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Climate Change

Global climate change talks resume after delay from COVID-19

Talks focus on trading emission credits

by Cheryl Hogue
July 13, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 26

An image of the wildfire that destroyed the town of Lytton, British Columbia.
Credit: Darryl Dyck/Associated Press
A wildfire decimated Lytton, British Columbia, June 30, a day after the town smashed Canada’s high temperature record by reaching 49.6 °C.

Climate change continues to intensify. Last month, record-breaking high temperatures—above 40 °C—scorched the US Pacific Northwest and southwestern Canada. North America marked its hottest June, and Europe sweltered through its second-warmest June on record, according to the European Union–supported Copernicus Climate Change Service.

As temperatures rise, talks sponsored by the United Nations aimed at curtailing this environmental crisis are restarting after pausing for the COVID-19 pandemic. Negotiators are now meeting virtually, resuming where their talks ended 18 months ago at a previous global climate conference, in Madrid.

Their goal is to finish a set of rules for countries to follow as they fulfill pledges made under the 2015 Paris Agreement to control greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing these emissions will require innovations from the chemical sciences in materials, energy efficiency, batteries, renewable energy, and technologies to capture and sequester carbon dioxide. Negotiators hope to wrap up details in November in a face-to-face conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

A major sticking point for the talks involves an issue that economists call double counting: accounting for the same benefit or cost more than once, because of either bad arithmetic or intentional fraud.

Negotiators are developing the details of an international, market-based system for trading credits garnered from reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This scheme would allow a country that curbs releases of greenhouse gases—or plants trees to offset emissions—to sell credits to another nation.

Experts say such trading will reduce the cost of cutting emissions around the world because countries that can reduce emissions more cheaply will sell credits to areas where cuts are more expensive to implement. This scheme is also intended to promote sustainable development and private investment in climate-friendly energy technology across the world.

Before the 2019 global climate conference in Madrid, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) warned that the world was on track for a 3.2 °C average rise in average global temperature over preindustrial levels by 2100—a rise that many scientists say would be catastrophic.

The people charged with deciding international policy want to ensure that credits apply only to the country that purchases them and are not also counted as emission reductions by the seller country.

Progress thus far has been limited, according to Jennifer Tollmann, a senior policy adviser at E3G, a European think tank focused on solutions to climate change. The most recent set of meeting deliberations, which ended June 17, raised more options for ways to prevent double counting rather than narrowing the choices for final decisions at the Glasgow meeting, she told a briefing. It was sponsored by Climate Action Network, which consists of more than 1,500 environmental and grassroots groups.

Yamide Dagnet, director of climate negotiations for the US-based think tank World Resources Institute, ascribes this situation to the lack of informal conversations that negotiators have in hallways during breaks in face-to-face meetings. Those chats, which occur outside UN-sponsored discussions, help negotiators resolve sticking points and align their views, she said at the briefing.

Meanwhile, countries are looking toward the future, planning to strengthen the emission-curbing pledges they made in the 2015 Paris Agreement. But they are bickering about whether to lock in such commitments for 10 years or allow flexibility so governments can opt to boost their pledges over time, Dagnet said.

As the climate talks progress, the US is positioning itself to take more of a leadership role than it had when Donald J. Trump was president. Shortly after Joe Biden was inaugurated, he fulfilled a campaign promise to re-enroll the US in the Paris Agreement, from which Trump had withdrawn the US. In April, as Biden hosted a summit of global leaders, he announced a new target under the Paris Agreement for cutting US greenhouse gas emissions: a 50–52% reduction from 2005 levels by 2030. The previous goal, established by President Barack Obama, was to cut emissions 26–28% from 2005 levels by 2025. For months, Biden’s special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, has traveled abroad seeking support for deeper cuts in emissions worldwide.

Whether all this will lead to other countries setting steeper emission reduction targets remains to be seen.

A report due out Aug. 9 might spur greater enthusiasm for emission cuts among negotiators, environmental advocates say. The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will assess the current physical science basis of climate change and project future warming and its impact on Earth.

In the Paris Agreement, governments established a policy goal to hold the increase in temperature from preindustrial levels to “well below” 2 °C and urged the world to limit warming to 1.5 °C. Before the 2019 global climate conference in Madrid, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)warned that the world was on track for a 3.2 °C average rise in average global temperature over preindustrial levels by 2100—a rise that many scientists say would be catastrophic. UNEP is expected to update its report later in the year.

Meanwhile, some observers question whether the Glasgow meeting will mark a return to face-to-face climate diplomacy, given the continued spread of COVID-19, including SARS-CoV-2’s variants.

In June, the UK government announced it was working with the UN to provide COVID-19 vaccines to accredited delegates to the Glasgow conference.

But some diplomats are hesitant because getting the vaccine may mean jumping ahead of other citizens of their countries who are at higher risk from dying or developing serious health problems from COVID-19, Tollmann said.

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