At 9am on Saturday morning, after a long night of negotiations, the UK hosts of Cop26 had just published what they hoped would be final text of the Glasgow pact when an email came in to their chief negotiator Archie Young.
“Archie,” it said: “This is the most unbalanced text imaginable – only the views of the rich and the powerful reflected currently… Hang in there, but it’s going to get bumpy!”
The email came from Kevin Conrad, a New York lawyer representing Papua New Guinea. It sparked panic and anger across the diplomatic world.
The next few hours saw a frantic, widespread and high-level lobbying campaign to stop Conrad from blocking the text – something he denies he ever intended to do.
Conrad’s main issue with the text was a technical one. As the founder of an NGO called the Coalition for Rainforest Nations (CfRN), he argued that UN forestry projects, under a scheme known as Redd+, should be automatically included in the UN carbon market framework, under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement.
The idea of Redd+ is to financially incentivise rainforest nations like PNG to protect their trees. It was instigated by PNG and Costa Rica at UN climate talks in 2005.
But its record is patchy, with many accounts of forest dwellers not being adequately consulted or of trees being saved in one area only for loggers to invade another. As Cop26 started, NGOs from PNG took out an advertisement in a national newspaper to warn of “vast forest clearance” in the country’s Torricelli mountains in recent months and urge the government to put a stop to it.
Conrad did not try to downplay these concerns, saying his organisation “fully supports all NGOs highlighting illegal logging”.
In a statement, Greenpeace US said that Redd+ “has done next to nothing to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions or rein in the big food and agribusiness companies driving deforestation – and has faced severe criticism from indigenous leaders.”
Nathaniel Keohane, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, told Climate Home News that only Redd+ projects with high standards should be included in carbon markets.
“For forest carbon markets to realize their potential, credits need to meet not just the minimum requirements of the Warsaw Redd+ framework but also a high bar for environmental and social integrity,” he said.
Through nearly two weeks of talks in Glasgow, Conrad had a chance of getting his way. Despite strong opposition from the European Union, the Redd+ language remained in the draft Article 6 text.
But on Friday night, the US (claiming the support of the Ailac group of Latin American and Caribbean nations) put forward a submission to delete it.
Conrad says he fought against this, but with most of his team having simultaneously fallen ill after dining a nearby Italian restaurant, his efforts were underpowered.
When the texts were published at 8am on Saturday, it became clear that Redd+ was out and Conrad fired off his ominous email to Young.
While Young replied calmly, inviting Conrad to come and discuss his concerns, others were furious.
Within minutes, Greenpeace International’s Jennifer Morgan had sent a Whatsapp message to Conrad, telling him to back down. Greenpeace US would later put out a public statement accusing Conrad of “holding up the whole plenary at Cop26” and, Conrad said, Morgan would confront him on the plenary floor. Morgan could not be reached for comment.
In New York, it wasn’t yet 5am. But UN chief Antonio Guterres had already spoken to PNG’s ambassador to the UN, Max Hufanen Rai, about his concerns that Conrad would block the text.
Rai’s staff reported this conversation back to Conrad. “I was surprised by the British government’s actions outside the rink,” Conrad told Climate Home News.
On Twitter, Keohane accused Conrad of “reportedly trying to blow up a strong Art 6 deal out of pique and self-interest, after his bid to have unverified carbon credits from his private-label program automatically included [in the carbon market] was widely opposed including by forest countries”.
BREAKING: At #COP26 Kevin Conrad/CfRN reportedly trying to blow up a strong Art 6 deal out of pique and self-interest, after his bid to have unverified carbon credits from his private-label program automatically included as ITMOs was widely opposed including by forest countries.
— Nat Keohane (@NatKeohane) November 13, 2021
As ministers filed in for the informal plenary due to start early afternoon, reporters at the back of the room asked each other if “this Papua New Guinea thing” was going to be the story of the day.
A huddle formed, with Conrad and Kerry joining the lead negotiator Ahmadou Sebory Toure for the G77+China, the biggest bloc representing developing countries, to hash out sticking points on Article 6 and adaptation finance.
Around 1:45pm, Alok Sharma gave up trying to start the meeting and the G77+China went off for a closed meeting. A source in the room told Climate Home News: “PNG’s environment minister was quite vocal during the closed meeting that we had on Saturday. He was trying to push all [developing] countries to reject the current article 6 because we can get a better deal.”
Another source with knowledge of the discussion told Climate Home at the time that PNG was saying “no deal is better than a bad deal” on Article 6.
While Conrad denies he ever used the word “block”, he told Climate Home News he asked countries to “consider the options as to whether we approve it here or whether we push it to [the next Cop in] Africa [in 2022]”.
In that meeting, representatives of small island states urged compromise on this and other issues to get a deal done. The African group, which had been partially aligned with PNG, was also not inclined to take the nuclear option.
They had been “somewhat reassured” by the EU’s Frans Timmermans there would be support for forest protection through other channels, Lee White, environment minister of Gabon and lead negotiator for the African group, told Climate Home. “We’re not using people’s lives as a bargaining chip to get a bit of money for rainforest nations.”
Papua New Guinea’s environment minister has said that given the lack of financial aid, his country may “rethink” efforts to cut logging, coal mining and even coming to these meetings. – KIRO 7 News Seattle #cop26 #PNG https://t.co/9UPDQudLfa
— Dr Timothy Utteridge (@timutteridge) November 12, 2021
When Conrad and environment minister Wera Mori returned for the closing plenary, Conrad said they had a speech prepared, denouncing the agreement. But the minister had to leave to get a Covid test and Conrad stayed silent.
As the gavel came down, the conference burst into a round of applause and the UN’s cameras panned to John Kerry high-fiving his advisers then to a row of delegates. Japan and Jamaica clapped enthusiastically, as did Palau and Pakistan behind them. The only one not clapping was Conrad.
He said he “didn’t want to be part of any self congratulation exercise” and left shortly after for dinner with his team. At 8:37pm, CfRN tweeted its verdict: “A very disappointing final day at #COP26. Rainforest nations go home empty handed. It was not an inclusive process. Our interests were removed from #Article6 over night without consultation.”
Keohane saw it as crisis averted. “High quality jurisdictional Redd+ will be central to carbon markets under Article 6. Indeed, the decision makes that more likely by protecting the market for emissions reductions that meet the highest standard of environmental and social integrity,” he said.
“The language that was removed in the final draft would have done an end-run around those protections — which is why it was opposed by a wide range of countries including tropical forest countries that have the most to gain from a high-integrity forest carbon market.”
Asked to comment, a UK presidency spokesperson said: “The US and UK have jointly been supportive of the Redd+ framework, as it has developed under the UNFCCC, and also through investments – in, for example, the Green Climate Fund, the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility and the BioCarbon Fund ISFL.”
This article was amended on 19 November to include the UK presidency’s comment.