What to Expect at COP-26 in Glasgow

Next week, after a few days in London, I will fly to Glasgow with my team from the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (HPCA) to participate in the 26th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-26) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  One could write a book (and some have) about the details of these annual negotiations, which will take place this year in Glasgow over the period November 1-12 (or later, as the delegates never seem to finish on time).

As long-time readers of this blog know, at the annual COPs my HPCA team and I sponsor one or more “side event” panel sessions, make presentations at the pavilions of some of the major countries, and participate in meetings with various country negotiating teams, multilateral organizations, NGOs, academics, and the press.  At the end of this essay, I provide information about what we’re doing at the COP this year, and how you can observe it via the Internet.

Big Issues in Glasgow

For now, I would like to provide a brief guide to what to expect in Glasgow.  In doing this, I have tried hard to “stay out of the weeds,” and describe just the highlights.

So, what are the big issues for this first COP in two years? (The 2020 COP – also planned to take place in Glasgow – was cancelled due to the pandemic.)  I categorize what I consider to be the big issues in four categories:  (1) potential big stories for the popular press; (2) major issues for many of the delegates; (3) issues for the policy wonks; and (4) “the elephant in the room.”

Potential Big Stories for the Popular Press

One of the big stories for the press is substantive and one is logistical.  First, on substance, this COP is particularly important because it brings with it the first implementation of a key element of the Paris Agreement – renewal and presumably ratcheting up of national emissions reduction pledges every five years.  The substantive issue which is likely to dominate most stories in the popular press during the two weeks of the COP and likely to dominate every story when the COP concludes is whether or not the newly updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) from some of the major emitters – such as the European Union, the United States, China, Canada, the UK, and Japan, – combined with the existing, but not yet updated NDCs from other major emitters – India, Russia, and Brazil – together put the world on track to achieve the Paris Agreement’s major target of limiting warming in this century to 2o C, and, even more ambitious, to just 1.5o C. The answer, according to a report just released by the United Nations, is that even with the enhanced 2030 targets, as well as the many 2050 net-zero aspirations, the world is on track for a temperature increase of about 2.7o C this century.  (And this assumes that every country puts in place effective polices that will fully achieve its targets.)

The other potential big story – which has not yet received press attention – is the possibility that COP-26 in Glasgow may turn out to be a logistical nightmare, perhaps even on the scale of the logistical meltdown at COP-15 in Copenhagen in 2009.  In that earlier COP, the organizers – the UNFCCC Secretariat and the hosts, the Danish government – approved a list of some 40,000 observers from 900 official, accredited organizations around the world, knowing that the Bella Center could accommodate at most 15,000 persons at any one time.  The result was that thousands of people – including not only NGO representatives, but also government negotiators – stood in line outside of the Bella Center in the bitter cold, waiting 8-10 hours to get inside to receive their credentials.  Thousands of others never got inside, despite their 8-hour wait.  They flew home without having participated.  These are not exaggerations.  I wrote about this in 2009 when I returned from COP-15.

[Here’s some brief but interesting follow-up on the 2009 Copenhagen logistical mess. After this essay appeared yesterday, I received a message from someone who was very much on the inside of the Copenhagen arrangements and the discussions between the UNFCCC Secretariat and the Danish government. Among other problems, this person notes that when the Secretariat tried to limit NGO registrations in advance, many countries put NGO people on their delegations instead — with one delegation ballooning to 800 members — and country delegates could not be refused entry.]

This year, as many as 20,000 credentialed participants are expected to show up at the COP site in Glasgow for entrance to the secure area, called the “blue zone,” but rumor (which the UK hosts have refused to confirm or deny) has it that due to reduced capacity because of COVID only 10,000 people will be allowed inside each day, beginning presumably with the 8,000 government delegates, leaving precious few openings and tremendous competition among the 10,000 or so credentialed observers from civil society for 2,000 available spaces each day.  In fact, UK officials have acknowledged that once 5,000 people have been admitted each day, some undefined formula will kick in, which will eventually result in a “one-out-one-in” situation.  Needless to say, I hope the logistical nightmare does not materialize – and it may not, because many observers I know have decided not to attend.  But I’m cautiously optimistic, and so my team and I are still planning to attend (with fingers crossed).

