Why is Article 6 so contentious?

The Parties to the UNFCCC convened in Bonn through the second half of June to continue discussions relating to the Paris Agreement, but particularly to make progress on the rule-book for Article 6 of the Agreement that remained held over from COP24 in Katowice.

Article 6 relates to cooperative approaches, but is largely being negotiated as the foundation element of cross-border carbon trading between Parties or private entities (e.g. companies) within the jurisdiction of those Parties. Only Article 6.8, which is specifically defined as a non-market mechanism is being dealt with differently. The remainder of Article 6, i.e. provisions 6.2 to 6.7, deal with the prospect of cross border trade of mitigation outcomes, broadly defined in terms of tons of carbon dioxide.

Article 6 is simple in concept but has proven difficult to negotiate. The concept is that Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) may be best achieved by cooperating with another Party, essentially in the same way as facilities within a cap-and-trade system trade allowances as a route to minimising the cost of compliance; i.e. facilities balance their needs by reviewing their own options to reduce emissions or purchasing allowances from other facilities that can more readily make reductions against some allocation they may have received from the government or bought in government auctions. The overall cap on the system doesn’t directly play a role for each facility, but indirectly governs the entire system and allows it to function and for reductions to proceed against a financial metric.

The challenge, is that the Paris Agreement is not based on allowance allocation, cap-and-trade architecture or carbon units, but only on a willingness to reduce emissions at national level against a nationally determined plan. However, to enter into a cooperative arrangement, some form of accounting must be implemented such that it is transparent to the cooperating Parties and others that there is no double counting of emissions and no relaxation of NDC goals. That accounting requires carbon unitization of the activities taking place and more importantly unitization of the NDCs themselves such that it is apparent to all what is going on.

While Article 6 is a purely voluntary framework and Parties are free to sidestep it and simply deliver their NDC goals, many Parties are keen to use the provisions of the Article to lower costs and attract inward investment in emission reduction activities. But it takes the cooperating Parties into the world of emissions accounting, which is where the controversy starts. Parties making use of Article 6 will inevitably be drawn into carbon budgets as the pressure on transparency and environmental integrity grows.

In Bonn the Parties spent a good portion of the time attempting to resolve numerous issues that remained from COP24. Almost all are related to accounting, issues that vanish entirely if carbon budgets begin to be applied to NDCs, as the United Kingdom has done through legislation. But a budget, however it is implemented, implies a limit of some sort, an idea that numerous Parties are not yet prepared to entertain. There are good reasons behind this, including the concern that development brings with it significant industrial activity, almost all of which is based on the use of fossil fuels, but in many cases, coal.

But a budgetary approach brings a quantitative simplicity to Article 6 that is impossible to match through qualitative assessment, as was the case for the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol. Specifically, applying a clear and transparent numerical approach resolves issues related to additionality, overall reduction in global emissions, corresponding adjustments, double counting, transfer to CORSIA, NDC coverage and the handling of CERs and AAUs left over from Kyoto Protocol days.

But a robust numerical approach with carbon budget implications leads Parties into a world they sought to avoid under the Paris Agreement, yet it is one that must inevitably emerge so as to apply a climate lens to the energy transition and guide it to net-zero emissions. As Parties negotiate the terms of Article 6, there are perhaps two clear ways forward. One is to compromise on all aspects of the needed accounting regime, but risk ending up with an approach that does little to foster cooperative action and then operates at a small scale as a niche activity. It is hard to see how this serves anyone well. The other is to recognise that this is a voluntary mechanism and to implement the required accounting, which Parties will gradually adopt and use as they are ready.

The world in which carbon dioxide is meticulously and transparently accounted for also leads to carbon pricing. Little wonder it remains contentious and is taking significant time and effort to resolve.