COP26: 3 targets for the Glasgow UN climate change summit

UK PM Boris Johnson addresses the US climate summit at the end of April (Pic: No.10 / Flickr)

Slowly but surely the nuts and bolts of a COP26 deal appear to be emerging.

It has, if we’re all honest, taken a while, and with a major round of UN negotiations set to kick off at the end of the month, it’s about time.

As the chaos of the pandemic has swirled, some countries have beefed up their emissions targets, others appear to have used the chaos to feign impotence or go AWOL.

Many may moan but the 2015 Paris Agreement is clear. This is the year for upscaling ambition, and with even the IEA heralding the end of the fossil fuel era and calling for a hike in green investments, excuses are thin on the ground.

The challenge for organisers is that so much is being pinned on two weeks in Glasgow.

From global green recovery, the deepening nature crisis, multi-trillion funding gaps and worsening debt levels in the developing world: COP26 is seen by many as an answer.

COP26 priorities, via Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU.org)

At times it can feel as if a UN process based on painstaking negotiations and consensus-driven agreements has met its match in the form of the complex and urgent climate crisis.

Yet being a crisis that needs everyone on board, it’s a vital forum that would have to be recreated if it were scrapped. Emissions are still rising, a new round of UN IPCC climate science reports are incoming, and in 2023 the UN will complete a ‘stocktake’ on global progress and assess next steps — adding pressure on the 2021 moment.

So what’s the point of Glasgow, virtual or otherwise? Well, the UK hosts of COP26 reckon it can deliver a significant uptick in the architecture and commitments we need to avert faster levels of warming, as incoming COP president Alok Sharma alluded to last week.

“COP26 must be the moment that every country, and every part of society, embraces their responsibility, to protect our precious planet. And, keep 1.5 alive.”

Broadly speaking, the goals of COP26 can be split into three buckets: (1) Support for developing nations (2) Tougher national targets, tighter rules (3) Showcasing global progress.

1 — Support for developing nations

Evidence suggests developing countries want to shift off fossil fuels but are being held back by lack of support to do so. Envoys at Glasgow will need to work on a plan to close climate finance and adaptation gaps in the coming years, and agreeing a new post-2025 funding target. Achieving this is vital for trust among the countries coming to the table in Glasgow.

As the nations who have emitted most for the longest, historically rich countries (Annexe I nations in UN jargon) are still on the hook for fulfilling their pledge to mobilise $100 billion per year in finance by 2020, meet UN demands for a 50–50 split between mitigation and adaptation support, and to say how they’ll scale finance up after 2025.

Germany — for example — is being called on to join the UK and double its 2020 pledge to €8 billion by 2025, with half for adaptation. Calls for support have been building in the past two months. Pakistan’s PM, Indonesia’s president, Nigeria’s environment minister, Kenya’s president and UN envoy Selwin Hart are among leaders chiming in.

South Africa has gone one step further, detailing the finance it needs to shift off coal by the 2030s. A draft climate and energy plan for 2030 under consultation says the country needs $4.5bn a year by 2025 and $8bn a year by 2030 to tackle climate impacts and invest in “abundant renewable energy resources” while ensuring a just transition for miners.

It’s not just the $100bn that is overdue. Climate adaptation means preparing for the worst: better sea defences, farming techniques to preserve water, storm shelters, houses that cope with intense heat. Poorer nations need support for creating infrastructure to withstand these impacts built into future funding packages — and that’s not happening. It’s critical: some African nations are now spending 10% of their GDP on adaptation.

Frontline nations also need help addressing the loss and damage already being wrought by savage storms, heatwaves, floods and droughts. It’s a contested issue at the UN, with heated debates on who should carry the costs of impacts. Still, few now argue that climate change is not causing irretrievable losses in to lives, culture and communities across the globe.

Estimates of the potential costs of continued warming still vary widely but are higher than previous studies had suggested. Two prominent studies have projected losses of 10% and 23% of global GDP this century if emissions are not rapidly cut. This level of economic harm would be greater than seen in both the Covid pandemic and the Great Depression of the 1920s.

2 — Tougher targets, tighter rules

Glasgow could be the best chance for global leaders to come together to avert warming above 1.5C (more on why heating at 1.5C is a bad thing here) but it looks a steep climb at present.

