The United Nations' climate talks kick off today in Madrid under something of a cloud.

Two global organizations released dire warnings last week that greenhouse gases are rising with no end in sight. In spite of that, the world's largest historic emitter, the United States, is leaving the Paris Agreement.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether a climate pact that relies on voluntary national commitments — as the deal of nearly 200 countries reached outside Paris in 2015 is designed to do — can deliver the needed results.

The next moment of truth comes next year in Glasgow, when countries are asked to strengthen the pledges — known in Paris parlance as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs. If enough countries step forward to increase their commitment in a way that begins to close the gap on the Paris goal of keeping warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, that will boost confidence in the agreement, experts say. If not, faith in the deal will falter.

"Next year really is a critical test for what countries are prepared to do to put the world on a trajectory to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement," said David Waskow, director of the international climate program at the World Resources Institute.

Madrid "in many respects can be seen as a marker on that path, as a steppingstone to what needs to be achieved next year," he added.

Here's what's at stake for the next two weeks in Madrid.

The rules for carbon trading

Last year's round of U.N. climate talks in Katowice, Poland, closed negotiations on most aspects of how the pact will operate — a set of procedures known as the Paris rulebook.

But talks stumbled on one issue — how international carbon trading markets should operate to make emission reductions less expensive under the deal without undermining their integrity.

This year's talks will center on two issues: whether carbon credits can be counted effectively toward two countries' NDCs at the same time and whether projects undertaken before 2020 can be counted toward Paris — which effectively begins next year.

Brazil took the lead last year in insisting that countries that, like it, produce carbon offsets should be allowed to sell those to foreign buyers while still counting those reductions toward their own NDCs. The South American giant also wants projects it undertook under the Clean Development Mechanism, or CDM, of the Kyoto Protocol to retain their value under Paris even though the protocol will effectively end this year.

The Chilean presidency of this year's conference of the parties, or COP, wants to make progress toward resolving the issues. But environmentalists warned of the risk of agreeing to a set of rules that creates loopholes that would allow corporations and companies to claim reductions they're not making.

"Obviously, having bad rules in place could be disastrous in terms of environmental integrity by allowing a lot of non-additional transactions into the market and letting countries off the hook to do as much as they need to do to meet their Paris commitments," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Meyer noted that if negotiators don't finish work on what is known as Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, countries may go ahead and link their trading on an ad hoc basis.

"It would be sort of a Wild West scenario where it's left up to each country or group of countries how they're going to proceed," he said.

This is the last major thing the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will ever negotiate after a quarter-century of wrangling over responsibility and finance, commas and clauses. When Article 6 closes, attention turns to Paris implementation.


This September's U.N. leader summit in New York City failed to produce a quorum of countries promising new NDCs next year in time for Glasgow. Sixty-eight countries have signaled that they plan to strengthen their commitments by then — including 33 small island states and 20 African countries. But they collectively account for about 8% of the world's emissions.

The United States is unlikely to have an NDC at all after next year, and big emitters like China, India and the European Union have not made commitments.

"Obviously, the climate summit was disappointing in terms of commitments from the [Group of 20 countries]," said Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute. "One of the great uncertainties is will they, in the coming months, come forward with a more ambitious NDC."

Ahead of Paris, the Obama administration worked with China to secure that country's first firm pledge to stop growing emissions by 2030. Climate advocates hope China will promise an earlier peak by next year, but the U.S. retreat and a slowing of Chinese economic growth have thrown that optimism into doubt.

The E.U. could play the same role next year the U.S. did under President Obama, reaching out to both China and India to help deliver action. But the E.U. has yet to make firm plans to ratchet up its own 2030 commitment to Paris.

"What we desperately need is Europe to fairly quickly come forward with the political capacity to have the kinds of conversations with China so that we'll achieve what President Obama achieved six years ago," Steer said.

The stakes are high.

"If after our first run through the ratchet mechanism we can't get significantly closer to our temperature goals, then I think it's an alarm for the entire world to think about whether we're setting ourselves up for success," said Elan Strait, director of U.S. climate campaigns for the World Wildlife Fund. "I think it's a big deal."

Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage

Madrid also will play host to renewed debate over how people harmed or displaced by climate change should be compensated. Six years ago, in Warsaw, the UNFCCC launched a mechanism to begin looking at this issue, known as loss and damage. There wasn't a guarantee of additional finance to pay those who are dispossessed by more frequent hurricanes or driven from their homes by rising seas.

But now that the Paris rulebook is almost complete, vulnerable countries want to turn the world's attention to the plight of those who will be adversely affected by climate change that is no longer avoidable. The developed world, as a whole, committed in Paris to deliver at least $100 billion a year for adaptation and mitigation beginning next year, and parties in Madrid will take stock of progress toward that goal. But small islands, nations in the developing world and others want assurances that there will be additional help for those facing irreversible damages from warming. That issue is known as loss and damage, and vulnerable countries see it as separate from adaptation and mitigation and deserving of distinct, additional finance.

"The U.S. position has been that addressing loss and damage is a form of adaptation and therefore covered by adaptation," said Strait, who was part of the U.S. State Department negotiating team in Paris. "I don't think that was a position that was shared by the rest of the world."

U.S. out

The U.S. will send a skeleton crew of diplomats and technical experts to Madrid to participate in the Article 6 discussions and other business.

No political appointees are expected to attend (Climatewire, Nov. 25). Observers say the shrinking U.S. presence tracks with Washington's plans to leave Paris on Nov. 4 of next year — one day after the U.S. elections.

Keith Krach, the State Department undersecretary for economic growth, energy and the environment, isn't expected to make the trip. But he told reporters at a briefing earlier this month that the world still saw the U.S. as a leader on climate change.

"I think the best form of leadership is leadership by example," he said, touting U.S. greenhouse gas reductions since 2005. Most analyses show U.S. emissions rebounding somewhat in 2018.

"We lead the world in terms of developing technology for efficiency and implementing it," Krach continued.

While the Trump administration is not expected to send political appointees to the talks, House and Senate Democrats will attend for the first time since the Paris summit four years ago.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is leading the delegation, which also includes Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), and 12 other House members. They will hold a press appearance at the Madrid conference venue this afternoon, where they're expected to condemn President Trump's plans to withdraw from the accord.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news a