This year’s international climate talks were the longest in the negotiations’ 25-year history, ending two days late. But despite going into overtime, the talks—known as COP25—failed to deliver any movement on the issue that was at the top of this year’s agenda (and last year’s agenda for that matter). Polluting countries blocked human rights protections and accountability measures that smaller developing countries pushed around carbon markets, all but ensuring another major showdown in 2020.
Carbon markets are at the center of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, the non-binding international climate resolution that leaders were supposed to strengthen their emissions targets in order to meet (they didn’t do that this year either). The idea behind the article is that countries can trade carbon emissions. In essence, it allows countries with large carbon footprints to offset part of their emissions by paying for other countries’ carbon-saving projects like renewable energy, reforestation, or sustainable agriculture.
Fossil fuel-based industries and their representatives love this approach because it’s expected to become increasingly lucrative and doesn’t require phasing out fossil fuels. But there’s little evidence that carbon markets actually cut emissions, and in the past, they’ve facilitated widespread displacement and other environmental injustices.
“Carbon markets are not the solution... but they’re in the Paris Agreement” Jesse Bragg, media director for Corporate Accountability, told Earther. “So if they’re going to happen, we need to make sure that the rules in place around them protect people and make sure they actually achieve their vision to cut emissions.”
The discussion around carbon markets showed the deep divides that exist globally. On one side, 31 countries led by Costa Rica pushed for making sure any market mechanisms had strong human rights and accounting components. On the other, Brazil, Australia, and others pushed for a weaker agreement around markets that would allow carrying over old carbon market credits and double counting. Negotiators also removed language from drafts that would require signatories to “respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights.”
In the end, countries couldn’t reach an agreement leaving a sense of frustration. But the way things ended might be for the better.
“What was on the table was going to do more harm than good,” Bragg said. “We were still getting these proposals that didn’t have the right protections and safeguards in place.”
Negotiators now have yet another chance to get things right at a June climate conference in Bonn, Germany and at COP26 in the UK later in 2020. In addition to working on market mechanisms, Bragg suggested that countries should also use those talks put more focus on non-market based solutions like actually cutting emissions. Article 6 includes a toehold for those discussions with a subsection that focuses on non-market approaches to emissions reduction.
“It’s the only one that isn’t just putting blind faith in the invisible hand and instead is trying to figure out... how science and policymaking actually guide our reaction to [the climate crisis],” Bragg said. “That’s key, for governments to put more time into this next time and figure out how to make it operational in the world.”
A good step to refocusing efforts on non-market solutions is removing fossil fuel interests from the equation. The fossil fuel industry was all over COP25. Polluters sponsored it, plastered it with their logos, and brought dozens of representatives to hold dozens of side events to promote their carbon market proposals. And it’s hardly the only time international climate talks have been overrun by the very companies responsible for the problem they’re supposed to be solving. But there are also more insidious ways fossil fuel interests find their way into negotiations.
“There are a handful of consultants that sit on government delegations that have ties to industry groups,” said Bragg. “So it becomes very hard to determine... are they negotiating on behalf of the country whose delegation they’re on? Or are they doing it on behalf of the trade association or the fossil fuel corporation they have ties to?”
Real climate action would entail banning fossil fuels. But if we can’t do that, the least we can do is ban fossil fuel representatives from climate negotiations and hosting side events at them.
If who’s in the room has to change, so does who’s not in it. The Alliance of Small Island States was reportedly excluded from some COP25 negotiations on carbon markets. The alliance includes countries like the Marshall Islands, which health officials said flooding turned into a “war zone” this month, Bahamas and Haiti, where Hurricane Dorian killed dozens (and possibly thousands) of people this past fall, and Dominica, where Hurricane Maria destroyed an estimated 90 percent of buildings—including the prime minister’s home—last year. These countries have also contributed the least to climate change despite suffering some of the most serious consequences. Without serious action, these nations could get entirely wiped out by extreme weather and sea level rise.
And carbon markets aren’t serious action, because there’s little evidence that they do much to reduce emissions. When the EU created a carbon market in 2005, they doled out so many free credits to polluters that they drove down the price of carbon and failed to make a dent in emissions. The global carbon market developed under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism in 1997 funneled billions of dollars into projects that failed to reduce emissions 85 percent of the time.
If we don’t rapidly cut emissions, we could be headed for 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming above preindustrial levels, which the United Nations says would be “destructive.” That’s particularly true for countries like the low-lying Marshall Islands—their continued existence relies hinges on the world getting its act together to limit global warming. Those with the most to lose should have a bigger role in negotiations about the role markets can play than countries with vested interests like oil, gas, and agribusiness that want market mechanisms in place to preserve their bottom line.
“Many countries... are sick and tired of the bullying coming from global north governments,” Bragg said. “Because for many places, it’s no longer, can we wait a year? It’s no longer possible to wait.”