For almost three decades, world governments have met nearly every year to forge a global response to the climate emergency. Under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), every country on Earth is treaty-bound to “avoid dangerous climate change,” and find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally in an equitable way.
COP stands for conference of the parties under the UNFCCC, and the annual meetings have swung between fractious and soporific, interspersed with moments of high drama and the occasional triumph (the Paris agreement in 2015) and disaster (Copenhagen in 2009). This year is the 26th iteration, postponed by a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to be hosted by the UK in Glasgow.
The conference will officially open on October 31, a day earlier than planned, because of COVID-19, and more than 120 world leaders will gather in the first few days. They will then depart, leaving the complex negotiations to their representatives, mainly environment ministers or similarly senior officials. About 25,000 people are expected to attend the conference in total.
The talks are scheduled to end at 6 p.m. on Friday, November 12, but past experience of COPs shows they are likely to extend into Saturday and perhaps even to Sunday.
Why do we need a COP—don’t we already have the Paris agreement?
Yes—under the landmark Paris agreement, signed in 2015, nations committed to holding global temperature rises to “well below” 2C above pre-industrial levels, while “pursuing efforts” to limit heating to 1.5C. Those goals are legally binding and enshrined in the treaty.
However, to meet those goals, countries also agreed on non-binding national targets to cut—or in the case of developing countries, to curb the growth of—greenhouse gas emissions in the near term, by 2030 in most cases.
Those national targets—known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs – were inadequate to hold the world within the Paris temperature targets. If fulfilled, they would result in 3C or more of warming, which would be disastrous.
Everyone knew at Paris that the NDCs were inadequate, so the French built into the accord a “ratchet mechanism” by which countries would have to return to the table every five years with fresh commitments. Those five years were up on December 21, 2020, but the pandemic prevented many countries coming forward.
All countries are now being urged to revise their NDCs before COP26 in line with a 1.5C target, the lower of the two Paris goals. Scientists estimate that emissions must be reduced by 45 percent by 2030, compared with 2010 levels, and from there to net zero emissions by 2050, if the world is to have a good chance of remaining within the 1.5C threshold.
Are we nearly there?
No. The UN reported recently that current NDCs, including those that have been newly submitted or revised by the US, the EU, the UK and more than 100 others, are still inadequate. They would result in a 16 percent increase in emissions, far from the 45 percent cut needed. So much more remains to be done.
Is this all about China?
The world’s biggest emitter, China, has yet to produce a new NDC, and it is not yet known whether the president, Xi Jinping, will come to Glasgow. His attendance would be a major boost, but leading figures in the talks have said they can still have a successful outcome without his physical presence.
Xi announced last year that China would reach net zero emissions by 2060, a major step forward, and peak emissions by 2030. The latter pledge is regarded as insufficient, and could lead to the world breaching 1.5C. Analysts say China could cause emissions to peak by 2025, with some additional effort, and that this would be enough to keep the world on the right path.
China is not the only country in the frame: major fossil fuel producers including Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Australia have also refused to strengthen their commitments. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro is still presiding over the disastrous destruction of the Amazon.
There are also question marks over the commitment of the new Japanese government. India was close to committing to net zero last spring but was overtaken by the COVID crisis; its rapidly growing economy and dependence on coal make it a key country at the talks, and other developing nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, and Mexico will also be closely watched.
Why is 1.5C so important?
As part of the Paris agreement, the world’s leading authority on climate science – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—was charged with examining closely what a 1.5C temperature rise would mean for the planet. They found a vast difference between the damage done by 1.5C and 2C of heating, and concluded that the lower temperature was much safer.
An increase of 1.5C would still result in rising sea levels, the bleaching of coral reefs, and an increase in heatwaves, droughts, floods, fiercer storms, and other forms of extreme weather, but these would be far less than the extremes associated with a rise of 2C.
Further findings from the IPCC, released in August, underlined these warnings and concluded that there was still a chance for the world to stay within the 1.5C threshold but that it would require concerted efforts. Crucially, they also found that every fraction of a degree of increase is important.
