The Glasgow Climate Summit is unlikely to bring the world into line with the Paris Agreement's goals, but there is growing optimism it can deliver a lot more than 'blah, blah, blah'
The COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow next month is likely to fall short of putting the world on track to avert dangerous levels of global warming, but diplomats and analysts are cautiously optimistic it could deliver several breakthroughs and broadly deliver on the UK hosts' stated goal of 'keeping 1.5C alive', despite widespread scepticism amongst environmental activists.
Late last month Swedish campaigner Greta Thunberg's offered an inimitable assessment of the climate talks to date, dismissing them as "blah, blah, blah", as she again decried the failure of governments to actually curb global emissions. With just a few days to go until COP26 kicks off, her pessimism is widely shared. Global energy shortages and a recent spike in oil prices to a three-year high above $80 a barrel, have dimmed hopes that governments will announce bold new plans to rapidly ditch fossil fuels at the October 31st to November 12th summit.
Most worryingly, reports have indicated that China is looking to ramp up coal production in response to a series of blackouts. Whether or not the move indicates a softening of China's long term support for decarbonisation is contested, but it has highlighted how the transition away from fossil fuels is likely to lead to significant price volatility and energy security concerns, as economies battle to match supply and demand.
More broadly, the wave of new national climate action plans - or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in the jargon - that has been submitted to the UN in recent weeks has proved a decidedly mixed bag. Some nations have barely changed their targets and plans since 2015; others, such as Russia with its fresh net zero by 2060 pledge, have come forward with new goals but provided scant detail on how they might be met; and a few key players, including the UK hosts, the EU, South Korea, and the US, have significantly strengthened their decarbonisation plans. All told, as the recent landmark report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) again confirmed, it still amounts to a global warming trajectory that breaches both the 1.5C and 'well below 2C' temperature goals established by the Paris Agreement.
"We still have a huge gap," between the promises made by the almost 200 countries who signed up to the Paris Agreement and national targets and policies, explains Niklas Höhne, founding partner of the New Climate Institute in Germany.
According to a Climate Action Tracker partly compiled by Höhne's institute, the world is currently headed for warming of 2.9C above pre-industrial times by 2100 based on existing policies. Other analyses have painted a slightly more optimistic picture, insisting new policies are in the pipeline and if they deliver as envisaged a 2C warming trajectory could be delivered. The IEA sketched out a more encouraging scenario where ambitious policies could lead to 2.1C of warming, while this week's report from the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) group suggests now 'inevitable' policies could keep temperature increases below 2C.
But there is near universal agreement that limiting warming to around 2C would still require a drastic transformation of the global economy and would still result in devastating climate impacts. Moreover, there is a widespread acceptance that the window for delivering on the Paris Agreement's goal of limiting temperature increases to 1.5C is closing fast. As the UN Environment Programme warned yesterday, governments are still planning to expand fossil fuel production to a level that by 2030 will be more than double that consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5C.
"Glasgow is absolutely the very final call for 1.5C," warns Höhne, arguing that world leaders will have to "flip to emergency mode" in their climate policies to ensure cities, businesses, voters, and investors deliver the rapid decarbonisation required.
It is this urgency that COP26 President-designate Alok Sharma is hoping to instil in proceedings. Last week, Sharma travelled to Paris to deliver his last major speech before the Summit starts, in which he urged world leaders to "pull together" to deliver on the promises they made through the Paris Agreement.
"COP26 is not a photo op or a talking shop," he said, in uncharacteristically pointed comments. "It must be the forum where we put the world on track to deliver on climate. And that is down to leaders. It is leaders who made a promise to the world in this great city six years ago. And it is leaders that must honour it. Responsibility rests with each and every country. And we must all play our part. Because on climate, the world will succeed, or fail as one."
