The eyes of the world turn to Glasgow this week, where world leaders and various entourages gather to tackle climate change for the two-week-long UN climate summit, COP26. This will be a crucial moment. While there is more awareness about climate change than ever before, and there are more commitments to curb global greenhouse gases, the fact is that emissions keep growing.
Indeed, just days before the summit’s start, on October 26, a UN report said the world’s combined plans over the next decade fall far short of what’s needed to avert a dangerous rise in global temperatures. These new pledges, the report found, would collectively produce just one-seventh of the additional emissions cuts needed this decade to help limit total global warming to 1.5°C level above preindustrial levels.
So, what can we realistically expect from Glasgow? The big questions are whether the world can meet the commitments of the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement; whether developed countries can match the richer world’s $100 billion commitment to support them; and can the Paris rulebook be updated? Expectations are so low that a breakthrough in any of these points would mean the COP26 could be called a success.
Let’s start with the level of ambition. In the run-up to the summit, a number of governments have updated their pledges under the 2015 Paris climate agreement to do more to curb their planet-warming emissions between now and 2030. They include for example the European Union (which has set itself a target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 55%), the United States and Britain.
But other major emitters, including India, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have not. And a big question mark concerns China, the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases, which has not yet communicated its plans and will only say that it aims to become carbon neutral by 2060 and that emissions could peak before its previous target of 2030.
This takes us to funding, where the outlook is poor. Richer countries promised to raise the annual financing for climate change mitigation to $100 billion by 2020. This year a new promise was made to meet this level by 2023. While the existing annual funding level of around $80 billion is not a disaster, the new date still kicks the can down the road – and the inability of rich countries to live up to their promise does not look good in the eyes of the developing countries who are being asked to do more.
Finally, the Glasgow summit is trying to patch up the Paris rulebook and especially the so-called Article 6, which concerns global carbon markets. This could mean that at least part of the mitigation efforts done, for example, in Kenya could be accounted for in Sweden’s balance sheet. This has been tricky so far: some say it might water down the overall ambition for emission reductions, while others see it as beneficial and allowing emission cuts where they would be more cost-effective. There is also, of course, the question of who benefits from these switches, and by how much?
Nobody expected the climate talks to be easy, but will the leaders be able to agree on at least some of these issues? The 2015 COP in Paris set a high bar, but that might not be a useful measuring stick: not every meeting can be a breakthrough one.
We should certainly hope for genuine progress. All the statistics and reports from the UN and other agencies and bodies point to a grim future if we fail to act. But the prospects are not looking good: despite the efforts, most governments have not gone far enough. Yet I still believe there is still a chance that by the end of the Glasgow summit, leaders will be able to announce some good news.