How far do we have to go?
Temperatures around the world are already at about 1.1–1.2C above pre-industrial levels, and greenhouse gas emissions are still on an upward trend.
Carbon dioxide output plunged during the COVID-19 lockdowns last year, but that was temporary and they have surged again since as economies have recovered. To stay within 1.5C, global emissions need to come down by about 7 percent a year for this decade.
What about net zero?
To stay within 1.5C, we must stop emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases – from burning fossil fuels, from agriculture and animal husbandry – which create methane – from cutting down trees and from certain industrial processes – almost completely by mid-century. Any residual emissions remaining by then, for instance from processes that cannot be modified, must be offset by increasing the world’s carbon sinks, such as forests, peatlands, and wetlands, which act as vast carbon stores. That balance is known as net zero.
Long-term goals are not enough, however. The climate responds to cumulative emissions, and carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for about a century after it is released, so we could reach net zero by 2050 but still have emitted so much in the meantime that we exceed the 1.5C threshold irrevocably.
That is why scientists and politicians are calling the 2020s the crucial decade for the climate—if emissions can peak soon and be reduced rapidly, we can keep cumulative emissions from growing too much, and still have a chance of staying within 1.5C.
Is COP26 just about 1.5C?
The NDCs are the central part of the negotiations, and getting more countries to sign up to a long-term net zero goal is also important. But the UK presidency also hopes to help achieve these goals with a focus on three other areas: climate finance, phasing out coal, and nature-based solutions.
Climate finance is the money provided to poor countries, from public and private sources, to help them cut emissions and cope with the impacts of extreme weather. Poor countries were promised at the Copenhagen COP in 2009 that they would receive $100 billion a year by 2020.
That target has been missed: the OECD found in a report in September that only about $80bn was provided last year. Developing countries want reassurances that the money will be forthcoming as soon as possible, and want to see a new financial settlement that will vastly expand the funds available beyond 2025.
The phase-out of coal is essential to staying within 1.5C. Countries have made moves in this direction—China, the world’s biggest coal consumer, will stop financing new coal-fired power plants overseas, for instance. But China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Australia, and several other countries are still major producers and consumers of coal, and much more needs to be done.
Nature-based solutions are projects such as preserving and restoring existing forests, peatlands, wetlands, and other natural carbon sinks, and growing more trees. These are important initiatives, and the destruction of the Amazon and other rainforests around the world is a huge contributor to climate change and biodiversity loss. Experts urge caution, however: while growing trees is a good idea, there is not room to grow all the trees some have suggested, and they cannot solve the climate crisis alone. Fossil fuel use must also end.
There has also been progress on issues such as methane, a greenhouse gas that can heat the planet 80 times more than carbon dioxide, and which comes from animal husbandry, agricultural waste, oil drilling, and other fossil fuel exploration. The EU and the US formed a partnership to cut global methane emissions by 2030, which recent research found could mostly be achieved at little or no cost.
Any other problems?
At COP26, countries will also have to find an answer to the conundrum of carbon trading. Carbon trading was first introduced to the talks in the Kyoto protocol of 1997, as a mechanism by which rich countries could hive off some of their carbon reduction to developing countries. It works like this: a tonne of carbon dioxide has the same impact on the atmosphere wherever it is emitted, so if it is cheaper to cut a tonne of carbon dioxide in India than in Italy, the Italian government or companies could pay for projects—solar panels, for example, or a wind farm—in India that would reduce emissions there, and count those “carbon credits” towards their own emissions-cutting targets.
In this way, poor countries gain access to much-needed finance for emissions-cutting efforts, and rich countries face less of an economic burden in cutting carbon.
However, the system has been open to abuse in some cases and is inadequate in any case in a world where all countries, developed and developing, must cut their carbon as fast as possible. Carbon trading was included in article 6 of the Paris agreement, but conflicts over how to implement it have never been resolved. Arguments over article 6 helped derail the last COP, in Madrid in 2019, and the UK hosts are hoping the issue can be managed this time, in order not to wreck any potential outcome.