The British government has set out a series of priorities for the Summit, including securing progress on what Prime Minister Boris Johnson terms "coal, cars, cash, and trees". But the overarching goal is to get sufficient and credible decarbonisation targets and strategies from major emitters to ensure that the 1.5C warming target remains within reach. The hope is that such strategies, combined with real world efforts to phase out coal power and internal combustion engine cars, ramp up climate finance for developing nations, and expand natural carbon sinks, would curb emissions sufficiently so that updated targets submitted in another five years' time bring the 1.5C goal within grasp. The stated goal in Glasgow is to "keep 1.5C alive".
The past few weeks has provided some encouraging evidence this strategy could work. Chinese President Xi Jinping promised at the UN to phase out funding of coal abroad, building on his previous pledge to ensure China achieves net zero emissions by 2060. President Joe Biden said he would double US climate finance for developing nations, to $11.4bn a year, a salve after rich nations have lagged a 2009 pledge of $100bn a year by 2020. Russia this month became the latest major emitter to provide a headline net zero target, following hot on the heels of the UAE's announcement it is to become the first Gulf state to set a net zero goal. The new German government has signalled it could pull forward its coal power phase out date from 2038 to 2030.
But for thousands of scientists and campaigners, these pledges are all too little, too late.
Speaking at an event in Milan this month, Thunberg spoke for many when she alleged that COPs have delivered little more than a talking shop since the first Earth Summit in 1992. "Our hopes and dreams drown in their empty words and promises," she said. "Of course we need constructive dialogue, but they have now had 30 years of blah blah blah. And where has that led us?"
She echoes years of complaints by small island developing states, at risk from rising sea levels. "Vulnerable countries are fed up with unfulfilled promises from the global community," the Alliance of Small Island States said in a recent tweet.
Global average surface temperatures are already up 1.2C, fuelling a crisis that the UN has described as "code red for humanity". Some observers believe the 1.5C goal can only be kept on life support by wishful thinking.
"Everyone wants to keep the dream of 1.5 alive," reflects Glen Peters, research director at the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo, who tracks global carbon trends. "In every practical sense you are kidding yourself if you think that we are remotely heading towards 1.5C."
The UN says the world needs to cut emissions by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030 to get on track for 1.5C, implying an unprecedented cut of 7.6 per cent in global emissions every year this decade. Such deep cuts have - to date - only ever been recorded in nations during pandemics, times of war, economic slumps, or upheavals such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and its smokestack industries in the early 1990s.
In an overview of country climate pledges for 2030 submitted as part of their NDCs, the UN last month warned that global emissions are currently on track to rise 16 per cent by 2030, from 2010 levels. Patricia Espinosa, head of UN Climate Change secretariat, said the projected rise was "a huge cause of concern" and once again reiterated that deep cuts are essential.
Global carbon emissions fell by a record 5.8 per cent in 2020 with many economies locked down, but this year they are set to "rebound and grow 4.8 per cent as demand for coal, oil and gas rebounds with the economy", according to the International Energy Agency. Many observers now fear hopes that emissions may have peaked in 2019 could prove premature.
As such Peters argues that a better way of talking about the 1.5C is by highlighting how every tenth of a degree or warming matters, for instance to limit the damage to Australia's Great Barrier reef from warming waters, restrict creeping desertification in Africa, or avert worsening floods in Europe and severe wildfires in California. "No one likes to say 1.5C is out of reach," he says. "Maybe the more important framing is that 1.5C is better than 1.6C, 1.6C is better than 1.7C, and so on."
However, many of the key players at the talks are loath to give up on the 1.5C goal. Speaking to the Guardian last week, US climate envoy John Kerry struck a remarkably upbeat tone, insisting that some surprisingly positive announcements were in the pipeline that could deliver a major boost to the Summit.
"The measure of success at Glasgow is we will have the largest, most significant increase in ambition [on cutting emissions] by more countries than everyone ever imagined possible," he told the paper. "A much larger group of people are stepping up. I know certain countries are working hard right now on what they can achieve."
He acknowledged there would still be a gap between the emissions cuts countries offer and those needed to reach the 1.5C goal, but he insisted the target could remain within reach. "The question is, will we have created a critical mass?" he said. "We are close to that. If we have some more countries stepping up in the next weeks, we have something to build on."