There’s one other issue that may get substantial press attention — whether or not a post-COP statement from the Parties to the Paris Agreement will commit to a global phase-out of the extraction and burning of coal. This is unlikely to happen. Leaders from the Group of 20 major economies at their meeting in Rome failed to include such a statement their post-G20 communique. Opposition came from Australia, China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Without a positive signal from the G-20 leaders, agreement on this in Glasgow will be very difficult. What might be possible, however, would be a general statement from the Glasgow conference about “phasing down” rather than “phasing out” coal.

Major Issues for Many of the Delegates

About 80% of the national delegations to the climate negotiations are from developing countries (on the order of 157 out of 197), and so the issues that are of greatest significance to those delegations are particularly important.  Two stand out.

One is climate finance, which refers to the commitment made in Copenhagen in 2009 that by 2020, developed countries would begin to contribute $100 billion per year to developing countries to help finance their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions mitigation and their adaption to climate change.  We’re about to enter the year 2022, but the $100/billion has not materialized, with some estimates pegging the combined pledges to be about $80 billion per year over the next few years.  So that is a huge issue for developing countries.  A closely related issue is whether and when the developed countries will make up for what will be the historic shortfall, even if the $100 billion/year is eventually achieved.

The other issue that is a major one for some developing countries, in particular those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, is characterized in the negotiations as “Loss and Damage,” which has been an important source of controversy in the annual talks for the past ten years or so.  This phrase refers to the range of damages associated with climate change, since even if emissions are reduced to zero tomorrow morning, damages will continue due to the long lag time of GHGs in the atmosphere, particularly CO2 with its atmospheric half-life of more than 100 years.  The controversy has been with regard to who should pay for such loss and damage, with the focus on those most responsible for climate change, namely the countries with the greatest contributions to the accumulated stock of GHGs in the atmosphere – the United States and other large, wealthy countries, plus China. 

This has been controversial because, on the one hand, it is absolutely (and understandably) viewed as essential from countries such as the small island states, whereas countries such as the USA, China, and the EU member states worry that talk of “loss and damage” raises the specter of unlimited legal liability.  Indeed, at some climate talks before the Paris Agreement (2015), debates on this issue nearly caused the talks to collapse.  But the issue was finessed in the Paris Agreement’s Article 8, which recognizes the importance of loss and damage, but then eliminated the most contentious aspects in Decision 52 (the Decision document accompanies the Agreement), where the Parties agreed that loss and damage “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.”  As one can understand, some countries are not happy with this apparent resolution, and so the issue will be raised again Glasgow.

Issues for Policy Wonks

There are two issues that policy wonks – both from the government delegations and the observer organizations from civil society (like me) – will be thinking about and working on.  One is the question of whether China and the United States can return to the spirit and reality of cooperation that characterized their relationship during the Obama years, when their joint initiatives were absolutely essential to the successful completion of the Paris Agreement.  This was before such cooperation evolved into confrontation during the Trump years, which sadly has continued during the Biden year.  Sometimes it seems that “America First” has evolved into “American Manufacturing First.”

The other issue that is receiving a great deal of attention is the one part of the Paris Agreement for which the accompanying “rulebook” has not been finalized – Article 6.  A little background may help.  The Paris Agreement provided a promising, fresh approach by instituting a bottom-up strategy in which all participating countries specify their own targets, consistent with their national circumstances and domestic political realities.  This convinced many nations to sign up. Countries that joined the Paris Agreement represent 97% of global GHG emissions, compared with 14% under the second commitment period of the top-down Kyoto Protocol.  But it also gave every country an incentive to minimize its own actions while benefiting from other nations’ emission reductions.

