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A conversation about the outcome of the June UN climate change conference

For this year's UN climate negotiations in May/June, the delegates met only virtually. This was associated with numerous difficulties and obstacles. The picture shows the final setting of the digital meetings. Foto: UNFCCC

The big UN climate conference usually takes place at the end of the year. In addition, climate diplomats usually meet in May or June to prepare the Conference of the Parties, COPs. Last year, none of this took place in the usual format due to the pandemic. Now the climate diplomats have met again for the June working meeting—albeit only virtually, which has led to considerable difficulties. What was the outcome of the meeting and what does this mean for the international climate negotiations a few months before the climate conference in Glasgow?

What was discussed during the UN climate change conference and what does this mean for the international climate negotiations a few months before the climate conference in Glasgow? 

We discussed with

Patricia Bohland is working with LIFE Education, Sustainability, Equality based in Berlin. During the UN Climate Change Conferences she is part of the Women and Gender Constituency, one of the nine observer groups in the negotiations. Pat supports coordination, logistics and capacity training and follows the discussions. In the negotiations her main focus is on market mechanisms (discussed under article 6 of the Paris Agreement). 

Tetet Lauron is based in the Philippines and works as an adviser for the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. She has been following the UN Climate Change Conference since 2009, trying to make sense of what the negotiations are talking about and explaining their outcomes and political implications to those who are not able to access these spaces . This is how she contributes to building stronger movements that call for accountability and for climate justice. 

Vincente Paolo Yu is visiting fellow of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) and senior legal adviser for the Third World Network, an international NGO based in Malaysia. Vice has been following the climate negotiations since 2007, mostly in the capacity of a negotiator for his country, the Philippines, but also other developing countries that needed support.

This year, delegates from all over the world had to meet virtually for the UN Climate Change Conference, the June session of the Subsidiary Bodies (SB). How did this look like?

Pat: The very special thing about the session this year was that the UNFCCC secretariat decided that this is  an official negotiation, but whatever would be discussed, we were told beforehand, would not be formally, but only informally taken up at the COP.

Tetet: This was the first time in 18 months that some kind of negotiation over the Paris Agreement rulebook has taken place. And indeed, as Pat mentioned, these were just informal meetings, the outcome does not have any legal status. It was decided that no formal decisions are to be made until the diplomats meet in person.

Vice: … which meant that the nature of the meeting was official, but the modality was all informal. Essentially the whole approach of the SB chairs was to see if there could be areas of convergence among parties that could then be written in «informal notes». I think the reason why we had these virtual conversations is that the UK COP26 presidency, the UN Secretary General, and different countries realized that there is a need to show that something is moving within the climate negotiations despite the pandemic.

This supposedly wasn’t easy. What problems did the format bring with it?

Tetet: Already beforehand, many developing countries and NGOs expressed serious reservations about having online sessions. They raised the issue of connectivity, the digital divide between North and South, as well as time zone issues. The most serious reservation was that these negotiations are actually so important that you cannot just limit it to whatever conversation that technology can facilitate. Normally, during negotiations there are a lot of informal or «casual» conversations that happen over coffee, in the hallways or elsewhere, so that parties can really exchange their views and reservations over the points they are debating.

Pat: I agree with Tetet that the virtual format was very challenging for civil society. Normally we go to a session and we know the modalities, like where to have our morning meetings or where to make interventions. Now, it was not clear what this would look like in a virtual space. This made it much more difficult for observers, as it is much more difficult not only to follow the negotiations but also to connect amongst ourselves as a civil society. Much more planning was needed, but the planning was far more difficult because of the different time zones and a lack of resources.

Some hard facts on the UN climate change conference 

Official title: UN Climate Change Conference – Session of the subsidiary bodies 

Duration: 31 May to 17 June 2021 

Time zones: The sessions were organized in a way that each time zone had acceptable times for one week – which e.g. meant for negotiators and observers in the Central European

time zone:
1st week from 15:00 CET
2nd week from 23:00 CET
3rd week from 5:00 CET 

5191 registered participants
177 countries 

More information on the sessions of the subsidiary bodies here  

You will find the recorded sessions of the conference here

Vice: Even for the delegates the session was very different from what they were used to for many of the reasons that both Tetet and Pat already pointed out. Developing countries in particular had serious difficulties in actually participating. Because of the different time zones, people had to wake up at 2am or stay up until three 3am and try to follow highly technical discussions as well or present their own position.

