The lesser told story of COP26

The much anticipated but delayed COP26 has come and gone, with many articles and commentary focussing on whether 1.5°C is still alive. I commented on this at the start of COP26 and although some additional enhanced NDC pledges have been made since then and there is a new goal to end deforestation by 2030, the situation remains largely unchanged. Apart from one thing! COP26 delivered an agreement on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement.

Article 6 was the last piece of the Paris Agreement to be negotiated back in 2015 and true to form it has become the last piece of the rule book to be completed. So why has it proved so contentious and why does it help keep 1.5°C alive?

The Article outlines ways in which some Parties can choose to pursue voluntary cooperation in the implementation of their nationally determined contributions (NDC), but the sub-sections 6.2 and 6.4 have been negotiated primarily as carbon market instruments, designed to allow trading between Parties, through linking of emissions trading systems and cross border investment in mitigation and removals to create tradable carbon credits. Simply put, carbon markets and trading of carbon units unleashes a commercial engine that can operate on a scale far surpassing the limits of local domestic action. It helps align the energy transition with other global commercial activities, offering the potential for lower overall costs to society which in turn can enhance ambition. Trade is a powerful tool that is at the heart of the global economy and carbon trading can serve to unlock mitigation opportunities that would otherwise be neglected. As I discussed in a recent post, a potential future standstill in global emissions is brought to net-zero through Article 6 cooperative action between countries and the aviation sector developing carbon removal opportunities in various parts of the world. Trade requires price discovery, so indirectly Article 6 helps in the development of liquid carbon markets and carbon pricing, although these don’t emerge from Article 6 itself but from national systems which are open to Article 6 transfers.

The newly agreed rules behind 6.2 are simple but powerful and importantly bring clarity to the issue of environmental integrity. Article 6.2 allows transfers between counties in carbon designated units, thus impacting the NDCs of the buyer and the seller. The buyer is able to meet NDC goals more cost effectively and the seller receives an income stream for domestic mitigation activities. This may seem like a straightforward approach to mitigation, so why has it proved so difficult to negotiate?

The rule for a transfer between Parties requires an adjustment to the related NDCs which brings with it a need to account for each NDC in carbon budget terms. Over time, this drives the Paris Agreement to operate more like a rigorous cap-and-trade system rather than a collection of national mitigation activities presented as a list of actions. With national actions based on a carbon budget architecture, transparency is vastly improved and actions are increasingly focused on mitigation rather than simply supplying more clean energy. The two may align but are not necessarily the same. With so much at stake, negotiators have been careful to get the rules right. Further, carbon budgets are easy to add up and derive a global total, which then puts pressure on the Parties when that budget exceeds the available capacity of the atmosphere for a given temperature limit. Ultimately, it may also open up the highly contentious question of who can use the remaining budget. While the Paris Agreement isn’t operating like this today, widespread use of Article 6 could accelerate such a development.

Article 6 also brings with it a mechanism to assign common units to a mitigation project,  carefully defining it in terms of tradable carbon credits. These would be issued by a Supervisory Body operating as part of the Paris Agreement implementation.  While 6.2 is essentially a bilateral transfer approach, 6.4 is a multilateral mechanism, introducing a notional Paris carbon currency. However, transfer of these units between countries will still follow the rules of 6.2. Article 6.4 follows on from the similar Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol, but with a clearly quantified transfer approach.

Both 6.2 and 6.4 are voluntary in that attainment of NDCs can be realised without them, but when used they bring the power of trade to the job of mitigation. Analysis of the benefits of such an approach by the University of Maryland found that international cooperation under a well-functioning Article 6 of the Paris Agreement could save as much as $250 billion per year by 2030. Translating this back into the potential for greater mitigation becomes tangible and meaningful in the already very narrow window of opportunity for limiting warming to 1.5°C.

Glasgow doesn’t mean job done on Article 6, but it does set the stage for activities to commence. The onus is now on national governments to encourage the use of these mechanisms, by allowing their mitigation activities to be open to Article 6 transfers. This could start with well-developed systems such as the EU ETS recognizing 6.4 units, particularly if they are associated with carbon removal projects which the EU will need to meet its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. Successful implementation could also allow the EU to consider an earlier NZE goal if required to keep 1.5°C in play. But given that the Article 6 rule book was finally agreed in the United Kingdom, perhaps the British government might be the ones to step up and allow Article 6 to flourish within the new UK ETS. After all, in the wake of Brexit trade has become the topic of the day in the UK.

Article 6 has been a hard won policy development, but it’s completion in Glasgow makes COP26 a success, even as some commentators have pronounced some disappointment with the precise wording of the Glasgow Climate Pact. We should thank the negotiators for their efforts over many years and reward their long nights at various COPs with rapid and successful implementation.