So, are there ways to persuade nations to increase their commitments over time? One key strategy is linking national policies, so that emitters can buy and sell carbon emissions allowances or credits across borders.  Such linking need not be restricted to pairs of cap-and-trade systems. Rather, heterogeneous linkage among cap-and-trade, carbon taxes and performance standards is feasible.  Such linkage lowers costs, enabling countries to be more ambitious. One study estimated that linkage could, in theory, reduce compliance costs by 75%.

But for such systems to be meaningful, each country’s steps must be correctly counted toward its national target under the Paris Agreement, with no double-counting. This is where Article 6 comes in. Writing the rules for this article was the primary task for negotiators in Madrid (28 other articles were completed at the 2018 COP in Katowice, Poland).  Unfortunately, Brazil and a few other countries insisted on adopting accounting loopholes that made it impossible to reach agreement in Madrid on Article 6.  Negotiators had an opportunity to define clear and consistent guidance for accounting for emissions transfers but failed to close a deal.  On the other hand, if they had adopted guidance that extended much beyond basic accounting rules, as some countries wanted, the result could have been restrictive requirements that would actually impede effective linkage.  This would have made it more expensive, not less, for nations to achieve their Paris targets.  So, with no closure in Madrid, the baton for completing Article 6 was passed to COP-26 in Glasgow.  The good news is that very recently, Brazil has signaled that it may be open to compromise.

Another issue that policy wonks are watching is associated with cutting global emissions of methane — an extremely potent greenhouse gas, although relatively short-lived in the atmosphere. There will be a success in this regard in Glasgow, because leaders from a number of important countries are likely to pledge at COP-26 to cut methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030, a goal that was previously unveiled by the United States and the European Union in September. More than a dozen countries have now signed the pact. For its part, the Biden administration will impose aggressive regulations on methane leaking from all existing oil and gas wells and pipelines throughout the United States, an approach which is more ambitious than the Obama administration’s regulation, subsequently withdrawn by former President Trump, to regulate wells built since 2015. Unfortunately, the world’s top methane emitter, China, has not joined the international pledge.

One other potentially very important issue is not actually associated directly with COP-26 itself, but rather with the reality that prior to the beginning of the Glasgow sessions, the Biden administration announced a trade agreement with the European Union which incorporates the concept of using tariffs on trade to cut carbon emissions. The agreement is intended to cut imports of steel that is particularly carbon intensive in its production (such as from China and Brazil). Such agreements may turn out to be a very important complement (or even substitute) for the Paris Agreement. I hope to write more about carbon tariffs (border adjustments) in a forthcoming essay at this blog. 

The Elephant in the Room

For everyone – the press, the delegates, and observers of all kinds – a major question in Glasgow will be whether the United States’s ambitious NDC – a 50-52% reduction of GHG emissions by 2030 below the 2005 level – is truly achievable with reasonably anticipated policiesI’ve written about this in the past, so suffice it to say that this question boils down to whether the Biden administration – in the real world of current Congressional politics – is able to sign enacted legislation that can make dramatic strides toward that impressive 2030 target.  The Biden administration has included in its scaled-down “reconciliation bill” a $555-billion spending plan of tax breaks, tax credits, and other subsidies for various approaches and types of clean energy generation and use, validating once again that U.S. politicians are more comfortable giving out benefits than costs. Importantly, what would have been an effective program for green electricity generation has been scrapped, and fees on methane releases may or may not survive. Indeed, a new White House plan for achieving the 2030 target relies in part on carbon removal and unknown technologies.

So what can the Biden administration accomplish via regulations and executive orders?  See my comments above regarding a new methane rule. But the regulatory approach, in general, is particularly challenging because legal challenges from the political right are much more likely to be successful during the Biden years than they were during the Obama years, given the 245 Trump-appointed Federal judges (>25% of the total federal judiciary) and the 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

In this regard, it is worth noting that a recent report from the Rhodium Group calculates that even if the scaled-back version of the climate and social spending bill now before Congress is signed into law, new action by the states plus a significant number of new rules and regulations will be required (for sectors that have yet to be regulated, including chemicals, natural gas, and refineries) in order to have a chance of achieving the Biden administration’s NDC target.  Also, regulations for power plant emissions would have to be more stringent than the Obama-era predecessor (the Clean Power Plan), and would have to include mandates for carbon capture and storage for existing power plants.  Despite all of this, it can be anticipated that President Biden’s climate team in Glasgow will seek to assure the delegates that the U.S. is on track to achieve its 2030 target.