Tetet: For us as a civil society the virtual mode posed another challenge. You had to register, but even if you were registered you were not able to access each discussion. For some rooms we only had «watch» buttons which means we could only listen to what was being said. For other rooms we had «join» buttons which gave us the opportunity to actually participate and make an intervention. In some sessions, civil society was not allowed to even watch the negotiations, though.

Vice: I would say: quantitatively, there were many more people compared to the regular sessions in May or June in Bonn—almost a 60 percent increase according to the UNFCCC secretariat. But the quality of effective participation suffered a lot.

Despite all these difficulties, did you see any progress in the negotiation process? Did it help that the world gathered—at least virtually—some months before COP26?

Tetet: Progress has been very slow. But this is not primarily because of the virtual format. Progress was slow because the fundamental issues remain. Let’s take climate finance for instance. Developing countries have repeatedly said that climate finance is really, really crucial in order to pay for mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage. But unfortunately for this session, climate finance was «everywhere but nowhere» on the agenda. Particularly the issue of the 100 billion dollars per year by 2020, that was first pledged in 2009 in Copenhagen and also reaffirmed in the Paris agreement: this is still an unmet pledge!

… which is why finance has now become a matter of trust…

Tetet: Yes, indeed! When you promise something for so long and until now it has not been met, it becomes a trust issue. Also during this intersession, the developing countries again and again alluded to the lack of climate finance and the «creative accounting» developed countries use to make it appear that they are very close to their pledges if not meeting them already.

Parallel to the intersession there was the G7 summit. Rich states were expected to deliver a boost to this 100 billion dollar target…

Tetet: They did not deliver! Germany, Japan, and Canada collectively pledged around 3 billion dollars to put into the climate finance pot, but still there is a shortfall of around 17 billion dollars from the 100 billion. So it’s like: who are you fooling? We have to be clear that the agreement was to mobilize USD100B every year starting from 2020; it is not meant as an one-off contribution to finance climate action. The 100 billion for 2020 is just a starting point.

Vice: I think what Tetet is pointing out is very important. The key part of it is how the narrative is being controlled. If you look at the way the narrative is being shaped by developed countries there are several things: first, addressing the climate crisis is just as important now, even in the midst of the pandemic. Second, we need to do as much as we can. Third, developed countries are leading the way, because Biden is there, the EU has this Green Deal, and western leadership is again now being put forward. But if you look what is actually behind all those statements, for example concerning the 100 billion dollars, one sees a lot of creative accounting or a need for greater accuracy in there.

Tetet: And there is even more about climate finance! Discussions have already started about a new collective finance goal by 2025 because we already know that the 100 billion dollars will not be enough to cover all the costs related to mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage. The 2025 goal was only discussed informally, but it is already expected to be negotiated formally during COP26 and concluded by 2024. Climate finance remains a very sticky issue.

Pat: I agree with you, but I see at least some progress in the virtual meeting; at least parties and observers got officially into conversation again. And I also see some progress compared to the last UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid: the human-rights-based framework of the Paris Agreement preamble was made much more visible during the conversation this time. In Madrid we heard very little reference to human rights, indigenous people’s rights, and gender equality during the very technical talks, whereas this time it happened—maybe because of the very informal nature of the talks...

Vice: For me what took place was a continuation of the conversations we had been having since Madrid, since Katowice, since Bonn, and after Paris. The key things that are still need decisions, for example on article 6 on the role of carbon markets in climate action, on transparency, on finance, or on loss and damage, are still there. But I did not sense that much willingness by developed countries to show that they actually understood what developing countries were saying. Which again brings us to the trust deficit we were speaking about earlier. Yes, the June intersession was useful in the sense that it kept the conversation going. The real test of whether we are able to have some convergence will be in Glasgow, though.

What in your eyes are the most critical issues on the table?

Vice: The key things really were article 6 and questions of transparency, and of course, as Tetet already pointed out, climate finance. But there were many other issues like the review of the adaptation fund. The key issue there was: are we going to change the way the adaptation fund will be run in terms of financial resources? Furthermore, we also discussed what the common time frame should be for the national climate targets, the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Again: no resolution there.

