What can we expect from COP26?

By Florine Lips

In light of revelations made by the recently published IPCC report, the need for meaningful action on climate change has never been greater. Pressure is high for this year’s UN climate summit, COP26, to be a success – but what can we realistically expect from the upcoming talks?

As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its newest, vaccine-led phase, the attention of governments and citizens alike shifts to another pressing item on the global agenda: the climate crisis. This year’s UN climate summit, COP26, will be decisive – it is widely considered the world’s last chance to address the crisis in a meaningful way. With the IPCC report urging immediate action, and countries facing the five-year mark to update their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) from the 2015 Paris Agreement, the pressure is on for a new series of commitments to take the world into a decade which will be critical for the environment. Previous summits have not always lived up to their promise, but there hasn’t always been this level of pressure – so, how likely is this one to succeed?

What is COP26?

This year’s Conference of Parties (COP), the 26th annual summit organised by the UN to tackle climate change, will be hosted by the UK and held in Glasgow. Negotiations are set to focus on CO2 emission reductions, climate financing and the ways in which different countries can build their resilience to the impacts of climate change. COP President-Designate Alok Sharma wrote in an introduction to the summit that “the next six months will see the UK push others not to flinch from the big policy decisions”, which he notes as “ending coal power, phasing out polluting vehicles, making agriculture more sustainable, tackling deforestation and supporting developing countries with finance”.

What are the COP26 aims?

Ultimately, the aim of the talks will be to push the commitments made in the Paris Agreement even further than they went in 2015. That year’s summit resulted in 196 countries pledging to keep global warming well below 2°C, with the aim of keeping it below 1.5°C, which was then seen as a huge breakthrough for a globally united climate strategy. NDCs were created to embody each country’s goals for emission reductions, which would include their methods for doing so. These were to be updated in five-year cycles, the first of which comes to an end this year – it was meant to be in 2020 but was delayed by the pandemic. In order to keep the 1.5°C target within reach, the world has to halve emissions over the next decade. So, COP26 needs to go a lot further than the Paris talks did. It has to be “decisive”, according to Sharma – “whether future generations look back at this time with admiration or despair, depends entirely on our ability to seize this moment”, he wrote.

“Code red for humanity”

Published in August of this year, the IPCC report issued a bleak prognosis for the future of the planet, unless immediate action is taken to prevent it. It warned that the Earth’s temperature is set to reach 1.5°C by 2040, if not sooner, and that the extreme weather we have seen over the past few years will become the norm. Millions of people will become climate migrants as sea levels rise and coastal areas are flooded.

The existence of global warming is undeniable, the report stressed; the past five years have been the hottest on record since 1850. António Guterres, Secretary General of the UN, described it as “code red for humanity”. In reference to the upcoming climate summit, he warned that “there is no time for delay and no room for excuses. I count on government leaders and all stakeholders to ensure COP26 is a success”.

What are the potential frictions?

Many factors threaten the success of COP26. One of the biggest talking points will be climate financing, which is often a source of tension in the climate conversation as poorer nations protest that wealthier nations should pick up the bill on a problem they helped create. At the Copenhagen summit of 2009, G7 countries pledged to make $100bn in private and public financing available to developing countries to help them transition to low-carbon technologies. Reports vary, but, according to OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann, only about $80bn of this has actually been raised so far. At this year’s UN General Assembly (UNGA), the US announced a new annual budget of $11.4bn, which would “make the US a leader in public climate finance”, according to the President. It is an improvement, but the plan still has to go through Congress, and leaves a big funding gap open for other nations to fill.

China is another source of tension, due in part to the controversial new defence pact between the UK, Australia and the US (AUKUS), which threatens the country’s presence in the South China Sea. President Xi Jinping was recently unable to confirm if he would attend the talks, which throws a spanner in the works –  as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, China’s cooperation is key to the success of COP26. Another undecided attendee is Australian PM Scott Morrison, who recently suggested that domestic needs were a priority. Australia is another large emitter of CO2, and a country whose climate policy has been criticised in recent years for not going far enough.

So, how hopeful should we be?

China’s announcement at the UNGA that they would stop funding coal energy projects abroad is a promising step towards the global eradication of coal power, although it does not address the country’s coal presence at home. If it encourages other countries to follow suit, it could have a very positive effect on the outcome of the talks. In any case, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that world leaders have the ability to take immediate action to address a crisis when they need to. Nafkote Dabi, Oxfam’s global climate policy leader, said recently that “the pandemic has shown that countries can swiftly mobilize trillions of dollars to respond to an emergency – it is clearly a question of political will. Let’s be clear”, she added, “we are in a climate emergency. It is wreaking havoc across the globe and requires the same decisiveness and urgency.”

It remains to be seen whether countries will be able to divert their attention from the ongoing pandemic and the growing geopolitical tensions in the Indo-Pacific region towards the climate, but it may be their last chance to do so. COP26 cannot afford to fail, and world leaders will have something to answer for if they cannot come to an agreement about the next decade of climate policy.