Emissions: current commitments are not enough to limit warming to 1.5C
Emissions: current commitments are not enough to limit warming to 1.5C © Phillippe Desmazes/Getty Images

World leaders arriving in Glasgow for COP26 face a big task: in the words of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the summit is nothing less than a “turning point for humanity”.

“We must limit the rise in temperatures . . . to 1.5 degrees,” he told the UN recently, in a speech laying out the job ahead. “Daily, weekly, we are doing such irreversible damage that, long before a million years are up, we will have made this beautiful planet effectively uninhabitable.”

Taking place over the next two weeks, the Glasgow summit is a moment of truth in determining whether the world can comply with the Paris climate accord of 2015, which aims to limit global warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels or, ideally, 1.5C.

At COP26, countries will press each other to adopt more ambitious climate targets; negotiators will finalise the rules of the Paris pact; and heads of state may reach a global deal on limiting financing for coal.

The slogan “Keep 1.5 Alive” is the unofficial rallying cry for the meeting, a reference to the 1.5C target of the Paris agreement. But, with global emissions rising, that goal is becoming harder and harder to reach.

Limiting global warming to 1.5C could help to avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change — but it requires emissions to be cut much more rapidly than in a 2C scenario. And countries’ climate targets are already a long way off what is needed to reach the 1.5C goal. In spite of dozens of new targets set this year, the world is on course for something closer to 2.7C warming, even if all national climate goals are met.

Much, then, depends on what can be agreed at the summit — the largest COP meeting since the Paris deal was approved, but delayed a year by the coronavirus pandemic. Some 25,000 delegates are expected, and 120 heads of state, including US President Joe Biden.

The UK hosts have opted for a normal-style COP format — with plenty of side events, pavilions, and even protests, though all with health measures such as daily Covid tests in place.

Alok Sharma, UK COP president, has been preparing for the conference by criss-crossing the world in recent months, to broker deals ahead of the negotiations, and lay the groundwork for countries to cut coal-related finance.

“COP26 is not a photo op or a talking shop,” he said in a recent speech. “It must be the forum where we put the world on track to deliver on climate.”

But there will be quite a few photo opportunities as well. Foreign presidents will drive to the venue in electric Jaguar cars, British clean energy companies will be promoted, and the UK’s diplomatic prowess, post-Brexit, will be on display.

What are the top priorities for leaders at COP26?

The purpose of the COP is two-fold: first, the formal negotiations will finalise the rule book that governs the Paris climate accord. The key aspects here include structures for a global carbon market, and the question of whether countries should set new climate targets every five years, or every 10 years.

However, some of the most interesting developments may come from outside the technical negotiations.

The COP acts an arena for new pacts and pledges — and a magnet for a bit of a jamboree, with events, celebrities, new corporate pledges, and activists’ protests all colliding.

The list of new pledges is a long one this year. Ending coal use and bringing in more electric vehicles are two of the top priorities of the UK as host this year.

Sharma wants this summit to “consign coal to history” and has been working behind the scenes to craft a coalition of countries that are willing to limit financing of the fossil fuel, the details of which have not yet been revealed.

But the energy crisis in China and Europe may make nations more reluctant to set quick phaseout dates for their coal-fired power plants.

The UK has also been pushing for an electric vehicle pact, and the heads of several of the world’s biggest automakers are expected to attend.

Meanwhile, the US — which will be represented by large numbers of delegates as President Joe Biden works to demonstrate his administration’s commitment to climate problems — is urging countries to sign a global pledge to cut emissions of methane, a potent warming gas.

A push to focus on 1.5C

But the main ambition will be to ramp up support for the 1.5C target, rather than accept the 2C level set as the red line in the Paris accord. This COP is also the deadline by which the 197 countries that signed the Paris agreement are supposed to submit updated climate targets — although not all have done so yet.

“If you look at the year as a whole, then the COP headline is: how far did we get in ratcheting up ambition in this five-year cycle,” explains Nat Keohane, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a US think-tank.

“That is a funny dynamic because several countries have already raised their ambition, earlier in the year,” he adds, pointing to the US, EU, South Korea, Japan and others.

Few countries are expected to announce new climate targets (or “national determined contributions”) at the summit. But those targets, known as NDCs in COP jargon, will still be in focus, because they are currently insufficient. At the conclusion of the event, countries will probably be asked to resubmit better targets, in 2022 or 2023.

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This year, a string of disasters — from a sizzling heatwave in Canada, to deadly floods in Germany and in central China — has made clear the cost and the danger posed by climate change.

In August, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warned the world may pass 1.5C warming as soon as 2040, even if emissions fall quickly. But these high stakes may not make negotiations any easier at COP26, given the crowded agenda and tensions between countries on key challenges.

A strong negotiated outcome at Glasgow, in which countries can and do overcome their disagreements, would make a world of difference.

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