In an exclusive interview with EURACTIV France, Paul Watkinson, president of the UN Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice at COP24 and COP25, discussed why the ‘rulebook’ on implementing the Paris Climate Agreement still has not been ratified.
Paul Watkinson was the president of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2018 and 2019, at COP24 and 25. He was also a climate negotiator for the French government for over 10 years and participated in the elaboration of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015.
The Paris Accord has been deadlocked for two years because its ‘rulebook’ has not been finalised yet. What are the challenges facing the COP26 presidency next year?
We have made a lot of progress in the implementation of the Paris Accord since 2015. The development of almost all the implementing rules adopted in Katowice at the COP24 in 2018 was an important moment. Not everything has been finalised. There are still details to be settled but the rules for the functioning of the transparency system, which is really the heart of the agreement and which allows countries to transmit information on the progress of their policies towards the objectives they have set, are already largely in place.
What remains now is to translate them into an operational tool, in the form of tables, which countries can use to monitor progress towards their targets, and which can also be analysed and aggregated by the COP Secretariat. This point should not require new policy decisions. It is a rather technical work that started in 2019, but is now suspended due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Article 6, which provides a framework for carbon markets, seemed to have created particular tensions…
Article 6 escaped us in Katowice because accounting rules are a complex subject. Countries must measure progress towards the objectives they have set themselves and for this, they use indicators, most of the time in tons of CO2 or equivalent. But not all national contributions are the same. Some countries measure them in absolute terms, others in relative terms, while others measure them in terms of the economy as a whole, or by excluding certain sectors – such as agriculture for example – certain greenhouse gases, or even by using metrics other than CO2.
If we start trading, and this is the very purpose of Article 6, it must be done with comparable things. This is technically very complicated and is also very much linked to the transparency framework. The rules for the application of Article 6 must above all make it possible to avoid double accounting, which is essential for the system’s environmental credibility.
In 2018 in Katowice, this complexity prevented us from making progress on Article 6. We had to have the global package of the rulebook before we could resolve this issue. In 2019, in Madrid, the bulk of the work was done. But Brazil was opposed to the application of these accounting rules under the Article 6 mechanism. It did not want any adjustment, which therefore gave rise to an unacceptable risk of double counting. In addition, there is the question of transferring credits from the Kyoto Protocol (ed. the credit trading system preceding the Paris agreement). Some countries such as Brazil or India held a large number of credits in reserve. Except that if we open the floodgates, it will have an impact on the ambition of the targets set by the agreement.
So there was a long discussion on the possibility of limiting the amount of credits, the duration of a potential transfer, etc. A final stumbling block concerned a levy on exchanges to help finance adaptation. High-level political intervention was needed to resolve these issues and the Chilean presidency of the COP was weakened by its internal political crisis. These are political choices that are essential now and this is what was missing in Madrid in 2019.
The reporting tools of the transparency framework could not be re-discussed in June as planned. But did remote meetings make progress possible?
There is a reluctance in many countries to negotiate online, rather than in face-to-face meetings, especially when it comes to technical tools that are so complex to develop. Some have recurring connection problems and given the time difference, the hours available for meetings are limited… Perhaps this will change in 2021.
What other points are still outstanding?
Common time frames will also need to be discussed. But even in the absence of an agreement on this point, there is already political pressure, especially with the climate summit set for 12 December, the new contribution of the United States expected after the change of administration, and with China, which has already indicated that it would revise its own. All this will create pressure on countries that are more reluctant to raise their ambitions. There will also be issues related to climate finance that will undoubtedly raise tensions between developed and developing countries.
COP25 was a cold shower: in Madrid, national agendas of major polluters took precedence over the climate cause. What would be the consequences of another year of deadlock?
It’s true that there were major stalemates at COP25. The Americans were not necessarily the most difficult, they were even quite constructive on some issues. This was not at all the line of the Trump administration, but rather one that was not defined at the political level due to a lack of commitment at the highest level.
But there were geopolitical tensions, between the US and China, especially in the context of a trade war, which was not related to the climate. In the negotiating rooms, some countries were making these tensions felt, which went beyond the framework of the Madrid conference. These different factors played a role. It remains to be seen now how this will evolve with the UK presidency.
The UK presidency is engaging in a lot of diplomacy and is participating in a series of events at the highest level – the Security Council, the G7, which they will lead next year, the G20, etc. There are also several encouraging signals, with the return of the US and announcements from China, Japan, South Korea and the US – although very few countries still have not raised their national contributions. Of course, this must be complemented by short- and medium-term actions, which is precisely the role of these contributions. Announcements are useful, they set the course. But credibility comes from detailed policies.
So there is a more positive dynamic today. That said, the consequences of geopolitical tensions and COVID-19 on the world economy escape us for the moment. We are in a rather uncertain framework.
Are UN climate conferences still useful?
The question is rather how to make good use of these events. Madrid suffered from a number of problems related to the process itself. There is a traditional part of the negotiations that tends to take precedence over the rest. This logic sometimes takes on excessive dimensions. Many other topics will be discussed in the coming years, which do not necessarily involve high-level political negotiation.
This may be to take stock of progress, for example, to give guidance to strengthen implementation in certain areas, to work with the different technical structures that have been set up, for example, the committee on adaptation, on loss and damage, on technologies… It is starting to work.
There will always be tensions and divergences. Nearly 200 countries are around the table, with their own interests, but we really need to focus on the implementation of the Paris agreement. This is the role of traditional conferences. There are also COPs that play the role of important political moments. And this will be the case of COP26.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]