Looking Forward to COP-26

In addition to my making presentations at COP-26 in Glasgow at the pavilions of some of the major countries, and participating in meetings with various country delegations, multilateral organizations, NGOs, academics, and the press, the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements will conduct two panel events in connection with COP-26.

The first one – Prospects for Article 6: COP-26 and Beyondwill be a webinar co-sponsored with the Enel Foundation, held on Monday, November 1, 2021, 9:00–10:15 am (U.S. Eastern Daylight Time).  For more details, including registration link, here.

The second one – Securing Climate Ambition with Cooperative Approaches: Options under Article 6 will be an in-person event held at COP-26.  This event will be co-sponsored with the Enel Foundation and the Foundation Environment – Law Society (FURG).  It will take place on Wednesday, November 10, 2021, 4:45–6:00 pm Greenwich Mean Time, in Clyde Auditorium, within the “Blue Zone” – the secure area – at COP-26 in Glasgow.  More details are available here.

Both events will be based, in part, on a recent discussion paper released by the Harvard Project, written by Michael Mehling, and titled “Advancing International Cooperation under the Paris Agreement: Issues and Options for Article 6.” In this interesting and helpful new paper, Michael lays out the key issues in the ongoing negotiations on Article 6, and examines promising options for resolving some of those issues.  The complete paper can be downloaded here.  Michael will present highlights of the paper at each of the above events. At both of these events, following Michael Mehling’s presentation, we will hold a panel discussion, which will include:  Daniele Agostini, Head of Low Carbon and European Energy Policies, Enel; Kelley Kizzier, Vice President for Global Climate, Environmental Defense Fund; Michael Mehling, Deputy Director, Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and myself (and quite possibly some others).


A Positive Take on the Future of International Climate Negotiations

In most institutions, individuals range from highly competent to barely qualified.  And they also range from a real pleasure to a real pain to work with.  Such a range of individuals may exist in any organization, and the international climate change negotiations – otherwise known as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – is no exception.

I’m pleased to say that Kelley Kizzier, my guest in the latest episode of our podcast, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” is an outlier in both of those dimensions.  She is highly competent and exceptionally engaging.  That made me particularly happy to have an opportunity to sit down with her for this podcast.

Kelley Kizzier is well known – and highly respected – by those who have labored in the international climate negotiations over the past 15 years.  But hers may be a new name to some of you. So, please read on.

Kelley Kizzier speaking at COP-24, Katowice, Poland, December 2018

Kelley was the European Union’s lead markets negotiator in the climate negotiations for 14 years. And for the last three years of that period, she also served as the UNFCCC co-chair of the negotiations on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, a key part of the Agreement, which we’ve had an opportunity to discuss in previous episodes of the podcast – with Andrei Marcu, Paul Watkinson, Jos Delbeke, and Sue Biniaz.

Speaking on a panel (with yours truly) at COP-25, Madrid, Spain, December 2019, organized by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

Before beginning work with the EU in Brussels, Kelley held senior roles in Dublin with the Irish Environmental Protection Agency. And most recently, since 2019, Kelley has served as Associate Vice President for International Climate at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Our conversation was wide ranging, including Kelley’s professional background, the evolution of the UNFCCC, the structure of the Paris Agreement, and the challenges and opportunities now facing the climate negotiations.  Through it all, she demonstrates considerable optimism, mixed with a healthy dose of realism.

In addressing a question about the postponement of COP-26 in Glasgow, Scotland, originally scheduled for November, 2020, she remarks that “the postponement of the COP should not delay urgent action by countries to step up their ambition. And I hope that no one finds comfort in that delay, that we are still urgently looking to up our game in terms of ambition.”

Kelley cites several recent positive developments in international climate policy, particularly in the EU where its new “Green Deal” may be implemented.  The Deal stipulates even more significant carbon emission reductions than the 40% cut that was previously promised by the EU member states.

