to negotiators. It can be difficult to remember that COP is about finalising multi-lateral negotiations and coming to an agreement on some very complicated texts.
Remember, though, that the agreements are just that, agreements. Not a majority opinion, every one of the 196 parties in the COP process needs to agree on every word in the document.
This was always painted as the “boring COP”, the procedural one – that is, until a conclusion was not reached on the Paris Rulebook in Katowice and work on Article 6 was brought forward to this COP.
This really increased the focus on a small group of negotiators who are not accustomed to that level of attention. And you have to feel for those individuals who have to negotiate the policy line of their government and put all personal positions aside.
The three main areas of debate in Article 6 were:
- Environmental integrity: ensuring that impact is not shifted from one category to another or ensuring that emissions reductions projects do not have negative environmental implications. From a business perspective, this is a prerequisite and really should not have been negotiated at all.
- Transition of aspects of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) program and other aspects of the Kyoto Protocol. This includes both the transition of CDM projects, as well as a consideration of the transfer of credits generated during the Kyoto period. There were two different approaches for transitioning credits:
- The transfer of credits for in country use and acquittal to meet country nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which is what the Australian government took to the COP as their point of departure
- The transfer of these units out of country and potential sale in the international market, which is closer to what Brazil, for example, was arguing.
The impact of transitioning offsets is that it just increases the amount of emissions reductions, which are needed for carbon neutrality by 2050.
- Double accounting: essentially allows countries to use offset units against their own NDCs and then sell them in the international market. This would be a structural challenge for the market as a whole and could undermine it completely.
While transitioning Kyoto offsets into the Paris Agreement period really just lowers ambition in NDCs, it does not pose a material threat to the market as a whole. However, double accounting does.
Further, as the European Green New Deal has highlighted, it is possible to address low ambition in NDCs through trade and import taxes. While neither transitioning of Kyoto units nor double accounting are helpful in driving ambition, the transition of Kyoto credits is not the worst among these as it will not pose a threat to the international market in the long run.
The final result of the negotiation process? Disappointment.
“Blue COP” and other themes from COP25
Themes of note were the focus on high ambition and calling this the “Blue COP”, with much attention paid to the oceans. As an Australian, we watched the high ambition commitments of other parties from the outside. We were acutely aware of the enormity of the task that faces us – wishing that the federal government would step up.
The focus on oceans highlighted one of the worrying undercurrents of the COP; the ongoing, though less vocal, dismissal of science. The IPCC presented their Special Report on Oceans and the Cryosphere at a plenary session. Maybe it’s because the message was so dire (the only thing we can do is to reduce emissions, and still we are not able to turn back the clock; the oceans have changed and will never recover), but parties were far more concerned about the accuracy of the science and the outcomes predicted in the oceans report than the information presented from the Special Report on Climate Change and Land.
Another notable theme was the split in opinions of various groups. The negotiators and businesses were very firmly of the opinion that Article 6 needed to be delivered for people to have faith in the process. However, the majority of civil society were firmly of the opinion that no deal is better than a bad deal. This highlighted again the schism we see in society around the how and why of addressing the impacts of climate change.
Also running through many conversations was a discussion about the emissions reduction gap. While it has become increasingly accepted that we need to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, the Emissions Gap Report of the UNEP told us more about the urgency to reduce emissions in the near term. Globally, we need to reduce emissions by 50 per cent by 2030, which is a year-on-year reduction of 7.6 per cent for the next 10 years.
The final theme of note was the limited focus, as always, on adaptation. The UNFCCC has often published the fact that climate monies will be equally spent between mitigation and adaptation. However, while ambition remains woefully inadequate, the focus will remain on mitigation to the detriment of adaption responses.
While there were strong indications that adaptation is increasingly important; one session speaking to the loss of the Aral Sea, the near loss of Lake Chad, and Cape Town coming to within days of running out of water, highlighted the adaptation challenge we are facing. In all these cases, it has been necessary to adapt to this new normal of no water, and yet the business community continues to define resilience as the ability to return to business-as-usual after a catastrophic event.
We need to recognise that business-as-usual no longer exists.
The future requires us to be brave; to take big decisions about reducing emissions and changing our business models to survive and thrive in a different world.
Dr Mary Stewart is the chief executive officer of Energetics.
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