The team at Climate Action Tracker crunched the numbers after the April 22 US climate summit to work out what current pledges are leading us on track for. 2.4C is their assessment. But that’s only if countries start creating the policies to deliver on their pledges.

“It is clear the Paris Agreement is driving change, spurring governments into adopting stronger targets, but there is still some way to go, especially given that most governments don’t yet have policies in place to meet their pledges,” said Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics, one of the CAT partner organisations.

Most nations, including the biggest emitters of China and the US, have set a target of reaching net zero emissions by mid-century. Those 2050–2060 targets are useful, without interim stages they don’t send the strong signals required to shift markets. To be credible, governments need to make sure their plans to cut emissions start immediately.

Under the Paris Agreement governments are now due to set new targets (Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs) for cutting emissions over the coming decade. These NDCs should take as a starting point the conclusion of the IPCC, the UN’s climate science body, that preventing dangerous climate change entails roughly halving emissions by 2030 en route to net zero by mid-century — faster for wealthier nations, slower for the poorest.

Targets are one thing: rules are another. The ‘ambition’ bucket also needs to plug any leaks that are springing as a result of dodgy carbon dealings. That means COP26 has to agree tougher environmental integrity rules on carbon markets.

Article 6 of the Paris Agreement lays the foundations for new global markets that could — if built with cutting emissions at their core — unlock action. Still, robust rules need to be put in place for offsetting schemes are verifiable, that they are adding to action, not veneers for business as usual.

Opposing views about governance and accounting rules have been slowing implementation of Article 6, with Brazil and Australia implicated in crashing talks at COP25 in 2019 on this very issue.

Understanding who is doing what — and when — is another unresolved issue for Glasgow to nail. Specifically, delivering a 'transparency framework' that compares apples to apples, and allows countries to compare and assess efforts, and a 'common timeframes' deal that cements in place when governments need to update their targets.

Knowing who is doing what, how, and when, is critical.

(3) Showcasing global progress

In many respects this last element of COP26 in Glasgow is the least tangible yet the most important, comprising of elements not formally part of the UN talks, yet parts critical to ensuring the global pace of carbon cuts cracks on.

The shift from dirty to clean energy is accelerating. The latest IEA analysis of a climate-safe development pathway makes a strong case for ramping up investments in clean technologies, saying it’s good for GDP, health and jobs, with punchy lines on no space for more fossil fuel development.

A separate Carbon Brief analysis of the IEA’s recent wind and solar study suggests its “new forecast is 30% higher than the main one it published last November.”

As the Systemiq Paris Effect report illustrated at the back end of 2020 around 25% of emissions can be cut using technologies that are competitive today (even in steel, chemicals, cement, shipping, aviation). By 2030 they reckon that could be 70%, with net 35m jobs created.

Pic: How the Climate Agreement is reshaping the global economy — Systemiq

Yet the policy levers to achieve these shifts are mixed, and many rely on multiple countries moving at a similar pace towards cleaner solutions.

It’s also true that climate action is moving into politically tough terrain, precisely because as we shift through the gears false solutions are being exposed and policymakers are having to face up to tougher, more radical policy shifts that are required.

As Joss Garman argues here there’s an increasing need to understand exactly what impacts climate policies will have on populations. China might be able to ram through whatever proposal it feels happy with, but ‘only fair policies will survive contact with the real world of democratic electoral politics, irrespective of who is in power.’

So, outside the main UN negotiations, world leaders will discuss a number of mutually-beneficial measures to lock in progress over the 2020s — with sectoral deals mooted on ending coal, slashing the public financing of all fossil fuels, coalescing on common dates on ending the sales of new petrol and diesel cars and working up plans for carbon border taxes.

Glasgow could also (potentially) be a moment to lock in what net zero really means. One idea doing the rounds is a new — global — advisory body to scrutinise the integrity of net zero pledges landing. That could be useful since it’s becoming clear that many of the corporate plans published in the name of reaching “net zero” climate damaging emissions are actually built on a plan to “offset” those emissions against notional future emissions reductions.

All said — demonstrating how net-zero aligned energy, finance, transport and industry solutions are becoming commonplace is not part of the COP26 negotiations, but it’s a vital element in communicating the scale and pace of change already underway to the 200 or so governments attending.

This, above all else, could end up as Glasgow’s key legacy.

Tracking international climate diplomacy since 2010 | Trustee @LewYouTheatre | Also at @sportandclimate