“It’s a centrist acceleration of established EU climate policy,” she says. “And through that, they have announced that they’re going to take that target to 50 or even 55% reduction by 2030 [as compared with 1990 levels].”

Looking forward to the re-scheduled COP-26 in November, 2021, Kizzier expresses her optimism that nations will be prepared to finalize the rules (the so-called “Rulebook”) of international climate policy cooperation (and carbon markets) under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement.

Co-Facilitator of Article 6 discussion at UNFCCC meeting, Bonn, Germany, May 2017

“COP-26 is about ambition, and it’s going to be important, in that context, to push for us to complete The Paris Rulebook. Because the rules matter, and we can’t afford to lock in carbon market rules that undermine the integrity of the targets,” she says. “Agreement on these rules, as important as it is, should not be a barrier to action. We simply can’t afford delay.”

All of this and more is found in the latest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.” Listen to this latest discussion here.  You can find a complete transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.

My conversation with Kelley Kizzier is the twelfth episode in the Environmental Insights series.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.


Global Climate Change Negotiations: Learning from the Past to Think Carefully about the Future

I’m pleased to say we have released the newest episode of our podcast, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.”  In this latest episode, I engage in a conversation with Sue Biniaz, long-time legal expert and lead negotiator for the U.S. Department of State in the international negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Sue is currently a Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut. Before that, she served for over thirty years in the State Department’s Legal Adviser’s Office, where she was a Deputy Legal Adviser, as well as the lead climate lawyer and a lead climate negotiator from 1989 until early 2017.  She is also a Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation, and has taught at Columbia Law School and the University of Chicago Law School.  She attended Yale College and Columbia Law School, and subsequently clerked for Judge Dorothy W. Nelson on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Sue Biniaz speaking at Harvard Kennedy School, April 2018

In this podcast episode, we talk about Sue’s extensive experience in the climate negotiations.  Commenting on COP-25 in Madrid last December, after Sue had left the State Department, she takes note of the disappointment that surrounded the failure to reach agreement on the “Rulebook” (detailed guidance) for the one article (of twenty-nine) in the Paris Agreement which had not already been resolved:  Article 6, which deals with modes of international cooperation, and provides the potential home for linkage of policies in different countries, including so-called carbon markets:

“It was unfortunate that they didn’t reach agreement on Article 6.  I think the compromises were all pretty evident and they ran out of time. I think there wasn’t enough kind of political oomph put into it at the end. That’s an example of if the U.S. had been there at a political level, they would have been able to sort of bang some heads together and get it done.”

With COP-26 having been postponed from November 2020 to sometime in 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Biniaz believes that international climate negotiators may now wish to take advantage of this hiatus to consider ways to improve the annual climate talks.

“One of the reasons I think the COP needs to be re-thought is because I think the metric that’s been used by many people including the press has been the negotiating issues that are on the table,” Biniaz argues. “If you only look at those, it just puts too much pressure on what should be kind of a minor aspect of a COP compared to everything else that’s going on.”

With the U.S. elections looming in November, Biniaz says hopes are high that a new presidential administration will rejoin the Paris Agreement, and reengage in a productive way.

“If you’re going to rejoin the Paris Agreement, do it in a way that isn’t going to just be reversed four or eight years later. Try to make sure you have enough domestic buy-in so it’s harder for a future administration to just reverse it again,” she states. “And…if you’re going to come back into the agreement, try to use whatever leverage the United States has at that point to get other countries to do more.”

As you will quickly realize when you listen to this podcast episode, Sue Biniaz is not only very smart and exceptionally knowledgeable; she is also unusually clear and articulate.  You will not regret listening!

Sue Biniaz (center) with Todd Stern, then the U.S. lead climate negotiator, at COP-17 in Durban, South Africa, in 2011.

All of this and much more is found in the newest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.” Listen to this latest discussion here, where, by the way, you can also find a complete transcript of our conversation.

My conversation with Sue Biniaz is the tenth episode in the Environmental Insights series.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.