In November 2021, all eyes will be on Glasgow, Scotland when the city will have a chance at fame as the venue of a major environmental success—or bitter failure.
For twelve days, Glasgow will receive leaders from 200 countries as host of the twenty-sixth UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). These are anticipated to be the most pivotal climate talks since Paris in 2015 (COP21) when almost every nation on Earth signed the Paris Climate Agreement and committed to limiting the rise of global average temperature to “well below 2°C.” COP26 will be the first conference convened after the measures agreed upon in Paris take full effect.
The event, originally scheduled to take place last year, was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, it has generated high expectations and concern among the scientific community, climate activists, and government officials around the world. After all, while the Paris Agreement was considered a great success in global climate action for its ambitious goal, progress towards meeting this goal has since been painfully slow. With ice caps melting faster, tropical storms becoming more common, and temperatures rising across the globe, environmentalists say that this could be our last chance to avoid environmental devastation.
According to the latest studies, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will need to drop by half by 2030 and reach “net-zero” around mid-century if the worst climate impacts are to be avoided. Net-zero is the point when all GHG emissions released by humans are offset by extracting GHGs from the atmosphere through carbon removal processes.
So, what needs to happen to make this climate summit a success? Climate specialists specify some important goals to be achieved: countries need to present more ambitious climate goals, the richest nations (also known as the G7 group) need to commit to international climate financing, and the parties need to finalize topics in the Paris Agreement rulebook that are still pending.
1. Ambitious Emission Reduction Targets
Six years ago in Paris, a number of countries agreed to submit their climate commitment goals (known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs) to the UN and update them every five years. The idea sounded great. After all, this was an effective way to monitor the world’s progress towards meeting the overall goal of the climate agreement. However, in February 2021 the UN reported that the countries were falling short of their emission reduction commitments and were “nowhere close” to the level of action needed to fight global warming.
The document examined 48 NDCs submitted by 75 parties by the end of 2020 and found that the commitments made would only cut emissions by about 2.8% of what had been pledged by those countries five years earlier.
“The aggregate effect of the CO2 reduction targets contained in those documents is generally consistent with emission trajectories that result in global warming of around 3°C by 2100, with warming continuing afterward,” explains Thelma Krug, Vice-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The biggest polluters and the richest countries need to drastically increase their emission reduction targets and present concrete timelines to act. Policy, technology, and behavior need to shift across the board.
The UN reported that countries are “nowhere close” to fulfilling the climate goals made in Paris. In fact, current national commitments will only cover 2.8% of what was pledged in 2015.
“This implies a transformation in all sectors of the economy, something unprecedented in history. CO2 is the most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and is present in practically all areas of the economy: in industry, in land use (particularly with deforestation and forest degradation), in energy supply, in transport. So, zeroing these CO2 emissions requires the implementation of profound emission reduction measures that, in case they are not zeroed around 2050, could be offset by the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere through, for example, reforestation," summarizes Krug.
Alok Sharma, president of the UN COP26 climate summit, said that, for the November talks in Glasgow to be considered a success, governments also must announce an end to new coal power plants and commit to phasing out existing ones. So far, the G7 countries have agreed to stop international financing of coal projects that emit carbon by the end of this year and phase out such support for all fossil fuels.
Sharma is also urging countries to end the sale of new gasoline and diesel vehicles. “Over this year we want to see countries making ambitious commitments on ending the sale of new gasoline and diesel vehicles,” he wrote in an official statement.
2. Climate Financing for Vulnerable Countries
Vulnerable nations are the least responsible for climate change, but they are often the most affected by its impacts, like hurricanes, floods, diseases, and more. That is why the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Patricia Espinosa, told global leaders that “international financing has really become one of the most important elements to ensure a good outcome at COP 26.”
She was referring to the commitment, made in 2009 by developed nations, to raise climate financing for vulnerable countries to green their economies and adapt to the impacts of climate change. The plan called for nations to mobilize $100 billion per year in climate funds for developing countries starting in 2020 through 2025.
The world’s richest nations pledged to financially support vulnerable nations’ adaptation to climate change. So far, almost all have fallen short of those promises.
But the world’s richest nations have consistently failed to keep their financial promises. The most recent numbers suggest that they are falling short of that goal by $20 billion a year. A report by the Danish charity Care International found that only three countries—the UK, New Zealand, and Luxembourg—have announced concrete plans to increase their disbursements.
Although the G7 leaders, at their latest summit, reaffirmed their intention of “increasing and improving climate finance by 2025,” they did not reach an official agreement.
“We need to have an increase in the scale of climate finance and the assurance that the resources will be available to developing countries, especially now, when they have been and are still being affected not only by climate change but also by the COVID-19 pandemic. These countries will only be able to act and establish development policies based on emission-reducing projects if they have external support,” explains Carlos Rittl, a Brazilian environmentalist who works at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Germany.
3. Finishing Touches on the Paris Rulebook
The Paris Agreement was signed five years ago, but some important details of the Paris Rulebook (the Agreement’s implementation guidelines) have yet to be finalized. This is expected to be done at COP26.
There are three main topics that have been discussed in parallel events since 2015 but are still open for negotiation. The first covers the technical details of the rulebook’s enhanced transparency framework which includes standards for how countries will track and report their greenhouse gas emissions. Secondly, the parties need to set a common time frame and corresponding targets for their 2025 NDCs. And the last topic to resolve at COP26 is determining how carbon markets (Article 6 of the Paris Agreement) will work.
There is still disagreement on the rules governing how global carbon markets will function. Leaders are expected to coordinate plans to ensure an overall mitigation of global emissions while, at the same time, avoiding the double-counting of emission reductions. As the UN climate chief, Patricia Espinosa, said in June, a “significant amount of work” lies ahead for the COP26 summit.
*Jaqueline Sordi is a Brazilian journalist and biologist, specializing in science and environmental journalism. She has a master’s degree in environmental journalism at UCLA and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in communications at Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.