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UN climate COP 26 delay is a blessing in disguise

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

Policy Pulse - George Anjaparidze - 2 April 2020

On 1 April 2020, the UN climate change agency announced its plans to postpone indefinitely the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP). In most years, such an announcement would be surprising or it might even be dismissed as an April fool’s joke of a computer hacker. But this year, given the raging COVID-19 pandemic, a decision to postpone the event was expected.

The Conference of the Parties (COP) is an annual meeting of signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which has near universal membership (197 countries and territories are members). It is under the framework of this convention that governments negotiate climate deals like the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement.

Put simply, the COP is the annual conference that brings together governments to negotiate and take decisions on how to address the climate challenge. However, the COP is much more than an intergovernmental negotiation. It is the premier global climate change event that gathers a wide range of stakeholders, including companies, international organizations, journalists, non-governmental organizations, activists and other concerned civil society stakeholders. Participants come from all corners of the world and can number in the range of 10 to 30 thousand.

There was also a postponement of the mid-year negotiations, usually held in June, now to be held 4-12 October of 2020.

The UN climate negotiations are extremely complex. Negotiations occur in different governing and subsidiary bodies across dozens of agenda items. At certain points in time, you can have as many as 5 bodies launched with over 50 items under negotiation. Each negotiator will attest that their item is the priority issue for the conference. To make matters even more complicated, there are interlinkages between items and a negotiations culture that prides itself on the moto “Nothing is agreed, until everything is agreed.”

That said, it is time to prioritize. For two consecutive years, UNFCCC negotiators have failed to agree on the rules for international cooperation on climate action (also known as Article 6 negotiations). These rules are a prerequisite for properly functioning international carbon trading. Not having these rules in places increases the cost of climate mitigation actions and hinders financial flows to developing countries. It also makes it likely that other actors, outside the UNFCCC, may try to define carbon trading standards, as was recently done by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Patricia Espinosa, the UNFCCC Executive Secretary, is a masterful diplomat, with an almost magician like touch at finding political consensus. She was one of the key leaders that helped piece together the climate negotiations a decade ago and delivered the Cancun outcome, which paved the way for the Paris Agreement. However, to improve the chances of unlocking the stalemate on Article 6 negotiations, political astuteness may need to be combined with technical analysis of options under negotiation.

The postponement of COP 26 is a blessing in disguise. It allows time for technical analysis and further consultation on the options being discussed for rules on international cooperation on climate action. An interactive approach between technical analysis and consultation could be used to help unlock the stalemate. The leadership should consider using this pause in the UNFCCC calendar to focus more efforts on advancing the Article 6 negotiations.


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