It is this pursuit of critical mass that underpins the final diplomatic push ahead of the Summit. "COP26 must be the moment that every country and every part of society seizes the enormous opportunities presented by the green economy and embraces their responsibility to protect our planet and keep 1.5 alive," Sharma said earlier this month, calling on governments and businesses alike to come to the Summit with more ambitious climate plans.
For some observers the hope is that COP26 helps cement the considerable progress that has been made since the Paris Summit. The text of the 2015 Paris Agreement, for instance, speaks of reaching net zero emissions "in the second half of this century" - something many governments at the time took to mean by 2099. But governments now mainly aim to achieve net zero by 2050 or 2060 at the absolute latest. By early 2021, countries with net zero targets together covered 61 per cent of global emissions, and 52 per cent of the global population, according to a report by Oxford Net Zero and the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit. The UK government will be hoping its sweeping new Net Zero Strategy can provide many other governments with both a template to follow and confidence that net zero targets can catalyse real world progress.
Nick Mabey, chief executive of the E3G climate think-tank based in London, argues that there had been clear and meaningful progress since Paris. Widening commitments to phase out the use of coal in many nations, for instance, "are not 'blah blah blah'," he says. "It would never have happened without Paris."
As such, the Glasgow Summit provides the first big test of whether the framework established in Paris can now build on the progress that has been made and enable genuine and sustained decarbonisation. Will the ratchet mechanism that calls on countries to come forward with more ambitious plans every five years work as envisaged?
For Mabey, Glasgow is the most crucial UN meeting on climate change since Paris. "Paris was the end of the paper war," he contends. "Glasgow is the first time people wake up to what it actually means to mobilise for this. And I don't think it's really penetrated people's heads how audaciously mad changing the global economy in three decades is."
Consequently, a successful Summit would provide clear signals governments are starting to mobilise to transform their economies, alongside evidence that they are building support for such changes. "They have to persuade the public to accept it," Mabey notes. "That is a job not done."
The big two
Whether or not COP26 is seen as a success or failure hinges to a large extent on the position taken by Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden, who re-joined the Paris Agreement this year after former President Donald Trump quit the accord. Both are publicly committed to accelerating domestic climate action, and both are seeing their climate agendas face significant challenges.
China has not yet formally updated its NDC, despite months of pleas from other nations for the government to provide more detail on how it plans to deliver on its pledge to become a net zero emission economy by 2060. Xi may have recently promised to phase out financing for coal abroad, but he has yet to address how to end coal consumption in China, which accounts for more than half the world total demand and underpins the country's position as the world's largest emitter.
Moreover, in recent weeks in China domestic shortages of coal-fired power have led to blackouts, prompting reported moves by the government to ramp up short term coal production. Last month, Goldman Sachs cut its forecast for China's economic growth forecast for 2021 to 7.8 per cent from 8.2 per cent partly because of the power shortages.
Analysts are divided on how China will respond, with some predicting a resurgence in fossil fuel development and others predicting Xi is more likely to double down on his ambitious renewables plans. Earlier this year, Xi said carbon dioxide emission would peak before 2030, slightly toughening a phrasing in China's original 2015 NDC to achieve a peak "around 2030 and making best efforts to peak early". All eyes are now on the long-promised Chinese NDC to see if it firms up the government's climate plans or points to a slower rate of decarbonisation than hoped in the wake of the pandemic.
Former US President Barack Obama's former climate negotiator, Todd Stern, tweeted last month that more action by China is vital to the success of COP26. "The main event is for China to pledge a major cut in its emissions now, in this decade, as US, EU and others have," he wrote, "China counts for 27 per cent of global CO2 emissions. No chance to keep 1.5C alive unless China steps up for real."
However, China and other major emerging economies are likely to counter by asking how credible the US decarbonisation plans are.
