Keeping expectations realistic for COP26 in Glasgow

Written by: Joanna Depledge


There are great expectations by governments, businesses, and civil society for the forthcoming Glasgow Climate Conference, or COP 26, as it’s known in the jargon. US Secretary of State John Kerry has labelled it “the last best hope for the world”, words echoed by UK COP President Designate, Alok Sharma. Similar hyperbole is peppered liberally throughout the global media. There are good reasons to demand much of COP 26. Time is literally running out to avoid overshooting a temperature rise of 1.5˚C, the stronger of the two temperature targets enshrined in the Paris Agreement. Although the main aim of the Paris Agreement is to level out at “well below” 2 ˚C, a 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) established that the risks from climate change would be substantially reduced at the lower level. The latest comprehensive IPCC assessment, released in August 2021, underscored the urgency and severity of the climate emergency that we face. Global surface temperatures have already risen by about 1.2 ˚C, and the global output of greenhouse gases has resumed its upward trend after the temporary Covid-induced dip of 2020. Even if they won’t say it in public, most serious climate-watchers privately admit that 1.5˚C is a lost cause without fantastical levels of carbon drawdown from the atmosphere using unproven technologies. But if 1.5˚C is to be kept “in reach”, – as Alok Sharma and the environmental community want, and the most climate vulnerable states need – then the emission cuts needed to achieve it must be declared in 2021, at COP 26.

And the political opportunity to do so is there for the taking. Under the terms of the Paris Agreement, governments are expected to update their emission pledges – the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – every five years. The first update therefore fell to COP 26 in 2020, postponed to 2021 because of the Covid-induced pause in the negotiations. The hope was that governments would have submitted their updated NDCs well before COP 26. Most countries complied, and stronger NDCs have been received from the majority of the top 20 emitters, including from the US, UK, EU and South Africa. Some other top 20 emitters – notably Australia and Brazil – have tabled revised pledges, but without any real increase in ambition, a clear case of adhering to the letter, but not the spirit, of the Agreement. According to the respected Climate Action Tracker, all the updated NDCs added together would bring the corresponding temperature increase down to about 2.4˚C, an improvement on previous projections that were around the 3 ˚C level, but still a far cry from a “well below” 2˚C world, let alone a 1.5˚C one. For this, more ambitious NDCs – subsequently implemented – are needed from the world’s top 20 emitters that haven’t yet declared: principally China (1st), but also India (3rd) and Saudi Arabia (11th). China, accounting for a third of global emissions, is all important here: if it were to formally table the net zero by 2060 goal that President Xi Jinping announced to the UN General Assembly last year, then the reading on the Climate Action Tracker’s global thermometer would be well on the way down to 2˚C. Better late than never, and the strong hope is that all the tardy or timid top 20 emitters will – to misquote Boris Johnson – “rocket-boost” COP 26 by declaring significantly more ambitious targets in the opening days of the Conference.

While the high-level political focus is on ramping up emission targets, the main formal task on the Glasgow agenda is actually to finalise the long overdue rulebook of the Paris Agreement. This relates in particular to rules establishing a new carbon market under the Agreement’s “Article 6”. The rest of the rulebook was completed at the Katowice COP 24 in 2018, but deadlocked positions meant that Article 6 and a couple of other issues were carried over to the Madrid COP 25 in 2019. Again agreement proved elusive, mostly due to an impressively stubborn Brazilian delegation under Jair Bolsonaro. Finalising the rules on Article 6 is of doubtful importance in actually combatting climate change, but it is crucial to upholding the legitimacy and reputation of the climate change regime. There are hopes that Glasgow can succeed in unlocking agreement when Katowice and Madrid failed.

A key reason for this optimism is that the US, under President Joe Biden, is now actively and constructively engaged in the international climate change negotiations. In this respect, it is worth reflecting on one of the few silver linings of the Covid-19 pandemic – that it led to the postponement of COP 26 from November 2020, when it would have taken placed under former President Donald Trump. Given Trump’s well-known climate scepticism, it was virtually impossible to make significant headway on climate change internationally (and indeed domestically in the US) under his watch. Four years were, in effect, lost, adding to the urgency that now confronts Glasgow. But Biden has made tackling climate change a priority. He rejoined the Paris Agreement – which President Trump rejected – on his first day back in office and convened a Climate Summit of world leaders just three months later. He has declared a net zero target for 2050, a halving of US emissions from 2005 levels by 2030, and a significant uplift in climate finance for developing countries. The presence of a supportive President in the White House certainly opens up new political opportunities, notwithstanding lingering Congressional hostility and the danger that a future Republican administration could reverse any gains.

So hopes for Glasgow are high. Perhaps too high. There is a real danger of the Conference collapsing under the weight of unmet expectations. For a start, the formal agenda is mostly technical, with no treaty under negotiation or big-picture decisions on the cards. Any strengthened NDCs, along with boosted financial pledges to assist developing countries, will be announced by governments during the leader’s summit in the first two days of the Conference. After that, it will be a question of slogging through a long list of important – but for the public mostly incomprehensible – agenda items. This could leave environmental groups and the public feeling angry at what they might see as a woefully inadequate response to a global emergency. Something like this happened at the last COP in Madrid, when the hopes of campaigners came up against the constraints of international diplomatic processes. There is a real danger of major social unrest, perhaps even violence, if frustrations boil over.

