Climate change doesn’t stop for COVID-19, but the climate negotiations have. Ever since the first meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP) in 1995, national and European Union negotiators have typically met at least twice annually. At these conferences, delegations have taken decisions on implementing the United Nations Climate Convention and have adopted new agreements (the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and Paris Agreement in 2015).
The pandemic has meant no UN climate negotiations in 2020. There is unfinished business finalising the Paris Agreement ‘rulebook’ – e.g. rules for a new cooperative ‘mechanism’ (superseding the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism), making this unprecedented hiatus is a setback for global cooperation. As the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period ends on the final day of 2020, full adoption of the Paris rules is more urgent than ever.
Many participants will tell you negotiation requires face-to-face meetings, so cancellation of the talks was widely expected once the pandemic took hold. In the absence of negotiations, however, UN climate committees and institutions have continued to work, delivering on a sprawling agenda through predominantly virtual meetings. These bodies run the gamut from advisory committees on various themes (e.g. adaptation or finance) to entities that fulfil practical functions under the climate treaties (e.g. supervising compliance).
It’s important that this work continue where possible, to implement aspects of the Paris Agreement and, crucially, help create the conditions for more ambitious climate action on the part of governments and other key decision-makers. And the work has indeed continued, subject only to the now-familiar quirks of the vast global experiment in remote working.
Enhancing technology development and transfer
Technology issues have been prominent on the UN climate agenda during 2020. Technologies are crucial enablers of both mitigation and adaptation. Both technology deployment and further innovation are needed for meeting the Paris goals. Reflecting this, over 75% of Parties included technology in their initial Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
In 2010, the COP created a Technology Mechanism to enhance action on technology development and transfer. This entity includes a ‘policy arm’ and an ‘implementation arm’. The former, the Technology Executive Committee (TEC), provides recommendations to the COP on technology matters and publishes studies on accelerating technology development and transfer. It is composed of members serving in a personal capacity, drawn in a balanced way from developed and developing countries. The latter, the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN), provides technical assistance to developing countries, among other services. Both bodies continued their work remotely in 2020.
Technical assistance for developing countries
Support for developing countries – in the forms of finance, technology and capacity-building – is an important part of the Paris Agreement. There is broad recognition that such assistance enables more ambitious commitments. As part of this support, the CTCN has fielded over two hundred requests for technical assistance from developing countries.
Least Developed Countries account for 58% of the requests and Small Island Developing States 26%. These requests cover a broad range of sectors. Requests concerning mitigation technologies have been dominated by energy, although low-emissions transport and eMobility are emerging priorities in the Asia-Pacific.
The CTCN’s secretariat draws on the expertise of a diverse array of Network members – mostly private sector or research organisations – to provide technical assistance. Outcomes of technical assistance include decision-making tools, feasibility studies, technology prioritisations, sectoral roadmaps and other products.
During 2020, the CTCN has so far received 36 technical assistance requests, down from 44 in 2019. Considering the degree of pandemic disruption, this relatively modest decline indicates continued robust demand for CTCN services. The CTCN reports that the ‘vast majority of requests are directly related to implementation of NDCs’. It can therefore be expected that as countries submit new or updated NDCs, there will be more requests for technical assistance.
The CTCN has also further developed its collaborations with multilateral climate funds. These represent a major opportunity for scaling the impact of the CTCN’s work. For example, under the new Adaptation Fund Climate Innovation Accelerator, the CTCN will be providing technical assistance to help vulnerable countries test and implement innovative adaptation practices and technologies.
Advising on climate technology in a disrupted world
For its part, the Technology Executive Committee worked remotely throughout 2020, including through taskforces including representatives of environmental NGOs, business and research institutions. It was clear that the virtual format limited the ability of some members to participate, owing to the ‘digital divide’. Also, the level of interaction among participants was clearly not the same as during in-person meetings. Nevertheless, the TEC managed to implement its planned activities. This included a variety of publications on topics from coastal zone technologies to technology needs assessments.
Reflecting the Paris Agreement’s increased focus on technological innovation, the TEC produced work on various aspects of this theme. A paper on innovative approaches to scaling technology implementation identified key conditions for accelerating technology uptake, such as blended capital that ‘crowds in’ private sector finance, to grow markets for climate technologies and reduce reliance on government support.
Also on innovation, the TEC identified good practices in international RD&D partnerships, began a study of emerging technologies, and continued its collaboration with the Green Climate Fund on the creation of a facility to support technology incubators and accelerators.
Of course, climate change is a whole-of-economy challenge and an effective response means going far beyond UN processes or dedicated ‘climate finance’ instruments.
Recognising this, the Paris Agreement sets the goal of ‘making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development’. Work on this goal is well underway in different regions, e.g. through the EU’s sustainable finance legislation. The TEC highlights the ‘emergence of sustainable finance taxonomies’ in its recommendations to the COP for 2020.
The rocky road to Glasgow
The UN climate process is not unique in facing an uncertain 2021. The Glasgow conference, delayed by a year, remains a critical and challenging step along the way to achieving the Paris goals.
The groundswell of momentum for climate neutrality by mid-century is one positive current. Until recently, there was little danger of getting knocked over in the rush of announcements. That changed in the last twelve months. The EU, Japan, South Korea and Canada have all committed to net-zero emissions by 2050, with the incoming Biden administration matching that position. China’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2060 is also a major step in the right direction.
Just as necessary will be credible policies and measures for implementing long-term commitments and more ambitious NDCs. Technology development and transfer will continue to play a major role in bringing these goals within reach.
Stephen Minas is vice-chair of the UNFCCC Technology Executive Committee, writing in a personal capacity.