COP26 – Let’s sweat the small stuff
Everyone has such high hopes for COP26. For many, it is a hope born of desperation; an awareness that these negotiations really do represent our last best chance to course correct with regards to our impact on the planet.
Nonetheless, as is often the case with matters pertaining to the climate, we can’t just hope for this conference to produce the ambitious pledges and grandiose headlines that we all want to see.
Agreements, policy and regulation also need to map onto specific, often local, contexts if they are to be effective. It is the small stuff that underpins the big-picture direction of travel.
A good example of this lies in a little talked-about, highly technical section of the Paris Agreement – Article 6.
This one-page collection of jargon-heavy articles has been a stumbling block since it was first mapped out in 2015. The disagreements surrounding it were unable to be reconciled at COP25 in Madrid in 2019, and contributed to the sense that those negotiations had not been as successful as they needed to be.
The substance of Article 6 concerns “voluntary cooperation” between nations to meet their climate goals (also known as Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs). Into this quagmire of competing interests fall the rules and regulations governing carbon markets.
The reason Article 6 matters is that if the international community can get carbon markets right, then the world will save hundreds of billions of dollars and crucially a lot of time too. In short, Article 6 could make or break the Paris target of limiting global warming to 1.5C.
The problem is that designing a fully global, friction-free carbon market, with rules and regulations that everyone agrees on is an enormous political challenge. Countries that expect to be mostly buying from the global carbon market push for different rules to those who are primarily selling. While those at the most immediate risk from the effects of climate change argue that nations with less climate exposure are prioritising economic wellbeing over human lives and livelihoods.
There are real-world consequences to all this for UK businesses and land managers, too. The outcomes of these negotiations could influence the price for carbon offsets sourced overseas. If international credits remain cheap, there will be a disincentive for UK-based businesses to purchase credits produced on UK soils. That in turn could impact the level of private sector investment flowing into Nature-based Solutions (NbS) in the UK.
For a variety of reasons, we have to hope the rules that are agreed for Article 6 promote high-integrity carbon trading, excluding double-counting of emissions reductions and prevent suppliers from flooding the market with cheap, low-quality carbon credits that deliver little in the way of genuine mitigation.
For the delegates at COP26, balancing the imperative for consensus with the need for stringent rules that will deliver meaningful climate mitigation is the task at hand. We have to hope that they can rise to the occasion.