Of course, the UK COP Presidency could use its prerogative as Chair to go beyond the official agenda and push through something truly historic. Some kind of compact on the phase out of coal would be the obvious target, with Alok Sharma having spoken of “consigning coal to history” as one of his personal objectives for Glasgow. Even a sentence or two endorsing the end of coal in a political declaration would be a major step forwards for a UN process whose decisions have never even mentioned the word “coal” (nor indeed “fossil fuel”). The problem is that achieving such a breakthrough would require strong political momentum and a groundswell of support cutting across traditional political groupings. This is exactly what happened at COP 21 in Paris in 2015. Painstaking diplomatic outreach between the US and China enabled consensus on the Agreement itself, while a High Ambition Coalition of more than 100 countries – from the US to Tuvalu, via the EU and Peru – helped push through the 1.5˚C aspirational goal. Unfortunately, the geopolitical landscape in late 2021 is very different to that in late 2015. Diplomatic relations between the West and China are frosty to say the least, and especially so between China and the UK, with wider disputes – Huawei, Hong Kong, Uighurs, AUKUS, the list goes on – raising obstacles to collaboration also on climate change. Such geopolitical tension between a COP Presidency and a key climate change player is unprecedented in the history of the climate negotiations. It does not augur well for the prospects of achieving anything at all beyond the strict technical agenda.

If this were not enough, then the challenges of holding a major global conference in the midst of a global pandemic should surely temper expectations as to its outcome. Many governments are distracted and exhausted from dealing with Covid-19, and their public finances have suffered. The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the global inequalities that parallel those at work in climate change: as usual, it is the poorest who suffer the most, and the richest who prove to be the most resilient. The uneven spread of vaccination throughout the world will do little to improve levels of trust (never in plentiful supply) in the climate negotiations.

At a more prosaic level, hosting the COP in a country with some of the highest Covid-19 infection rates in the world presents major procedural and logistical challenges. To be fair, the UK has taken steps to mitigate the risks, offering free vaccinations to delegates unable to access them at home, and requiring daily testing and face coverings to enter the conference premises. But with close to 20,000 individuals formally registered as delegates, and many thousands more “COP tourists” expected to descend upon the city, it is difficult to imagine that the two weeks will pass off without a fair number of Covid-19 infections. If these start to affect government negotiators who are then forced to self-isolate from the exclusively in-person talks, then this could throw the entire legitimacy of the process into question. Animated close-quarter exchanges in crowded meeting rooms and so-called “huddles” (not unlike a rugby scrum) have become the norm in the intense final hours of climate change conferences. But these would involve throwing physical distancing rules out of the window; can agreement still be thrashed out with delegates staying one metre apart – as required by the official COP 26 Covid-19 code of conduct – and unable to “look each other in the eye”? If any key delegate were to be “debadged” – denied access to the negotiating halls – for breach of the Code of Conduct, then this could provoke an embarrassing diplomatic incident. And with physical distancing in place, observers (from civil society and business) will inevitably be the first to be asked to leave as negotiating spaces reach their more limited capacity, impacting transparency and stoking resentment. There are spoiler delegations and individuals who are always happy for an excuse to derail the negotiations, and what better than a poorly-managed health emergency to insist that decisions be put on hold.

Finally, we must remember that negotiations are about people as well as geopolitics, and these people have not seen each other in over two years. They will be rusty, and will need time to reacquaint.

For all these reasons, it would be unwise for governments, businesses, and civil society to expect too much from the Glasgow Conference. The best hope for “success” is to keep hopes realistic, and expectations modest. If the COP can refresh climate diplomacy after the two-year pause, hosting broadly constructive talks that are marred by neither political fireworks, nor diplomatic incidents, nor social unrest nor a public health crisis, then this will be an achievement in itself. If, at the same time, the COP can provide a platform for ambitious declarations from the remaining top 20 emitters that bring us close to a 2˚C warming ceiling, then this would be huge step forward. Wrapping up the Paris rulebook negotiations would be a major relief, enabling the process to move on to implement the Paris Agreement in earnest. And if the UK Presidency were able to push through something – anything – that could be interpreted as the beginning of the end for coal, then that would be the icing on the cake.

But whatever happens, the battle to prevent dangerous climate change will not be over on 12 or 13 November, when the conference centre closes its doors on the last exhausted delegates. Whether Glasgow is declared a success or a failure, the hard work, on the ground, must continue.


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About the Author: Joanna Depledge

Dr Joanna Depledge is Fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance (CEENRG). She has been following the climate change negotiations for more than 25 years, including as a staff member of the UN Climate Change Secretariat and a reporter for the Earth Negotiations Bulletin. Up until end 2020, Joanna was Edi...

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