Pat: I agree that the discussions around article 6 are one of the major issues. To explain: the Paris agreement itself sets objectives and a framework of how they are to be implemented, but it is not very concrete on the exact terms and modalities. That is why the states have been discussing the Paris rulebook for many years now.

Article 6 is one of the Paris Agreement articles dealing with market mechanisms and non-market mechanisms. Until today, no decision has been reached here for a variety of reasons…

Pat: Yes, it continues to be negotiated because critical points are still unresolved: what to do with the old market mechanisms for emission reductions under the Kyoto protocol? Can they be accounted for in the countries’ emissions reduction targets or not? What metrics will be applied? The background of all this is that this whole market-mechanism approach will only help us if it brings an overall reduction of emissions in the atmosphere. What we are seeing is that some countries are already starting to implement market mechanisms bilaterally, as no UNFCCC decision has been made so far in this regard. For example, Switzerland is going ahead with having bilateral contracts with countries. From a civil society perspective we do not want to have this emissions trading that might result in no overall emissions reductions! But what is agreed on between countries bilaterally could even be worse than having an international framework that would at least control what is happening out in the market. That is why we are constantly saying that ensuring humans rights and safeguard mechanisms are our baseline for any decision at all. It is not clear how this will turn out in Glasgow.

Vice: Another issue that developing countries tried to get some airtime on during the session was loss and damage. Originally, there were no informal meetings scheduled for this for the SB session, and it was only because the G77 group asked for it that the COP Presidencies then set up an informal meeting during the session. It seems the UK presidency sees loss and damage as one these low-hanging fruits.

Tetet: In Madrid, a network was set up to deal with loss and damage, it’s known as the Santiago network. How true are the rumours that the developed countries want the Santiago network to be just a website?

Vice: I think that is true; I have heard that being mentioned. It seems as if different developed countries think it will be enough to have a website where developing countries just fill in a form indicating that they need this or that kind of expert to tackle loss and damage issues. Then the answers come out and it is up to the developing country to contact those experts for further assistance.

But this is not the kind of idea developing countries are actually considering…

Vice: No, this kind of matching through purely technical means is quite different from what developing countries need and expect to get from the Santiago network. Loss and damage is something very important for developing countries. They would like to have a greater level of engagement from developed countries in terms of enabling developing countries to address climate-related loss and damage better through support, including technical assistance and finance, particularly from developed countries.

Having followed the negotiations for the last three week, how do you feel looking ahead to COP26?

Vice: COP26 will take place in a period where travel restrictions are still in place, which is a serious issue for many negotiators from developing countries. It is not clear if the domestic financial regulations of developing countries will allow them to use government funds to pay for a ten-day quarantine period that might be required by the UK during the COP26 period. This could hamper the participation of those who should be there. This could really call into question the legitimacy and credibility of COP26.

Tetet: We have been hearing a lot about developing countries who raised the issue of vaccination and called for support to make it possible for their delegates to attend COP26. Just like in the climate crisis, we are the seeing the same fundamental inequalities playing out in terms of access to vaccines between rich countries and poor countries.

Vice: I am sceptical about whether COP26 will lead to the outcomes that we need—largely because the process is such that developing countries will be pushed into agreeing to things. But if at the end of the day they will not have the capacity to implement them, it will have been just a waste of time. Let’s take the national climate targets, the NDCs, as an example, which definitely have to be raised. When the new NDCs have to be submitted in 2024, we will see the same kind of narrative: developed countries saying «urgency urgency urgency, but no money», and developing countries saying «urgency urgency urgency, give us support so we can do something about it». If nothing is done to tackle the fundamental inequality between developing countries and developed countries, the outcome of the COP will always fall short of what we need as a global community to fight climate change while at the same time eradicating poverty, improving societal conditions, and creating hope for the future of all peoples and the planet in a manner that is environmentally sustainable and socially equitable.

Pat: This was a really nice closing from Vice. So I will only briefly add that being sceptical toward COP26 is a really good way to put it. While I understand that there is a dynamic looking at the pandemic, I think what is really difficult for us to understand is that if the COP presidency urgently wants to have an in-person COP, why it is unable to provide information on things they must have clarity about already. There is a really serious lack of transparency and very similar worries from parties and observers.