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The real world
Slow Views

The real world

Friday 12 November 2021

The lesson of Cop is that it is open to a small number of key protagonists to save the planet. Will they?


A fun game to play at Cop is to look for someone in the throng who might actually be in a position to get something done. It’s easier than I thought. 

This is pure unscientific air-plucking, but at any given moment I’d say there are at most a dozen people in the 25,000 accommodated by the vast tent city on the Clyde who with a nod or a signature could move the process along. 

Fortunately, they’re human. They get bored and sleepy. They need a sandwich or the loo. At the very least they have to move from plenary to meeting room to meeting room and back. They’re stalkable. 

For instance, at about 3.50 pm on Tuesday afternoon Wera Mori, environment minister for Papua New Guinea and leader of the Coalition for Rainforest Nations (CFRN), stood up in the main Cop hall to urge negotiators at work nearby to keep pursuing an agreement to stop the double counting of carbon credits.

Double counting does what it says. It counts a saved emission or a sequestered unit of carbon twice – once by the person buying the credit and once by the person who created it. This halves the progress the world thought it was making with that unit of carbon towards controlling climate change. It’s tempting for the businesses or governments that are getting paid for credits, but it’s as bad as burning rainforest and often a cover for it. 

An agreement to stop double counting is essential to bring Article 6 of the Paris rulebook to life, which is essential for the creation of a global carbon market, which is essential to bring trillions in private finance to bear on climate change, which is essential to save the world. 

After Mr Mori, an anxious-looking representative of the Russian Federation came to the podium. He used his three minutes to say Russia would remain a reliable gas supplier but couldn’t help much on climate change because of the way sanctions interfere with technology transfer. 

At about 4.05 pm it was the turn of Frans Timmermans, Vice President of the EU. “To the parties stopping and stalling, I say what are you waiting for?”, he said. “Science shows we are out of time.” As he left I asked him which “parties” he was talking about. “I’m not answering your question,” he said. “I’m about to go and talk to them.”

So the Russians, then. “The Russians and others,” he replied.

By this time Mori was back at the CFRN’s pavilion in Zone D, an ecosystem unto itself, full of shameless greenwashers and earnest NGOs rubbing shoulders as if they depend on each other, which they probably do. Mr Mori is a big man, instantly recognisable. Chilling with a large entourage, he said they hadn’t come this far to go home empty-handed. Did that mean he was optimistic about a deal on double counting, Article 6 and carbon markets? He directed me to the dapper Kevin Conrad, the CFRN’s chief negotiator, who sounded more certain about the definition of failure than the chances of success.

“Without tracking double counting the whole agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on,” he said. “We’ve got to have a global carbon accounting system. One planet, one treaty, one accounting system, one stock-taking system for carbon.”

He said Brazil, India and China were trying to fiddle with a transparency framework already agreed in principle in Paris. “They’re saying if we don’t have the numbers can we write an essay? We’re saying, guys, get the numbers.”

Failure at Cop has many synonyms. One is SBSTA, pronounced “substa”. It stands for Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological advice, and it’s where half-baked proposals go for further study and fine-tuning when not approved by Cop. Beware a referral of anti-double counting plans to SBSTA, Conrad says. 

The Brazilian private sector – loggers, ranchers, miners, soy and sugar cane growers in particular – is not formally at Cop, but it constitutes a giant obstacle to the sort of deal Cop’s hosts could really crow about. No one is more upset about this than Brazilian activists and intellectuals who feel pride in the Amazon as the lungs of the earth rather than as a commodity. 

Round the corner from the CFRN pavilion, Natalie Unterstell, president of the Talanoa think tank, says there could well be a deal on Article 6, but asks: “what’s going to be traded?” Her answer is transparency. It points to a slightly different sort of synonym for failure: a deal by which Brazil (and China, and India, and Russia) agree to stop double counting provided the UN agrees to cut big businesses more slack on the verification of carbon credits they may sell to rich northern polluters, or buy from each other. No wonder Conrad thinks in the end Brazil won’t block a deal.

So much for failure. But there’s a chance of success too. This is partly thanks to satellite technology from which no logger can hide (hence the fuss we’ve made of remote sensing this week in the Net Zero Sensemaker); and partly because it’s increasingly clear there is a colossal potential upside in any Article 6 deal for rainforest nation businesses that play by its rules. Forget the paltry $100 billion-a-year the rich countries have failed to scrape together in government-to-government climate finance. Article 6 is the portal through which the really big money could pass that’s needed to compensate poor countries for climate visited on them by rich ones, and forested countries for leaving their forests alone.

That would be something, I suggest to Conrad, who’s been at this for 16 years. Yes it would, he says. But it would have to be agreed by consensus, and you only have to spend half an hour in a room with Wera Mori et al to see how elusive that is.

Mori was the conciliatory one. Iran joined Russia in explaining that it couldn’t help because of sanctions. Saudi Arabia, which wants no agreement at all, started playing for time. Nicaragua threw a wrench in the works by reminding the conference it believes Taiwan should be a part of the Cop process. That gets a straight no from China.

Will consensus be helped along by the crowds that have wandered round Glasgow these past ten days complaining about being left out? Maybe. They’re primed to announce failure and no one likes to be accused of that. But they’re flat wrong to say there’s nothing going on inside the security cordon, and I doubt they have an answer to the Taiwan problem.



With thanks to our coalition members: a network of organisations similarly committed to achieving Net Zero