by Mia Clement (she/they)
By COP26, countries are due to finalise their national action plans (nationally determined contributions, or NDCs) to cut emissions under the Paris Agreement. COP26 is considered significant as it will be the first COP to take place after the landmark Paris Agreement’s measures take effect and the first opportunity for nations to review commitments and strengthen ambition; these measures were approved at COP21 in Paris in 2015. COP stands for Conference of the Parties, and the summit will be attended by the countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – a treaty that came into force in 1994.
For the first time in history, the UN Climate Change Conference is being held in the UK, as Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, serves as host. There are two main sites for the event: the Blue Zone and the Green Zone. The former is where the official negotiations take place, bringing together the delegates and observers through discussions, exhibits and cultural activities. This is a UN-managed space based at the Scottish Event Campus (SEC) in the west part of the city. The Green Zone is run by the UK government and is designed to be a platform for the public, artists, academics, and more to encourage grassroots participation and promote conversations around climate change. This is set to be held at the Glasgow Science Centre, which also includes a 370-seat IMAX cinema auditorium.
Saturday the 24th July marks 100 days to the COP26 summit, vital UN climate talks that open on 1 November in Glasgow. Scores of world leaders will fly in for the start, and officials from 196 countries will spend two weeks in high-pressure negotiations aimed at setting a new path to a safer climate.
COVID-19 has refocused priorities and caused individuals and governments alike to pay closer attention to the environment. As many countries look to rebuild their economies in the wake of the pandemic, there has been a significant emphasis on ‘building back better’ through a green recovery. It’s also the first COP to be held since the US left and rejoined the Paris Agreement, so it’s likely that there will be extra eyes on US contributions to the summit.
Floods across Europe and China, wildfires in the US, killer heatwaves stretching into northern latitudes, and extreme weather across the planet gives a glimpse into what is at stake. Scientists warn that unless global greenhouse gas emissions are halved in the next decade, temperatures will rise by more than 1.5C, and the extreme heat, droughts and floods seen in recent weeks will rapidly become the norm rather than the exception with devastating consequences. John Kerry, the special envoy for climate to the US president Joe Biden, warned in his landmark speech at Kew Gardens this week: “COP26 in Glasgow [is] a pivotal moment for the world to come together to meet and master the climate challenge … in little more than 100 days, we can save the next hundred years.”
Alok Sharma, the UK minister who will serve as president of the summit, said: “COP26 is our last best hope of avoiding the worst effects of climate change, and we cannot afford to fail. Over the next 100 days, we need all governments to accelerate the green transition so that we leave Glasgow with a clear plan to limit global warming to 1.5C. This will set the course of this decisive decade for our planet and future generations.”
“We ask ourselves every day – where is the prime minister?” said Chris Venables of the Green Alliance thinktank. “It’s clear that he has not grasped the scale of holding the biggest diplomatic event on UK soil since the second world war. This should be his No 1 priority.” Johnson should be cajoling and pushing heads of government worldwide to forge a deal at Glasgow but has yet to make a real mark, added Bernice Lee, a research director at the Chatham House thinktank. “This is mission-critical – we need another round of leader-level diplomacy from Johnson.”
No government ministers were at Kew to hear Kerry’s policy intervention, in which he called on China, the world’s biggest emitter, to join the US in taking stronger climate action. Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow business secretary, who attended UN climate talks as environment secretary under Gordon Brown, was in the audience.
There has been important progress on COP26 in the last six months. An increasing number of countries, including China, the EU and the US, have set targets to reach net-zero emissions around mid-century. Many have also set targets on emissions for 2030, including the UK, the EU and the US. However there are still major steps to take...
Countries need to cut emissions, rapidly and drastically, to keep in play the 1.5C global temperature rise limit (above pre-industrial levels), and avoid more life-threatening, planet-altering fall-out. (The world has currently warmed around 1C). While a global target of net-zero emissions has been set for 2050, much steeper cuts are needed within the next decade. And while much is riding on negotiations in Glasgow, these final few months are also crucial to progress. “With 100 days to go, it's time to shift to sprint mode if we want to deliver a successful COP26,” Yamide Dagnet, World Resources Institute’s director of climate negotiations, told The Independent.
The Paris agreement of 2015 set out two key goals: one firm commitment to holding temperature rises to “well below 2C” and another aspirational goal of staying within the 1.5C threshold. That compromise was forged because many were reluctant to agree to anything less than 2C, wary of putting limits on their economic growth, while small islands and low-lying states such as the Marshall Islands and Bangladesh feared they would be overwhelmed by sea level rises if temperatures exceeded 1.5C.
Since then, however, a report in 2018 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world authority on climate science, found that going beyond 1.5C would be dangerous, leading to the bleaching of coral reefs, an increase in extreme weather, and widespread damage to the natural world. Many experts worry that we will overshoot 1.5C but argue that keeping it as a goal is vital to ensure we limit the damage as far as possible.
Kerry made it clear that he sees 1.5C as the goal, and under the UK’s presidency, the G7 also agreed to target the lower limit. Kerry said: “There is still time to put a safer 1.5C future back within reach. But only if every major economy commits to meaningful reductions by 2030.”
Setting a strong target for the summit is just one step; however, ensuring a concrete programme of action comes out of COP26 must be the main goal. Veterans of the UN talks warn that several key elements are still missing.
The most stark is emissions-cutting targets for the next ten years. National plans on emissions cuts, called nationally determined contributions or NDCs, are the bedrock of the Paris climate agreement. But the plans submitted so far to the UN would mean temperatures rising by more than 2C. While ministers meet to hammer out details, the warnings are growing louder. The International Energy Agency forecast this week that the world’s annual carbon output would reach record levels in 2023, on current trends, because governments are failing to pursue green energy. Emissions at that level would put the 1.5C goal all but out of reach.
Away from the international stage, there will be a push from those working at regional and local levels to showcase just what all that action looks like on the ground, and in practice.
A packed calendar of international events remains ahead of the November summit, including next week when more than 40 ministers from around the world will gather in London to discuss plans for Glasgow. There’s also a Youth Summit, the annual UN General Assembly in New York in September and the UN Biodiversity Conference a month later in Kunming, China, to name just a few high-level discussions taking place. COP also has a “pre-COP” for last-minute preparations, being held in Milan in early October.
“All of these events can be related directly to what’s happened in the Arctic region. [It] has heated up dramatically, and is far warmer than the rest of the planet,” Sir David reported to the Guardian. That rapid heating has “badly distorted” the jet stream. “The result is the weather systems of the world have produced all of these extreme patterns. It’s a direct causality,” he said. Sir David said that part of what was required was to “stop using fossil fuels as quickly as we can” and for governments to move much faster, for example with greater production of electric vehicles, so communities do not suffer in the transition to a clean economy. “Where we are today, with the amount of greenhouse gases we’ve put into the atmosphere already, is far too serious for us to really consider that the future of our civilization is safe even if we were to reduce emissions to net zero tomorrow,” he added.
Expect to see more pressure on the fossil fuel industry in the run-up to COP26. The UK government has already said that sponsorship from the sector is not welcome at the climate summit. Meanwhile, climate activist groups such as 350.org and Stop the Money Pipeline are ramping up pressure with campaigns like “Deadline Glasgow” to hold global leaders and the fossil fuel industry to account.
Next month, the IPCC is expected to come out with the first part of a new scientific assessment warning that our emissions could already be triggering tipping points in the climate system that could make global heating irreversible. That makes staying within 1.5C even more critical.
The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, is the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference. It is scheduled to be held in the city of Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November 2021 under the presidency of the United Kingdom.