The COP26 meeting – the 26th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – is rapidly approaching. Delegates from almost 200 countries will come together to find ways to work together to accelerate action to address climate change.
Although these meetings happen every year, inevitably some are more important than others. And there is little doubt that this year’s meeting, in the Scottish city of Glasgow during the first couple of weeks of November, is one of the important ones.
Originally due to be held five years after the thrashing out of the Paris agreement, the covid-delayed COP26 is the start of a “global stocktake” of nations’ climate progress, with countries due to submit more ambitious climate plans this year.
The UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, says COP26 will be about gaining commitments on “coal, cars, cash and trees”. In a video published on his Twitter feed, he has explained what that means.
Johnson says that the developed world should have ceased all use of coal by 2030, with the developing world doing the same by 2040. For cars (and presumably all land transportation) internal combustion engine machines should also become a thing of the past. Johnson says that the wealthiest nations, which have historically produced much of the world's carbon, should honour the previously-set target to support the rest of the planet to decarbonise with funds of $100bn a year.
And, on trees, Johnson calls for commitment to restoring nature and habitat and ending “the massacre of the forests”. He points out that trees are among the best natural defences against climate change. He says: “To be net-zero for carbon you must be net-positive for trees and by 2030 we want to be planting far more trees across the world than we are losing.”
However, despite the positive messaging from Johnson and other leaders, and a genuine sense that there’s a universal desire for success, the COP process is, in itself, sometimes a hindrance to progress. It requires unanimity in votes. It took three COPs to agree on the “rulebook” for implementation of the Paris agreement and, as Bloomberg reported in a pre-COP26 briefing, “some issues have still yet to be resolved”.
Only 75 signatories representing 30% of emissions met an initial deadline earlier this year to submit new targets. There has been some improvement – by the end of August, 84 countries had submitted the targets (known as nationally determined contributions or NDCs), but that leaves more than 70 without updated targets, according to Climate Action Tracker.
Nine UNFCCC members submitted NDCs with no increase in ambition, including some whose actions will be crucial to meeting climate targets: Mexico, Russia, Australia and Indonesia. Only 16 countries plus the EU27 have submitted stronger, more ambitious targets (although a further five countries including big emitters China, Nigeria and South Africa, have proposed submitting tougher targets).
Crucially, however, one of the governments that has increased its ambitions is the US, in the wake of Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump and rejoining the Paris agreement as one of his first acts as president. Perhaps this can lead to stronger commitments from other countries in the run up to the Glasgow meeting and beyond.
Despite the need for firm and immediate action, expectations for many are fairly low. Bloomberg argues that an all-encompassing global climate deal is not on the cards, predicting instead that a best-case scenario involves concrete progress on significant issues. For example, this could involve using existing mechanisms to raise ambitions on coal or phasing out internal combustion engines for transport.
Running parallel to the usual round of COP diplomacy – which has seen Alok Sharma, the UK’s COP president attacked for the number of flights he has taken – there has been a marked change in tone and approach from non-governmental stakeholders, including investors, companies, citizens and civil society.
The stream of recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has firmed up the consensus on climate change and what needs to be done, as reflected in bodies such as the Science Based Targets initiative, which sets out what each organisation needs to do to limit average temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial times. A growing number of companies, as well as governments, have committed to be net zero by 2050, and some of the world’s biggest corporations have signed up to science-based targets.
Many commentators expect that finance will be a key element of the COP26 discussions, not least because 2020 was the deadline for the developed nations to provide the $100bn a year to help developing economies decarbonise that Johnson referenced. Bloomberg predicts that how to meet this goal, new finance targets for 2025 and compensation for loss and damage from climate change will be big topics in Glasgow.
New market mechanisms?
Another important talking point will be the establishment of a global carbon market and a global offset market, something that may have become more likely after China finally launched its national emissions trading scheme. However, there remain deep, and deeply technical, divisions over whether and how any such mechanisms would work.
Investors, including the world’s largest asset manager, Blackrock, have become increasingly vocal in their demands that companies report on their climate risks and what they are doing to tackle them. Consumers, employees and civil society are also less tolerant of companies that fail to engage on the issues. All of this is reflected in more stringent regulation being introduced around the world and across industries, ranging from carbon prices to border adjustment mechanisms, which are designed so that companies meeting stretching carbon targets are not disadvantaged by foreign competitors that are not.
Strengthening the resolve and desire to act of the various stakeholders over the past year has been, of course, a stream of extreme weather events. There have been record temperatures from the Arctic to the deserts of the Middle East, wildfires from America to Australia, and floods in Europe, Africa and Asia, which have starkly highlighted the dangers of climate change for everyone.
Equally, the pandemic and the global response to it have highlighted both the dramatic consequences that can arise from unforeseen events and that we have the ability to respond rapidly, at scale and with great effectiveness, when we have to.
Face to face?
Meanwhile, on-the-ground, organisers are preparing for a conference that looks like it will take place physically rather than virtually, and will include the presence of Queen Elizabeth and Pope Francis as well as a number of other world leaders, not least Joe Biden.
To ease covid-19 related concerns, the UK has plans to vaccinate delegates from developing countries who would otherwise be unable to be inoculated, in advance of the summit. This process has, however, attracted criticism from some climate groups over the pace that vaccination has been rolled out. Clearly, involvement of delegates from the global south is vital for real progress to be possible.
In Glasgow itself, local police are also planning an unprecedented security operation, undergoing special training to deal with the expected protests. That at least is an example of normality in what has been a rather extraordinary and long lead up to the COP26 meeting.
This is the first in a series of regular reports from Mike Scott in the run up to the COP26 meetings in Glasgow.