Approximately 25,000 people are expected to travel to Glasgow this month for the Annual Meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This will be the 26th climate conference (hence the name COP26), and all 197 states that are part of the UNFCCC would be represented in principle. What will the negotiators in Glasgow be debating? And why won’t that be easy?
As host of COP26, the United Kingdom has called on attendees to present more ambitious emission reduction targets for 2030 that will help the world reach net zero emissions by the middle of the century, to increase their contributions to climate adaptation and mitigation funds and to agree the rules that would apply to the implementation of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
This round of UN climate talks was originally scheduled to take place in 2020, but was postponed due to the pandemic. Around the key talks, from 31 October to 12 november 2021, Scotland’s largest city will host a series of meetings and events between world leaders, scientists and civil society organisations.
Many of the problems on the table have remained unresolved since the conclusion of the historic Paris Agreement. That agreement required most countries in the world to try to limit global warming to well below 2°C and to aim for 1.5°C.
A continuing source of disagreement is how international carbon markets should work – Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. These markets would allow countries to receive credits to reduce emissions beyond their targets, which could then be sold to countries struggling to meet their own commitments.
Implementing carbon markets is very difficult. Developing countries are concerned that these markets will enable rich countries to avoid painful emission reductions in their own countries, while making marginal contributions to reduce emissions abroad by buying credit. By transferring old credits collected under the previous system of the 1997 Kyoto protocol, emerging economies such as Brazil and India, and carbon-intensive economies such as Australia and Russia, can meet future reduction targets without much extra effort. This goes against the spirit of the Paris Agreement to increase ambition in the long term.
Difficult negotiations are also expected on how poorer countries can be supported to develop sustainably. The Paris Agreement recognised the existential threats to climate-vulnerable countries due to increasing floods and droughts. The provisions on loss and damage in Article 8 of the Paris Agreement promise technical and financial assistance to poorer countries, but how they are to be put into practice remains unclear.
Another controversial issue is the annual supply of $ 100 billion in climate finance. Developing countries need this money to start a green transition, but rich countries have consistently failed to provide it at the level already agreed in 2010. Although president Biden’s recent announcement to double US contributions could mobilise other major economies, there remains a significant deficit.
The list of problems for climate diplomats at COP26 is long and there is a lot at stake. But the biggest complications can arise from the context in which the negotiations are taking place: the pandemic. Delegations from poor countries have warned that a lack of vaccines and high travel costs make it difficult to travel to the climate talks.
COP26 also comes at a time when international relations are tense. The consequences of Brexit continue to poison the atmosphere between the UK and the EU. The US and China, which account for more than 40% of global emissions, are caught in a stalemate in the South China Sea. The recently negotiated AUKUS security partnership between Australia, the UK and the US, which aims to counterbalance Chinese power in the Asia-Pacific region and enraged the French, could also dampen hope for cooperation at COP26.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to progress lies not in Glasgow, but in the capitals of each country. Each country is engaged in a domestic struggle that will determine the international credibility of COP26. National withdrawal from the UNFCCC has happened before. Canada’s departure from the Kyoto protocol in 2011 and the US’s temporary departure from the Paris Agreement in 2017 had domestic causes, and domestic politics has long been the decisive factor in a country’s climate commitments at COP meetings.
The Paris Agreement framework recognises this by allowing governments to make climate commitments that may vary from country to country, as long as National Climate Action increases in ambition over time. But a UN report from 2020 showed that the government’s current commitments put the world on track for 3°C.
Yet there is hope. While many government proposals are likely to be empty words, the latest peak in European gas prices and the recent UK fuel shortages provide an incentive for some governments, including the UK as COP host, to accelerate elements of their green growth strategies.