The US accounts for about 13 per cent of global emissions, second behind China, and is the world's largest historic emitter and pre-eminent economic superpower. Biden made climate action a central plank of his election campaign and a top priority for his administration. But analysts fear he is running out of time to deliver on his promises and may land in Glasgow with an underpowered domestic package.
The NDC his administration submitted to the UN promised to slash US emissions by 50 to 52 per cent against 2005 levels by 2030. But it is dependent to a large extent on the passage of his $1tr bipartisan infrastructure bill and an up to $3.5tr "Build Back Better Act" that include a raft of measures for ramping up investment in clean infrastructure.
However, he has a short window to pass such legislation ahead of next year's mid-term elections, which if history is a guide is likely to obliterate his slender Congressional majority. And divisions in his Democratic Party are stoking fears he may have to significantly scale back climate spending to secure approval for the plans from Congress. Reports over the weekend suggested West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin remains implacably opposed to Biden's plans to decarbonise the power sector and is willing to torpedo the bill. Biden could yet arrive empty-handed in Glasgow.
Still, Biden's policies and priorities remain a dramatic turnaround from the Trump administration, who said he wanted instead to promote jobs in the fossil fuel industry and even doubted that climate change was caused by greenhouse gas emissions. As such, some observers remain optimistic the US can still help deliver an ambitious agreement in Glasgow. Even if his infrastructure plans are diluted, Biden is expected to try and deploy executive orders and other measures to accelerate the major wave of US clean tech investment that is already underway. Meanwhile, Climate Envoy John Kerry is optimistic industrialised nations can ramp up levels of climate financing in Glasgow.
Poorer nations have repeatedly stressed that the first big test of the Paris Agreement is provided by the pledge from industrialised nations to mobilise $100bn a year of climate finance from 2020 to help developing countries decarbonise and enhance their climate resilience.
Climate finance for developing countries totalled $79.6bn in 2019, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), despite a pledge made by rich nations at the 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen to 'mobilise' $100bn a year by 2020, from public and private sources.
There is speculation that the upcoming G20 Summit in Italy that falls on the eve of COP26 could see fresh financing pledges that ensure the target is met, and help ensure the climate negotiations kick off with an improvement in relations between richer and poorer nations.
Simon Stiell, Environment Minister of the Caribbean island state of Grenada and a representative of a "high ambition coalition" of nations, said the G20 must take the lead to keep the 1.5C goal alive since the group accounts for 80 per cent of world emissions. "Within that group alone there are the resources, the capacity, and the responsibility to get us to 1.7C", he told a news conference in early October following the final set of UN talks before Glasgow in Milan, Italy.
However, observers remain concerned that there are considerable divisions within the G20 over how to approach COP26. While there is broad support for the Paris Agreement and growing support for a strengthening of national climate action plans and the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies, some leading emerging economies remain reluctant to show their hand ahead of the Summit.
Alongside China, India, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia have not yet filed updated NDCs. Meanwhile, Turkey has only just ratified the Paris Agreement and Russia's new pledge to reach net zero emissions by 2060 received a decidedly mixed welcome with experts warning that it is yet to be accompanied by a credible plan to curb emissions this decade. Concerns about Russia's commitment to the new target were further stoked today by the news President Vladimir Putin will not travel to Glasgow for the Summit.
Fears remain widespread that attempts to broker an ambitious agreement in Glasgow that unleashes a new wave of global clean tech investment could yet by thwarted by a combination of insufficient ambition from industrialised economies and blocking tactics from emerging economies and petrostates.
Any actors keen to undermine the success of the Summit will have ample opportunity to do so through the technical negotiations that are meant to establish a new governance framework to monitor countries' progress against their climate goals and finalise a key section of the Paris Agreement, known as Article 6, that is meant to establish rules for international carbon markets. Article 6 was omitted from a rulebook at the last COP in 2019 in Madrid, after lengthy negotiations ended in deadlock, and there are still big gaps in the final agreement that diplomats are tasked with resolving in Glasgow. Meanwhile, key countries remain at loggerheads over efforts to introduce greater transparency over national climate targets and establish a common timetable for updating domestic plans.