This is the 26th COP—why has all this taken so long?
Since the industrial revolution, the modern world has run on fossil fuels. We live in a Promethean age—nearly all of our prosperity and technology has been built on cheap, easy-to-access energy from fossil fuels. Ending their reign will require huge changes, to energy systems, to the built environment, to transport, to our behavior and diet.
Getting 196 nations to agree on something so complex has not been easy. Developed countries have been unwilling to take on the costs, while developing countries have demanded the right to continue to use fossil fuels to achieve economic growth. There have been wranglings over historic responsibility, over burden-sharing, over costs, over science, and the politics has been influenced by changes of government in key countries—Donald Trump, for instance, withdrew the US from the Paris agreement.
On the plus side, the cost of renewable energy and other green technology has plunged in recent years, so that it is now as cheap as fossil fuels in most parts of the world. Electric vehicle technology also progressed rapidly, and new fuels such as hydrogen are being developed.
Why will it be held in Glasgow?
The presidency is up for grabs each year, and tends to swing between developed and developing countries, and around the world so that all regions are represented. Previous notable COPs have taken place in Copenhagen, Kyoto, Marrakesh, Lima, and Durban, and next year’s is likely to be in Egypt. The UK is actually co-hosting COP26 with Italy, which has hosted several precursor meetings, including a pre-COP and a youth COP in Milan, and will host the G20 leaders’ meeting just days before COP26.
Won’t this be a massive COVID superspreader?
The COP was originally scheduled for November 2020, but a decision was taken in May last year to postpone, because of the pandemic. The Scottish government, the UN and the UK’s national government have all been closely involved in the preparations.
The decision was taken to hold the event in person, rather than virtually, because of the urgent need for countries to increase their ambition on emissions cuts, and the difficulty of getting progress to that end without people meeting face-to-face. The fear—well-grounded, given the experience of other virtual conferences—was that a virtual conference would let countries off the hook.
Countries have also been wary of committing to firm decisions on the complex technical negotiations by virtual means. Some of the negotiations have taken place in advance, virtually, but the decisions cannot be formalized until they are agreed by all nations in person.
Delegates have been offered vaccinations by the UK government ahead of the talks, but those from red list countries will still have to quarantine. The UK government will pay the costs for those countries that cannot otherwise afford to come.
What happens if COP26 fails?
The big players in the talks—the UN, the UK, the US—have already conceded that COP26 will not achieve everything that was hoped for. The NDCs likely to emerge from Glasgow will not add up to all that is needed to ensure the world remains within 1.5C.
That is disappointing for many observers, but is not a surprise. Given the complexity of the negotiations, a perfect outcome was never likely. What the UK hosts are now focused on is ensuring that there is enough progress on emissions cuts for 2030 to “keep 1.5C alive”, and to pursue as many other routes – phasing out coal; cutting methane; setting a path away from fossil fuels for transport; getting business, financial institutions and sub-national governments to set out plans to cut emissions in line with 1.5C – that will help reach that goal as soon as possible.
One of the key issues now is to ensure that the talks themselves run smoothly. The Copenhagen COP in 2009 was widely perceived as a failure, even though it produced a partial agreement that became the foundation for Paris. But it ended in scenes of chaos, division, recriminations, and discord. If that can be avoided, and a clear route map drawn up that can credibly keep the world from exceeding 1.5C, COP26 may still have a successful outcome.
The climate crisis is not the only environmental crisis—what about species loss and nature?
Countries are also meeting for a parallel set of talks on stemming biodiversity loss, restoring natural ecosystems, and protecting the oceans. Those talks were set to be hosted by the Chinese government in Kunming last October, but have been delayed. They will reach a conclusion next April at an in-person meeting, with virtual negotiations in the run-up.
Fiona is the Guardian's environment correspondent.