The make-or-break issues facing the COP26 climate summit
FT environment correspondent Leslie Hook outlines the stumbling blocks that could spell success or disaster in Glasgow, including emissions targets, the phasing out of coal, and climate finance
Produced and edited by James Sandy; filmed by Petros Gioumpasis; motion graphics by Russell Birkett
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The COP26 conference in Glasgow this November is going to be the most important climate summit in years. But what actually is a COP? And why does this one matter so much? Here's what you need to know.
COP stands for Conference of the Parties. It's an opportunity for negotiators from nearly 200 countries to come together, to review their progress on climate change, and decide on the best way to move forward. The ultimate goal is to emerge at the end of the two-week conference with a text or a set of texts outlining what happens next. But it hasn't always worked out that way.
Mr President, our future is not for sale.
Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait.
...ask Africa to sign a suicide pact.
These summits have taken place since 1995. And while they have gotten bigger over the years, with climate NGOs, governments, and activists using the COP as a platform for campaigns and media attention. Meanwhile, the government negotiators often work through the night and into overtime, struggling to reach consensus.
Probably the biggest success story came in 2015, when COP members agreed to the Paris Climate Accord. This aims to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees centigrade compared to pre-industrial levels, and ideally to 1.5 degrees. But to reach that target, countries will have to set new climate commitments ahead of this year's COP, and really put the Paris Accord into action.
For years scientists have said the best weapon against rising temperatures is to cut greenhouse gas emissions. And working toward legally binding emissions reductions has been a priority of COP meetings since the mid 90s.
We agree on our common goal, cut global emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 from 2010 levels, and achieve net zero emissions by 2050.
But current climate pledges aren't anywhere close to achieving this. In fact, they're moving in the opposite direction. A recent UN report estimated that by 2030 greenhouse gas emissions are likely to be 16 per cent higher than they were in 2010. That puts the world on track for almost 3 degrees of global warming by the end of the century. This would dramatically change climatic conditions on the planet, making extreme weather events more common, and potentially pushing the Earth past tipping points that would speed up warming even further.
If we continue on our current path, we will face the collapse of everything that gives us our security.
To avoid that scenario and keep 1.5 degrees of warming within reach those who signed the Paris Accord are supposed to update and strengthen their emissions targets, or Nationally Determined Contributions in a bit of COP jargon, every five years. And this COP is the first official deadline for countries to do that since Paris.
Coal is the most polluting form of power. It accounts for about 45 per cent of energy related CO2 emissions. And at COP26, it has definitely got a target on its back.
If we are serious about 1.5 degrees, Glasgow must be the COP that consigns coal power to history.
Recently, China and G7 countries all agreed to stop funding coal-fired power stations overseas. But domestic coal use still continues. According to the International Energy Agency, the level of coal production forecast for 2050 is about four times the limit needed to reach net zero emissions by the middle of the century. And before everyone is willing to give up coal entirely another issue have to be resolved first, money.
Decarbonising the world's economy by the middle of this century is going to cost trillions of dollars. And the question of who should pay for it has been a big sticking point for climate talks since even before the Paris Agreement.
The major emitters in the industrial countries must take the major responsibility for the past and the major responsibility as we go forward.
In 2009 rich countries promised to contribute $100bn each year by 2020 to help developing nations cut their emissions and manage the impact of rising seas, failing crops, and other climate related disasters. But, according to the latest figures from the OECD, rich nations provided less than $80bn of climate finance in 2019. And even though developing countries say they need the money if they are going to reach their climate goals, the $100bn target may not be met before Glasgow gets under way.
All the tools needed to curb global temperature rise are on the table at COP26, from the phasing out of coal, to meeting climate finance, and setting new emissions targets. In fact, more countries have net zero emissions targets now than ever before, covering nearly two-thirds of the global economy. But those targets have to be backed up by policies if they are going to turn into action. That's why the stakes are so high at COP26 and why all eyes will be on Glasgow this November.