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“The combination of Covid-19 and the delay of COP26 has an impact on climate ambition”

The UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, has been postponed by one full year to November 2021. SEI’s Richard Klein explains what the consequences are for international climate policy – and whether countries can seize opportunities in their economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic to make their NDCs more ambitious.

Andrea Lindblom / Published on 29 May 2020


Richard J.T. Klein
Richard J. T. Klein

Team Leader: International Climate Risk and Adaptation; Senior Research Fellow

SEI Headquarters

COP26 will be held exactly one year later than it was originally supposed to take place. What are the implications of that?

It means that the entire schedule is delayed by one year, almost as if 2020 never happened. Most of the work that would be done during this year has been postponed. That includes meetings of committees that operate under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, as well as the intersessional meeting of the subsidiary bodies, which has provisionally been postponed from June to October this year but may well be delayed further.

How to organize the trajectory between now and November 2021 becomes a bit of a puzzle. Part of the puzzle is to decide on the timing and form of the various meetings, but a more difficult part is to consider what happens to the mandates that were agreed at the climate change conferences in Madrid in 2019, in Katowice in 2018 and at other earlier COP sessions.

Some decisions include a mandate for action to be taken by a certain COP session, whereas other decisions — or sometimes even the same decision — refer to action by a particular year. For example, countries should submit updated national climate action plans – known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – by 2020. The synthesis report, based on those submitted NDCs, is due for COP26.

The assumption has always been that there will be one COP session per year, so it never mattered whether a decision referred to a year or to a COP session. But now that COP26 has been postponed by a year, the interdependency of many different actions in the international climate process creates a major challenge.

Are there ways out of this dilemma?

One option that was floated publicly was to have COP26 and COP27 back-to-back in 2021. In this case COP26 would be short and handle only the issues critical to that session, and then COP27 would open and ensure that the timing of the mandates would be back in sync. But the decision by the COP Bureau only refers to COP26 taking place in November 2021, so presumably they rejected this option.

But does this disconnect between COP26 and the year 2020 really matter so much?

There are at least two issues that are central to the international climate policy architecture for which this disconnect makes a difference.

One issue concerns the transition from the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) to the market mechanisms of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, regulating how countries can reduce their emissions using international carbon markets.

The CDM sits under the Kyoto Protocol, which still exists. Its second commitment period runs from 2013 to 2020, as agreed in the 2012 Doha Amendment to the Protocol. This Amendment, however, has not yet entered into force: it requires 144 countries to ratify it and to date, only 138 countries have done so. In the absence of the Doha Amendment and agreement on a possible third commitment period, certified emission reductions (i.e. carbon credits) issued under the CDM risk losing their value. Moreover, lack of agreement on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement means these carbon credits cannot be transferred and retain their value under the new market mechanisms.

Negotiations in both Katowice in 2018 and Madrid last year failed to deliver an agreement on Article 6. The earliest point in time at which agreement on Article 6 can now be reached is November 2021. Yet the second commitment period of the CDM ends this year. This gap affects Brazil and other emerging economies that have relied on the CDM and are now expecting Article 6 to provide them with a steady flow of resources to support their climate action.

You mentioned a second issue where it makes a difference that COP26 is not happening in 2020.

The second issue is about the NDCs. Here the disconnect actually gives countries a bit more time to prepare updated NDCs, and the UN Climate Change Secretariat to prepare the synthesis report. The delay is probably a welcome one given that many countries now need to prioritize the Covid-19 pandemic. It also provides countries with an opportunity to consider their climate action in the context of the economic recovery from Covid-19.

On the other hand, it is an open question now how ambitious this year’s updated NDCs will turn out to be. Already in March of this year, Japan submitted an NDC that left its 2015 emission target unchanged, even though the Paris Agreement suggests that countries ramp up their ambition in successive NDCs. The combination of Covid-19 and the postponing of COP26 may therefore well lead to less and later climate action.

Is there an opportunity for countries to harness the Covid-19 economic recovery for more ambitious NDCs?

I think many countries are aware of these opportunities, but it is going to be a political balancing act to seize them. The European Green Deal and the European Covid-19 recovery fund, for example, show all the right intentions, but to develop the policies and measures that would lead to its implementation, including getting all member countries and everyone in Brussels on board, is going to take time.

For countries that are submitting updated NDCs this year, the question is how optimistic they allow themselves to be. In the end, NDCs are about a number: countries set themselves a greenhouse gas emission reduction target. But will countries feel comfortable assuming they’ll be successful in harnessing the opportunities of a green recovery, and define their ambitions accordingly?

I do think many countries will be keen to steer towards a sustainable recovery of their economies, including through fiscal stimuli, legislation and other options to advance a transformation in industry, transport, agriculture and other sectors. But whether countries are confident enough to already reflect the possible outcome of those policies in their NDCs this year is another matter.

Does the ambition reflected in NDCs matter when it comes to creating momentum in international climate policy?

High ambition would give an important signal that there is shared confidence that a green recovery is possible. On the other hand, if the choice was between a stated high ambition that doesn’t become reality or a stated low ambition that is exceeded, then of course the latter is preferable. But the challenge of a stated low ambition is that it turns out to be exactly that: low ambition.

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