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COP26: The Planet's Most Important Climate Summit

Updated: Nov 13, 2021

By Hamilton Steimer

From October 31 to November 12, this year’s most important climate summit, the Conference of the Parties (COP), will be taking place in Glasgow, Scotland. As the 26th iteration of this annual summit, COP26 represents one of the most significant climate summits to date. The leaders of the world, their climate negotiators, and others will gather together to discuss and review how climate change is being addressed domestically and internationally, and they will decide on the world’s next steps as it looks to 2030 and beyond. The negotiations will determine whether or not the world can achieve the ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement by preventing global warming further than 1.5C and mitigating the worst of climate change.

What is COP26

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was ratified by 194 countries in 1994 and provides the basis for international coordination and cooperation in mitigating climate change and adapting to its impacts. Signatories to the UNFCCC, known as the Parties, meet together annually during the Conference of the Parties to discuss the status of the planet’s climate and the Parties’ progress on mitigating climate change domestically and internationally. The first COP was held in 1995 in Germany, and the Parties gather together every year either in Bonn, the seat of the secretariat, or at a host location.

COP26 was scheduled to occur last year but was postponed due to the ongoing pandemic. To prevent the spread of COVID at the in-person summit, the UK government has offered attendees free vaccinations. Attendees include world leaders, including President Joe Biden, and other state leaders as well as others such as Greta Thunberg and, until recently, the Queen of England. The attending world leaders will meet for several days before leaving, with much of the negotiations to be carried out by their entrusted government officials throughout the rest of the conference. As of now, several major players, such as China’s Xi Jinping and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, will be absent from the summit, which has left many attendees unsettled.

What are the goals of COP26?

Officially, COP26 has 4 main goals:

  1. Secure global net-zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach

  2. Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats

  3. Mobilize finance

  4. Work together to deliver

These main goals also consist of important sub-goals such as accelerating the phase-out of coal, updating countries’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs), finalizing the Paris Rulebook, and improving climate resiliency and adaptation measures.

Updating NDCs

Nationally determined contributions (NDCs) were the main victory of the Paris Accords in 2016. NDCs represent the specific steps countries will take to reduce their emissions, ultimately in pursuit of limiting global warming to 1.5C. Governed by Article 4 of the Paris Agreement, NDCs are to be submitted and maintained every 5 years as part of a ratchet mechanism, and they are to be communicated in a way that promotes “clarity, transparency, and understanding.” However, while the transparency and reporting processes are binding, there is no real enforcement mechanism to ensure countries stay true to their word besides international peer pressure.

Herein lies the critical weakness of the Paris Agreement and international climate policy in general: everyone has to participate and increase their commitments on their own accord. The original NDCs coming out of the Paris Agreement were not enough to limit 1.5C of warming. In fact, they put the world on track for 2.7C of warming and allow emissions to increase by 16% by 2030 even though they must instead decrease by 45%. COP26 is so important for our future because it is the first opportunity for countries to revise their NDCs and stay on target as earlier pledged. If countries do not, the planetary goal of mitigating the worst of climate change will most likely be unreachable.

So far, over 140 countries have submitted their NDCs. India has not yet submitted an updated NDC before the conference, and China submitted its updated NDC just the other day. However, with little changes to its previously stated commitments, China’s NDC announcement has greatly disappointed many as it is not enough to prevent 1.5C by 2030. Considering India and China contribute to about a third of the world’s emissions, their participation at COP26 will be of great importance.

Article 6

All components of the Paris Agreement’s so-called rulebook have been agreed upon except Article 6, which deals with how to develop and implement international carbon trading markets. Article 6 allows wealthier countries to compensate for their higher emissions by financing clean energy projects in other nations or by funding environmental restoration projects that absorb carbon. Through carbon trading markets, countries can price carbon emissions, create accounting mechanisms, and track emissions reductions in the form of credits or offsets. Not only would this unlock a significant source of capital for international climate financing, but it also provides countries, albeit mostly wealthier countries, another tool to reduce their emissions.

This topic is very timely as carbon trading systems are being utilized around the world, with China recently enacting the world’s largest, although it deals with power plant efficiency rather than emissions. At COP26, negotiators will decide upon the fine details of Article 6, enacting transparency and accounting standards to prevent double-counting of emissions reductions. In recent years, carbon offsets have become an increasingly popular tool used by corporations and cities as part of their emissions reduction commitments. Negotiations at COP26 will discuss the standards and ways in which countries can use offsets to fulfill their NDCs, as currently, their effectiveness and credibility are dubious.

Climate finance

Although the Global South and other poorer nations are the least culpable for climate change, these countries are disproportionately impacted due to their geographic location and their inability to afford the necessary adaptive measures. During the Copenhagen Summit of 2009, Global North countries recognized this problem and committed to providing $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poorer countries cut their emissions and adapt to climate change’s impacts. Unfortunately, the world has fallen short of this goal, achieving about $80 billion in funding for 2019.

Even though countries have never achieved the $100 billion climate finance commitment, it was extended at the Paris Accords to go from 2020 to 2025. At COP26, countries will figure out how to deliver on this pledge, and negotiations could include how to raise even more money after 2025, as more funds are needed to help countries deliver on their NDC commitments.

An Uncertain Future

I wish I was feeling optimistic as the world looks to the start of COP26. While there are some encouraging signs, such as continued progress in the renewable energy and electric vehicle markets, the world is far from its goal of limiting planetary warming to no more than 1.5C. The IPCC report released in August was clear that humanity is facing a “code red” moment, as the likelihood of limiting warming to 1.5C or even 2C is slim. President Biden’s failure to achieve a robust reconciliation bill, India’s NDC delay, and China’s half-hearted NDC submission are extremely concerning as these major international players must do more to reduce their emissions.

The fact that climate change is now a part of everyday conversation, at least at the top political levels of the world, is one small silver lining. For decades, the world has delayed taking action, with most unwilling to accept the scientific truth or make the difficult decisions to look beyond fossil fuel use. Now, we know that climate change is real and will be terrible, and the power and influence of fossil fuels seem to be waning (although too slowly). I do hope that the latest IPCC report will be a galvanizing influence at the center of the climate discussions to motivate countries to step up and do their part.

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