Over the past three weeks, climate negotiators gathered online for the UN Climate Change Subsidiary Bodies sessions, aiming to make progress on details within the Paris Agreement. These details are critical to resolve if the world is to meet the agreement’s goals and prevent the most dangerous impacts of climate change.

But overall, despite substantive discussions, progress was uneven and limited on the most critical points. Countries will now have their work cut out for them to reach agreement at COP26 in Glasgow in November.

Logistical and Political Challenges

Negotiators haven't met in person since COP25 in Madrid in December 2019, and the virtual nature of the last three weeks was unprecedented for the UN Climate Change process. Despite the significant efforts undertaken to make the sessions happen, there were inevitable challenges — including dropped internet connections, poor audio, awkward time zones, and the difficulty for negotiating groups to coordinate across time zones and compile comprehensive insights in a timely fashion.

However, these logistical difficulties paled in comparison to the substantive divide between countries, exacerbated by a complex political context and the lack of informal hallway chats, which precluded bridge-building among participants.

Indeed, the negotiations took place against the backdrop of the G7 Leaders’ Summit. Although the G7 leaders agreed to aim to meet the 1.5C goal spelled out in Paris, they failed to adequately deliver on specific, concrete steps to increase climate finance while also failing to clear the bar on developing countries’ calls for increased support with vaccines.

Amid an uneven COVID-19 recovery and, for the most vulnerable countries, debt distress, the signals of solidarity from some developed countries — such as pledges by Germany and Canada to increase their finance, including on adaptation — came late in the summit and failed to shift the broader international context for negotiators.

UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa briefs the press at the opening of the May-June Virtual Climate Change Conference.
UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa briefs the press at the opening of the May/June Virtual Climate Change Conference. Photo by UNclimatechange

In the UN Climate Change negotiations, developing countries lamented the imbalance of the topics under discussion. While the negotiations tackled some key issues for resolving the Paris Rulebook, many priority topics — including credible delivery of the $100-billion climate finance goal, a new post-2025 finance target, the global goal on adaptation, and loss and damage — were not on the agenda due to a lack of any previous agreement on clear mandates for consideration of these issues by the Subsidiary Bodies.

Meanwhile, despite calls by the chairs of the Subsidiary Bodies to maintain an open, inclusive and transparent approach, China insisted on closing many sessions on the enhanced transparency framework to observer organizations — civil society, private sector and international organizations. While countries may sometimes close negotiations to observers as they negotiate final language, transparency was the only agenda topic closed to observers early in the process, undermining trust and the inclusive nature of the UN Climate Change process.

Limited Progress on Key Issues

Despite the in-depth exchanges, overall progress was limited. Here are three key takeaways from the discussions:

1. The Rules and Architecture Supporting Climate Ambition

Countries continued deliberating the outstanding elements of the Paris Agreement Rulebook. Negotiations on the enhanced transparency framework picked up where COP25 left off as countries discussed how to best report on and facilitate the review of greenhouse gas emission trends, how to track progress toward nationally determined contributions (NDCs), and how to report information on adequate financial, technological and capacity-building support. While many proposed standardized tables for reporting emerged from the discussion, progress did not go far enough, and lots of work remains to finalize the guidelines in Glasgow.

In an impasse since COP24, countries continued their discussions on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement on carbon markets and non-market cooperation. However, there were no clear breakthroughs as several sticking points remain.

These included issues such as avoiding double counting of emission and ensuring that the use of market mechanisms translates into additional ambition; generating predictable revenue for adaptation from levies established through the market mechanisms; transitioning from the market mechanisms in the Kyoto Protocol without undermining the credibility of the new regime; and creating the right safeguards to protect human rights during the implementation of projects that generate carbon credits.

 Smoke rising towards the sky from the chimneys of a paper mill in Sweden.
Smoke rising from the chimneys of a paper mill in Sweden. Photo by Daniel Moqvist

Countries also discussed the establishment of common time frames, which would align the target dates and implementation periods of future NDCs. While all countries are keen to reach a decision by COP26 — in contrast with the lack of urgency witnessed at COP25 in Madrid — countries were unable to streamline and consolidate a variety of proposals. As some countries suggested, it may be time to raise the issue to the ministerial level after exhausting technical consideration at the negotiator level, which has been underway for five years.

More positively, Parties shared their views on how to prepare for the first cycle of the global stocktake, which will begin in earnest at COP26. In general, there was broad agreement that non-state actor input to the global stocktake is critical for its success and that the sources of input for the information collection phase must be as comprehensive as possible. Consultations with Parties and other stakeholders will continue in the lead-up to Glasgow, and stakeholders were encouraged to provide detailed submissions to the chairs of the UN Climate Change Subsidiary Bodies on the question of inputs.

2. Finance and Capacity-building

While some developing countries lamented the lack of negotiating opportunities on the unfulfilled $100-billion-a-year goal previously pledged by developed countries, as well as the new goal on finance to be set before 2025 and go into effect that year, several discussions on climate finance and support for developing countries were held.

Negotiators discussed the provision of financial and technical support that developing countries receive to undertake measurement, reporting and verification (MRV). They also discussed the fourth review of the Adaptation Fund and reached broad consensus to build from previous terms of reference to conduct this review.

However, outstanding issues remain on how to address the fact that the Fund serves the Paris Agreement and the Kyoto Protocol, as well as matters related to the governance of the Fund. Progress on finance support for MRV and on the Adaptation Fund review have been captured in informal notes prepared by the co-facilitators.

