Image showing the COP26 logo and a view of the Glasgow skyline

COP26 – What’s on the Agenda?

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COP26 is a global United Nations summit about climate change and how countries are planning to tackle and adapt to it.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) seeks to “stabilize greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. It has been ratified by 196 States (including the UK) which constitute the “Parties” to the Convention, and meet annually in a Conference of the Parties (COP)

From 31 October to 12 November 2021, the 26th United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP26) will take place in Glasgow. COP26 is the most important gathering on climate change since the Paris COP in 2015, with the talks widely considered to be the last opportunity to deliver on commitments made in Paris to keep global temperature rise to within 1.5 – 2°C. COP26 also offers a crucial opportunity to address how a just, resilient and green recovery from Covid-19 is delivered. To achieve this temperature goal, GHG emissions must be reduced by all parties across all sectors of society and the economy.

This blog explains what will be discussed in Glasgow and explores what a successful COP might look like. Further information and updates are available from the COP26 – Hub for SPICe material.

What do countries have to do?

In oral evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, Alok Sharma MP, President Designate of the Conference noted that they “have been doing a significant amount of international engagement in preparing for COP26”; “the window is closing on 1.5°C although, if countries act now, there is still room”. Mr Sharma highlighted that the aim of COP21 in Paris was to reach a single agreement on limiting temperature rise, whereas there are four key priorities for agreement in Glasgow, on mitigation, adaptation, finance and collaboration. These are summarised below, and on the COP26 Website.

Global greenhouse gas emissions need to halve over the next decade and reach net zero by 2050 if temperature rises are to be limited to 1.5°C. Mitigation means countries publishing ambitious 2030 emissions reductions targets (known as Nationally Determined Contributions – NDCs) that align with reaching net zero by the middle of the century. It is fundamentally important that developed countries and the largest polluters show leadership by accelerating the transition from coal to renewables, protecting and restoring nature, and accelerating the switch to electric vehicles.

People worldwide must now live with devastating floods, heatwaves and other extreme weather events, heightened by the already changing climate. Further change is inevitable, especially for the most vulnerable communities who have done least to cause it. Adaptation means protecting communities and natural habitats from the changing climate by protecting and restoring ecosystems, building defences and warning systems, and making infrastructure and agriculture more resilient to avoid loss of and damage to homes, livelihoods and lives. Better plans and more finance need to be put in place.

To adequately adapt to current climate change and to mitigate further warming, public and private finance must be found. Developed countries had previously promised to raise at least $100bn per year to support developing countries, however it is estimated that this only amounted to $78.9bn in 2018. Public finance priorities include supporting public development banks (e.g. the Scottish National Investment Bank), mobilising private funds as well as grants to the poorest and most vulnerable, and finance for adaptation, resilience and nature-based solutions. Private finance priorities include funding technology and innovation and helping to multiply billions of public investment into trillions of total investment. The COP26 website states that “every company, every financial firm, every bank, insurer and investor will need to change”. In short, this means a fundamental shift in public and private financial decision making to take climate change into account.

Governments, businesses and civil society must work together, and faster, to deliver on climate goals. Some of the rules needed to implement the Paris Agreement have still to be agreed, therefore collaboration to implement the “Paris Rulebook” is necessary. Key areas where agreement must be reached include creating a carbon market and a robust system of carbon credits that supports the move to net zero, and putting a universal system of transparency and reporting in place that encourages countries to keep to their commitments.

Where are we now?

In oral evidence to the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, Alok Sharma highlighted that over 100 countries have now come forward with NDCs, meaning that over 70% of global GDP is now covered by a net zero commitment, however almost 200 parties signed up to the Paris Agreement.

Climate Action Tracker provides an up to date assessment of the process, with 117 parties having now submitted updated NDCs covering 61% of global emissions and 50.4% of global population:

In relation to climate finance, the G7 meeting in Cornwall in June 2021 saw the promise of additional new money from Germany, Canada and Japan, as well as a reaffirmation of the previous commitment to raise at least $100bn per year to support developing countries. However, this did not come with concrete proposals or detailed spending plans and was widely criticised by development charities and activists. In 2019 the UK committed to doubling international climate aid, and this year Scotland’s Climate Justice Fund was doubled to £6m per annum.

China’s place in the negotiations, as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, is complicated. It has recently pledged that its emissions will peak by 2030 and that it will be carbon neutral by 2060, as well as undertaking to stop financing new coal fired power plants abroad. However there remain plans to build 43 new coal fired plants and 18 new blast furnaces (for steel) – equivalent to adding about 1.5% to its current annual emissions.

China produces more greenhouse gases than any other nation state, and nearly twice as much as the next largest emitter, the USA; it also accounts for nearly 30% of global manufacturing output. However, per capita, it ranks 15th globally with individual American or Saudi Arabian citizens responsible for nearly 3 times as much, and Canadian, Australian and South Korean citizens responsible for more than double. The UK is 10th on the list, flanked above by Iran and below by Poland. There is a strong imperative for all countries to act on their contribution to global emissions.

What does success look like?

In oral evidence to the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, Lord Deben, Chair of the UK’s independent Climate Change Committee noted that “success is difficult to define in advance”, but that all NDC’s and climate finance must be in place, as well as “mechanisms by which […] countries intend to achieve the ends to which they are committed”. He went on to highlight the important leadership shown by the USA, South Korea, Japan and “most of the industrialised world” to move “further and faster”. However, Australia and Brazil were singled out for their lack of action, and China was called upon to bring forward its net-zero commitment by ten years to 2050.

Alok Sharma has indicated that success “would be for independent parties to come out of the conference and say that we have kept 1.5°C within reach”. COP26, and future COPs will therefore have to negotiate this challenge:

The last word

These are exciting times for the host city and nation, with the world’s eyes on Glasgow. There are also dire consequences for people and planet if a comprehensive agreement is not reached. The last word, for now, goes to Lord Deben from the Climate Change Committee; in short, he believes that the public are ready for change and want to decarbonise, but that clear and decisive political leadership is required:

Alasdair Reid, Senior Researcher; Climate Change, Energy, and Land Reform