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Making Peace with Nature: Highlights from the UN Climate Change Dialogues 2020

The Climate Dialogues were intended to bridge the gap to COP 26 by giving parties an opportunity to exchange views on outstanding issues. Here, we offer lessons learned from a virtual approach to multilateral engagement.
By Jennifer Bansard, Natalie Jones, Bernard Soubry on December 8, 2020

Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere. – UN Secretary-General António Guterres

While the Climate Dialogues were in their second week, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres spoke about the state of the planet. "Apocalyptic fires and floods, cyclones and hurricanes are increasingly the new normal," he highlighted. "It is time to flick the 'green switch.'"

The days before the opening of the Dialogues were rife with media talk of COVID-19 vaccines but overcoming one crisis does not mean dismissing the other. As Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), gravely noted during the opening of the Dialogues, "There is no vaccine for the global climate emergency."

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the postponement of the 26th meeting of the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP 26) until 2021, but governments and stakeholders agreed that climate action must continue regardless of the pandemic.

There are several outstanding issues due to be resolved at COP 26, including guidance for Article 6 of the Paris Agreement (cooperative approaches), common time frames for nationally determined contributions (NDCs), and transparency of reporting. The Subsidiary Bodies and constituted bodies are also under pressure to advance on their mandates, including holding workshops and preparing anticipated reports. As participants were starkly reminded by the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) Chair Marianne Karlsen, "We must continue to make progress in the only formal process we have."

While the UNFCCC does have experience hosting online events, the Climate Dialogues were an unprecedented experiment in scale.

The Climate Dialogues were intended to bridge the gap to COP 26 by giving parties an opportunity to exchange views on outstanding issues, as well as providing a space for holding mandated events and informational sessions. This brief analysis explores how the Climate Dialogues fared in fulfilling these functions and reflects on the lessons learned from a virtual approach to multilateral engagement.

A (Video) Call to Action

Solidarity is humanity. Solidarity is survival. – António Guterres

It was a tall order: creating a virtual space for an event that normally sees tens of thousands congregate in major convention centers. While the UNFCCC has experience in hosting online events, including the June 2020 Momentum event, the Climate Dialogues were an unprecedented experiment in scale. The Secretariat, subsidiary bodies, parties, and non-party participants were effectively testing out new grounds as they proceeded: as Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) Chair Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu said early on, "We are building the plane as we are flying it."

Inequities in participation opportunities that affect in-person events fell into sharp resolution at this virtual event. The meeting mostly took place during working hours in Central European Time (UTC+1), and time zone issues placed a heavy burden on delegations that had to participate in meetings during the night for the better part of the Dialogues.

Internet connectivity issues were also a problem. Some speakers, particularly those from least developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing states (SIDS), were unable to connect during their scheduled speaking slots, or suffered from delays and poor-quality audio. Moreover, the connection between the meeting platform used by participants and the livestreaming platform through which most observers accessed the dialogues also malfunctioned at times, leaving observers in the dark. These technological problems did not prove fatal to the Dialogues, but no doubt muffled the voices of smaller and less developed constituencies. One observer wondered, "Why were these obvious issues not better anticipated and corrected for?"

Without a physical meeting space, observers lacked the opportunity to carry out the colorful, attention-grabbing actions that many associate with UNFCCC meetings.

Observers also expressed concerns about access to documentation, limited places for active participation sessions, and lack of monitoring of the livestreaming platform for questions. Meanwhile, without a physical meeting space, observers lacked the opportunity to carry out the colorful, attention-grabbing actions that many associate with UNFCCC meetings, not to mention the major protests that disrupted COP 25 in Madrid.

Some observers acknowledged inherent limits of the virtual setting; others wondered whether this was a missed opportunity to be exposed to input from outside the bubble of the UNFCCC process. The lack of media attention compared to in-person meetings was also very apparent: even climate-focused media did not really cover the Dialogues.

The flip side of the virtual format was its "democratizing" impact: the Dialogues, as well as the virtual meetings by the constituted bodies that took place in 2020, were able to reach many individuals and communities who would not have been able to attend in-person meetings. Many emphasized this good practice should be fostered even after the pandemic.

Progress and the State of Discussions

We cannot go back to the old normal of inequality, injustice and heedless dominion over the Earth. Instead, we must step towards a safer, more sustainable and equitable path. – António Guterres

Despite the challenges and hurdles faced in 2020, there was progress across many areas. Most constituted bodies managed to adjust to the pandemic and deliver on their mandates. There were, of course, gaps and shortcomings: some countries, for example, worried about the pace of work on loss and damage, notably with regard to adopting a plan of action for the new expert group on action and support.

Capturing progress from the Dialogues themselves is more difficult. Observers were unable to see the extent of progress on the informal discussions on outstanding Paris Rulebook issues as the sessions were held in a closed format. While the informal discussions undoubtedly had the merit of preventing parties from becoming "rusty," as one delegate put it, he added they appeared to make "little progress on the whole."

It seems increasingly likely that parties will not wait until the last minute to initiate discussions on post-2025 climate finance.