Delegates and observers also participated in mandated events on climate finance. The initial biennial in-session workshop under Article 9.5 of the Paris Agreement considered the first round of finance communications submitted by developed countries. Participants discussed the importance of enhancing predictability of future climate finance and ways of addressing the information gaps.

In the workshop on Long-term Climate Finance, participants exchanged views on lessons from the provision and mobilization of climate finance in the past decade, ways to address the needs and priorities of developing countries, and options to scale-up adaptation finance. Most countries emphasized the urgent need to scale-up climate finance to implement the Paris Agreement and credibly deliver on the annual $100-billion goal.

Developing countries highlighted the persistent barriers to access climate finance, concerns regarding the increasing use of loans that contribute to debt stress, and the need for an agreed definition of climate finance. They also reiterated calls to maintain this agenda item under the COP for the post-2020 period.

Glasgow will have a broader climate finance agenda than the one dealt with during the past several weeks. In the next couple of months, the current and incoming COP presidencies — Chile and the United Kingdom – will need to consider how to best prepare the technical work to inform the process and continue to mobilize the political leadership required to advance finance issues.

Additionally, during the virtual sessions, countries began reviewing progress in capacity-building for developing countries, which is critical to accelerate climate action on the ground. Across various negotiation topics, countries also raised the importance of capacity-building support to meet their obligations under the Paris Agreement, particularly to implement the enhanced transparency framework, but also for the use of market mechanisms.

And finally, countries discussed and advanced their understanding on potential elements of a new workplan to advance Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE), which refers to education, training, public awareness, public participation, public access to information, and international cooperation on these issues.

3. Adaptation, Loss and Damage, and Just Transition

Adaptation did not figure prominently on the agenda, as items under the mandate of the Subsidiary Body chairs — such as the review of reports from the Adaptation Committee on the global goal on adaptation and reports from the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage — were postponed until Glasgow in November.

Parque Eólico Camilo Ortega Saavedra wind farm in the Department of Rivas
Parque Eólico Camilo Ortega Saavedra wind farm in the Department of Rivas, Nicaragua. Photo by UN Photo/Mark Garten

However, countries did discuss some adaptation and loss and damage related issues. Informal consultations were held to discuss the gaps and needs related to the process of formulating and implementing national adaptation plans (NAPs). Parties emphasized the challenges related to access to funding from the Green Climate Fund to develop NAPs, as well as the lack of guidance on how the Green Climate Fund can support their implementation. Developing countries also proposed the establishment of a task force to assess progress against the Paris Agreement’s global goal on adaptation.

As COP presidencies, Chile and the U.K. also organized an informal event on the Santiago Network for Loss and Damage — the only event dedicated to discussing loss and damage at this virtual session. The event showcased differing views on how to ensure that the network, which countries agreed to establish at COP25 in Madrid, will be set up in a way that can catalyze the technical assistance needed for vulnerable countries to address losses and damages due to climate impacts. Developing countries were explicit about the need to ensure that the network goes beyond being solely a virtual platform. Chile and the U.K. are expected to host another two events on loss and damage by July, including one with heads of delegations.

Negotiations also addressed the impacts of climate action (both positive and negative) known as “response measures.” Given the many transformational shifts needed to create a decarbonized and resilient world, countries — especially developing ones — want to understand and prepare for the implications of these shifts, including for workers and communities.

Developing countries also want to include cross-border measures, such as Carbon Border Adjustment Measures or the impact of fuel levies on the tourism sector, in these considerations. The discussions stalled due to disagreement on how to address the delays caused by the COVID-19 crisis in implementing the agreed workplan, but planned activities under the workplan will continue, including a process for submissions on just transition and economic diversification.  

What’s Next: The Road to Glasgow

While the U.K. COP Presidency made clear their desire and their ongoing preparations for an in-person conference, many countries and non-state actors have raised questions about health safety plans, vaccinations, potential travel restrictions, and contingency planning. Much more clarity will be needed from the U.K. in the coming weeks to finalize the logistical details and make sure that COP26 is inclusive and transparent. If developed countries wish to demonstrate their solidarity with the most vulnerable, efforts to address vaccine inequities are a prerequisite ahead of COP26.

But the biggest challenges will be, first of all, to build on discussions held over the past three weeks, rather than starting the COP26 negotiations from scratch because no decisions were made during the virtual session. Moreover, it will be vital to secure a fair, balanced and ambitious COP26 package that reflects a global sense of solidarity.

The Chilean and U.K. Presidencies should consider ways to address concerns over an imbalanced agenda well ahead of Glasgow and to advance all critical issues. This will require consultations in the coming weeks with heads of delegations (on a monthly basis) and ministers (starting on the 25th and 26th of July) to lay the groundwork for the political decisions that must be made at COP26. Technical workshops could also complement these consultations to address more technical issues that are essential to successful outcomes. Whether an additional in-person session will be organized ahead of the COP, as suggested by developing countries, remains to be decided.

Finally, in the coming months many major economies — such as Australia, South Korea, China and India — still need to submit their updated and enhanced NDCs to demonstrate further efforts to close the ambition gap. The G20 Finance Ministers will meet in Venice in mid-July and discuss finance there, and eyes will be on the G20 countries’ efforts over the coming months to strengthen their climate action and commitments.

All these milestones, together with the UN General Assembly in September, the G20 Rome Summit and pre-COP in October will be critical  for COP26 to keep the 1.5 degree C goal within reach, build solidarity, and demonstrate the trust needed for global cooperation to tackle the climate crisis.