A lot is at stake, with some arguing the effective finalisation of Article 6 could unlock much needed investment in forest protection and nature-based climate sinks and others fearing it could further embed questionable and counter-productive carbon offset projects in the global effort to decarbonise. "Delay (beyond Glasgow) is not a desired option," said Yamide Dagnet, Director of Climate Change Negotiations at the Washington-based World Resources Institute think-tank. "But we see a lot of risk in undermining the whole ambition if we have bad rules."
The long-running technical negotiations and perennial disagreements over issues such as loss and damage - which centre on whether or not countries facing the worst climate impacts should receive compensation - offer plenty of opportunities for brinkmanship and deadlock during negotiations that can be expected to routinely run through the night as the Summit enters its second week.
And there are the other risks facing the Summit.
Coronavirus and a lack of vaccinations may make it impossible for many delegates to turn up, especially from Africa, Oceania, Asia, and Latin America. Environmental groups in the Climate Action Network recently called for COP26 to be postponed until 2022, arguing the talks risked unfairly locking out poorer nations and civil society.
"There are two sleeping risks," said Mabey. "Will enough people turn up to say it's a legitimate COP? And will people believe the pledges on the table?"
Sharma was at pains in his speech last week to stress that he would ensure voices from poorer nations would be heard, highlighting the UK's push to make vaccines available for all delegates and the recent relaxation of quarantine rules.
However, insiders are cognisant that the talks are likely to be characterised by considerable frustration among poorer nations over the hugely uneven pace of the vaccine roll out globally and the parallels with the ongoing lack of solidarity in the face of the climate crisis. The UK hosts can expect the controversial decision to cut Overseas Development Aid to be referenced repeatedly.
And then there are the logistical challenges. While the UK's party conference season played out without a major coronavirus outbreak, infection rates are climbing again and concerns remain over how the COP26 talks would be impacted if key diplomats test positive for the virus and are forced to isolate. Meanwhile, the government faced a broadside this week from the corporate sponsors for COP26 who allege that despite their investing millions of pounds in supporting the event they remain largely in the dark as to how many of the fringe components of the Summit will operate.
These myriad challenges and concerns are set against the gathering momentum in support of the net zero transition that marks a step change from the build up to the Paris Summit six years ago.
If you had told those gathered in the French capital in 2015 that by the time the second wave of NDCs were submitted the Paris Agreement's goal of delivering net zero emissions during the second half of the century would have been widely translated into net zero by 2050 targets they would have struggled to believe you.
The sidelines of the Glasgow Summit will see hundreds of businesses, states, and cities reiterate their commitment to bold climate action and showcase how well over 1,000 companies are now working on plans to shift to net zero carbon under a global Science-Based Targets Initiative. Meanwhile, the Powering Past Coal alliance, which formed in 2017 and now comprises 41 national governments including Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Canada, will provide a template in Glasgow for a series of other industry-specific initiatives and commitments covering everything from finance and the phase out of fossil fuel exploration to methane emissions and carbon markets. It is here, outside of the technical negotiations, that Boris Johnson will be hoping to secure headline-grabbing commitments to address his four priorities of 'coal, cars, cash, and trees'.
Such commitments are being driven all around the world by the plummeting cost of clean technologies. As Johnson reminded world leaders recently, the cost of solar power has fallen by 85 per cent in the past decade and offshore wind by 70 per cent. Huge investments in renewable energy technologies, partly driven by concerns about climate change, have driven down costs, and similar trends are now evident in batteries, electric vehicles, and even nascent areas such as hydrogen and sustainable aviation fuels.
The Glasgow Summit will not deliver on the goals of the Paris Agreement on its own, and there are credible reasons to fear that it could yet end in deadlock - or worse. But the hope is that just like the Paris Summit six years ago it can deliver crystal clear market and investment signals that catalyse a real world step change in corporate and public efforts to tackle the climate crisis. With just days to go until COP26 kicks off, the critical goal of signalling to the world that the 1.5C target is still alive remains just about within reach.