World leaders are arriving in Glasgow for the COP26 climate summit, where they will be asked to make ambitious cuts in warming gases to prevent further global temperature rises.
As negotiators prepare for two intense weeks of dialogue, here are five major challenges that need to be overcome.
Forget the talk about temperature rises or dirty coal. The real challenge that negotiators face in this key conference is the question of trust, or lack of it.
The key relationships that led to the success of the great climate conference in Paris in 2015 took a hit.
The United States and China then joined together to reach an agreement. After four years of Donald Trump and a growing rivalry, the two countries now view each other with deep suspicion.
COP26 Climate Summit – The Basics
- Climate change is one of the most pressing problems in the world. Governments must promise more ambitious gas cuts for warming if we are to prevent greater global temperature rises.
- The Glasgow Summit is where change could happen. You have to watch out for the promises made by the world’s biggest polluters, such as the United States and China, and whether the poorest countries are getting the support they need.
- All our lives will change. The decisions made here could impact our work, how we heat our homes, what we eat and how we travel.
Read more about the COP26 Summit here.
Four numbers to better understand COP26
The so-called “high-ambition coalition” of island states, developing economies and the EU that really pushed things forward in France in 2015 is now no longer the force it was.
On top of that, there are also money problems: the international community’s failure to deliver the long-promised $ 100 billion to help poorer countries cope with climate change has worsened.
However you dress it, it has dented confidence at a critical moment.
Speaking at the G20 meeting in Rome just before flying to Glasgow for the COP, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stressed how important the issue of trust was.
“If we want real success, and not just a mirage, we need more ambition and more action,” he said. “This will only be possible with a massive mobilization of political will. And this requires trust among key players.”
“Trust is in short supply today. There are serious credibility issues.”
Unless this deficit is overcome, Glasgow is likely to fall short.
The key to any success in Glasgow must be the credibility of the host nation.
France is generally seen as setting the bar for the appearance of a successful presidency when it hosted the Paris COP in 2015.
The UK faces some challenges in this area, although it also has some credit in the bank.
“The UK has been leading the way for many years,” said Kaveh Guilanpour, longtime climate negotiator and now with the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
The government’s strong commitment to the Paris goal of reaching net zero by 2050 – not adding more carbon emissions to the atmosphere than it can remove – builds credibility, he says.
However, on the other side of the ledger, the UK government ran into trouble over plans for a coal mine in Cumbria and announcing cuts in air passenger rights just last week.
Perhaps even more important is the cut in Overseas Development Aid (ODA), which saw UK annual support cut from 0.7% of national income to 0.5%.
“Boris Johnson and his cabinet have undoubtedly made life even more difficult,” said Richard Black, senior associate at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.
3. The workload
One of the biggest challenges for this COP is the huge volume of work.
The postponement of last year’s meeting due to Covid is one of the causes, but it is also because the efforts to carry out the negotiations practically did not work. The delegates were happy to talk, but refused to make decisions until they met face to face.
So Glasgow has a huge agenda, particularly on the issue of funding how countries tackle climate change.
There are also complex details on how the Paris Agreement should be implemented that have not yet been resolved. The questions about transparency, carbon markets, and the timing itself for reducing carbon emissions have challenged the best efforts of negotiators in the six years since Paris.
“There is a real risk that failure on a relatively small issue at the end of week two could be the headline,” said Guilanpour.
“The huge backlog means that there are very controversial elements that could cause delays with serious consequences to get all the work done.”
4. The process itself
There is a growing feeling among many participants that this UN negotiating process is no longer fit for purpose.
The need for consensus from 197 parties, and the legalistic and technical nature of the talks, mean that there is, in reality, very little room for actual negotiations.
For this summit, the UK was determined to bring successful examples to the real world to demonstrate that fighting climate change can be good for the planet and good for business.
The UK is also keen to conclude a series of side deals on issues such as deforestation, methane, coal and nature protection: it believes the COP should be seen not just as a boring chat shop, but a space for highlight best practice and encourage action.
Some attendees believe the climate crisis is now so severe that they want to see real COP reform to bring carrots and sticks for countries to deliver on their pledges.
“There has to be an accountability factor, because otherwise countries can pledge anything and they can promise anything,” says Dr Deborah Brosnan, who is advising the Antigua and Barbuda team here.
5. The rotation
For months, politicians, negotiators and journalists have been discussing the success of this conference.
This isn’t Paris in 2015 or Copenhagen in 2009, where deal / no deal made it very easy to tell if it was thumbs up or down.
The UK’s stated goal of “keeping 1.5 ° C alive”, referring to the limit of the annual increase in average temperatures, compared to pre-industrial times. It’s a practical sound bite that belies the massive shift in ambition required to achieve it.
Look a little closer and what the UK actually means is that it wants to provide a “roadmap” (strange choice of words) which will essentially mean that all countries review their very short-term carbon reduction targets. , not every five years as is currently the case.
Alternatively, and more likely, the COP could end in a brawl in which developing countries reject any attempt to get them back with better deals in a year or three.
The UK could be left with a watered-down political statement that aspires to more but commits no one to really do anything.
And all the extra commitments on issues like reducing methane emissions, shipping emissions and so on, could be an inapplicable wish list, dressed up to impress.
Once the final gavel comes down, expect a flurry of mind-boggling rounds from the UK and others to convince the world that Glasgow has really delivered.
“The briefings go straight from the political leader’s office to political journalists who rarely have experience in the UN climate process,” said Richard Black, who is also a former BBC environmental correspondent.
“News coverage often focuses on political theater rather than real issues. Rhetorical leadership is mistaken for reality.”
But keep the central question in mind. Is the prospect of keeping the world below 1.5 ° C warming now more likely?
“If there’s a golden rule to cut and run, it’s trying to understand the problems and look at what the leaders are doing, not what they say,” Black said.
Matt McGrath has been addressing climate change for the past 15 years, reporting 10 COPs along the way. You can follow him on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.
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