Rising emissions, extreme weather impacts and the poor response from major emitters dominate coverage ahead of the COP26 UN climate summit.
Two weeks out from the Glasgow meet, it makes sense that attention is focused on big-time diplomacy and the machinations in Washington, Beijing, London and Brussels.
But it’s worth noting that amid the hot air and bluster, talks are ongoing on three key issues that could in time prove more significant than the latest tranche of pledges and deals.
Dig into the 14 October summary from the UK COP Presidency and there’s cautious optimism that a set of deals to stop countries cheating on climate could land in Glasgow.
These are the final pieces of the Paris Agreement required to complete the jigsaw and activate the UN deal agreed in 2015: Transparency, Article 6 and Common Timeframes.
“Ministers recognised the fundamental importance of the enhanced transparency framework with several referring to it as the ‘backbone’ of the Paris Agreement and as an important tool to meet the temperature goals,” reads the October summary.
So what are these three elements and how can they stop climate doping?
A new, tougher and tighter UN-run transparency regime to scrutinise national climate plans is the cornerstone of the Paris Agreement — but one that has been devilishly difficult to agree on since 2015.
In short, it would entail regular UN-run assessments to see what capitals are up to, how badly they’re being hit by impacts and how successful various policies are.
According to the World Resources Institute, a deal on the new regime would “guide countries on reporting their greenhouse gas emissions, progress toward their NDCs, climate change impacts and adaptation, support provided and mobilized, and support needed and received.”
‘Developed’ countries like the US, Canada, Japan, Australia and EU member states already face regular checks in the form of multilateral assessments run by the UN.
The UK is currently facing questions ranging from Swiss queries on UK EV policies, Germany questions on emission trajectories, Canadian enquiries on biomass accounting and Japanese interest in the hitherto low-profile UK Landfill Directive.
Key to the Paris Agreement is getting everyone on board — and that means all major economies and others agreeing to face a review.
China — for example — had NGO observers kicked out of transparency talks earlier this year, leaving some to assume Beijing is less than ecstatic about having to fess up every few years.
This is another seemingly innocuous set of talks that has deep implications for policymaking and politics in major economies.
Countries are currently expected to submit new climate plans every five years, as required under the Paris Agreement.
But bizarrely, it’s still not clear if a climate plan (NDC) submitted in 2020 has an end date of 2025 or 2030, or if one sent to the UN in 2025 ends in 2030 or 2035.
Does this really matter? Supporters of shorter terms argue that the pace of technology, scale of finance on offer and rate of climate impacts means five years beats ten.
Critics of longer terms argue they “could also lock in high-emitting infrastructure that would make it more challenging to limit global temperatures in the long term.”
Either way, locking this down should offer a clearer sense of who is doing what, when and to what effect — and aid comparison across countries.
Finally, the tortuous story of carbon markets — which depending on who you speak to are an innovative solution to the climate crisis or a financial wheeze to avoid real emission cuts.
In theory it’s simple. Talks on Article 6 aim to finalise the rules on how countries can use carbon markets to reduce their emissions and reach their climate targets.
Country A buys a credit from Country B, allowing B to build a clean energy plant instead of a coal power station and allowing A to use the credit to offset its own emissions.
If the rules are defined and clear — preventing (for example) multiple sales of the same offset — then in theory this can unlock additional funds and boost global efforts.
Broadly speaking, Article 6.2 deals with the mechanisms allowing countries to cooperate and exchange credits; Article 6.4 creates rules for sellers of credits and a new UN scheme which would oversee projects funded by the sale of credits.
Equally important to developing countries is ensuring a small levy from proceeds is directed towards adaptation — an increasingly vital area but one oft neglected by funders.
How this is all regulated is key, otherwise cheating could proliferate, undermining the whole aim. Equally vital is how older UN-run markets are wrapped up before the newer versions launch.
Brazil, India and China are among countries with significant amounts of old, unsold carbon credits from UN carbon markets in the 2000s.
They’re unwilling to let these go, yet if they were to carry over credits, global ambition to cut emissions would be reduced by 25%, according to Climate Analytics.
Negotiations on these three issues — together with a deal to ensure countries come back with tougher climate plans ahead of 2025 — will likely see COP26 head into overtime.
They pit various coalitions against each other, and there’s no denying they are complex, challenging and involve teams of lawyers arguing over words and phrases.
Yet at their core these three issues are pretty simple.
They’re about a global regime that can’t be hoodwinked, where data is open source and governments are honest about what they are — and are not — doing.
At the moment climate governance resembles the 100m in the 1988 Seoul Olympics — the so called dirtiest race ever which saw the winner test positive for banned substances.
The shame that race inflicted on the Games kickstarted a global drive against dopers — running through the nadir of the 1998 Tour de France and culminating in the launch of the World Anti Doping Agency in 1999.
Will the shame that is climate governance in 2021 drive a similar clean-up in Glasgow?