Without the substantial pressure for the COP to come to a conclusion, discussions on Article 6 remained at an abstract level, although this may be changing. According to some delegates, the looming expiration date of the Clean Development Mechanism—and the associated threat of a void in project funding—may create external pressure that will lead to a decision at COP 26 in Glasgow.

Similarly, in the technical discussion on common time frames, country groups largely repeated their well-known positions rather than engaging with the technical questions under discussion.

Finance evidently remained a source of disagreement. Thorny questions on modalities for climate finance accounting resurfaced, as always. Yet the topic of loan concessionality, especially for vulnerable countries, is increasingly acknowledged, including by donor countries. Although there is not much progress in terms of substance, it seems increasingly likely that parties will not wait until the last minute to initiate discussions on post-2025 climate finance.

All in all, the Dialogues may have fared better at keeping parties talking than at moving the talks forward. But how should virtual discussions be captured, and how should they feed into the negotiations? Some parties insisted that virtual discussions cannot replace negotiations and were adamant that no reports from the informal discussions be produced—or have any status in future negotiations if they were produced. Other parties called for continuing informal work in 2021 to deliver results at COP 26 and encouraged the presiding officers to capture the status of discussions prior to the next round of negotiations.

Ambition vs Reality

The science is crystal clear: to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the world needs to decrease fossil fuel production by roughly 6% every year between now and 2030. – António Guterres

The question of ambition was ever-present in the Climate Dialogues, even if the notion of what such stated ambition may bring into being is still uncertain. In the wake of several high-profile net-zero or carbon neutrality announcements by major economies, the pressure rose for other countries to present new or enhanced NDCs. The Race-to-Zero campaign, launched at COP 25, had a high profile at the Dialogues, championed by the UK COP 26 Presidency. Executive Secretary Espinosa expressed this collective hope: "We are seeing leadership and momentum that didn’t exist even a few months ago."

Parties may be moving closer to the goals that science demands. During the Dialogues, Climate Action Tracker broke news that if all net-zero pledges made by countries were fulfilled, global warming by the end of the century would reach 2.1°C—a substantially lower figure than the 2.9°C expected under current policies. For some, this represented evidence that the Paris Agreement's ratcheting-up mechanism had worked, if only in terms of ambition.

Yet ambition is not action, or even implementation. Questions remain about whether some parties' distant pledges for 2050 will be reflected in current national policies and legislation. Confidence is not high. As activist Greta Thunberg commented on Twitter, "If only words, pledges and setting distant hypothetical targets actually lowered our emissions, then we wouldn’t still be in this mess." 

The gap between parties’ stated ambition and the science, as well as the track record of implementation, raise concerns. In the course of the Structured Expert Dialogue, scientists made it clear that emissions reductions are nowhere near where they need to be—and that relying on "overshoot" scenarios of exceeding temperature goals to later draw down emissions would lock in irreversible impacts for vulnerable communities. The upcoming Climate Ambition Summit is billed as another venue to create momentum for increased ambition. The question nevertheless remains: will this continue to be all promise, no implementation, or will real progress shine through?

Looking Ahead to COP 26

Human activities are at the root of our descent towards chaos. But that means human action can help solve it. – António Guterres

While the Climate Dialogues undoubtedly advanced the climate regime’s various mandates and work, it is debatable to what extent it paved the way to success in Glasgow.

What will discussions and negotiations look like in 2021? While the evolving COVID-19 vaccine situation makes it appear more likely that COP 26 will be able to proceed in late 2021 as planned, the format of intersessional meetings is still very much up for discussion. Conjuring a hopeful vision, Patricia Espinosa promised that "as soon as we can meet [in person], we will." But uncertainty remains.

One delegate urged parties to "get over" their concerns about perfection, saying the Dialogues were not intended to replace the more formal setting, and that parties need to use every opportunity to make progress. Further informal discussions will be key to ensure these discussions move toward more concrete exchanges. According to some, having future co-facilitators who will handle matters in Glasgow in the room during virtual talks could be a promising way to avoid duplication of work. This foreshadows that continued experimentation with virtual discussions will continue in 2021, building on lessons learned from the Dialogues.

The visible and active presence of the UK COP 26 Presidency at the Dialogues assuaged concerns in the wake of what many viewed as a bumpy year. One long-time observer pointed out that the combination of the active COP 25 and 26 Presidencies bodes well for success at COP 26. Some had concerns, however, as to whether what one participant termed the UK Presidency’s "gazillion campaigns"—including on adaptation and resilience, energy transition, and clean road transport—would relate to the key negotiation issues on the table at COP 26, and whether they might spread resources too thinly.

With the Climate Ambition Summit commemorating the anniversary of the adoption of the Paris Agreement just a week away, participants at the Dialogues anticipated a slew of new and updated NDCs in the coming weeks and months. Did the Dialogues move the dial on the necessary ambition to put the world on track to meet the Paris goals? Will that ambition translate into scientifically rigorous action? As Patricia Espinosa pointed out, the increasing optimism and momentum increases the already high expectations for COP 26. If they are to meet the challenge of the moment and make peace with nature, parties will need—in the words of the Executive Secretary—to "work like [they] never have before."