Six things to look out for at Cop26 – and why the climate summit matters

As the UN warns the world is ‘heading for catastrophe’, here’s how to keep an eye on what matters at the ‘last chance’ Glasgow conference. By Harry Cockburn

Wednesday 27 October 2021 14:49
<p>While emissions cuts will take centre stage, there are many other elements of the climate summit to watch out for</p>

While emissions cuts will take centre stage, there are many other elements of the climate summit to watch out for

The Queen may no longer be attending, but Glasgow is set to become the focus of the world’s attention this weekend, as the long-awaited climate summit Cop26 finally opens.

The two-week event is the latest international meeting aiming to rapidly bring down the emissions from the burning of greenhouse gases which are heating up our planet.

The UN has billed the summit as a “crucial” opportunity for countries to avoid the worst impacts of a warming world, including catastrophic sea level rises and extreme weather and food shortages. The “conference of the parties” has been described as the “last chance saloon” to plan and take action within an effective time frame.

Almost 200 world leaders, along with 20,000 delegates and tens of thousands of campaigners and protesters are set to descend on Glasgow, in a major effort to chart a more sustainable future for our species.

The summit follows a year of extreme weather around the world, in which storms and heatwaves have driven widespread flooding and wildfires across Africa, Europe, America, Asia and Australia.

As the impacts of the climate crisis are increasingly being felt by wealthy nations – many of which emit the greatest levels of greenhouse gases – there is an increasing expectation among campaigners that bolder action to tackle the crisis could finally happen in some form.

So what can we expect to see at Cop26?

Emissions cuts

The core aim of the summit is to agree levels by which countries must cut their greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.

At the moment, fossil fuel usage and associated emissions are still rising.

Under the terms of the Paris agreement, drawn up at Cop21 in 2015 in France, the world is aiming to reach net-zero emissions by the year 2050. The hope is that under this scenario any remaining emissions are balanced out by techniques for drawing fossil fuels out of the atmosphere.

Hitting this target will stop temperatures from rising 1.5C higher than they were in the pre-industrial era. A secondary aim of the Paris agreement was to keep temperature rises “well below” 2C.

At the coming summit, countries must set out their new targets for reducing emissions which are to take effect by 2030.

These policy promises are known as “nationally determined contributions” or NDCs.

However, less than a week ahead of the summit, the UN has warned that the new NDCs “fall far short” of what is required.

The latest round of promises from governments around the world will only take a further 7.5 per cent off projected global emissions for 2030, while cuts of 55 per cent are needed to meet the 1.5C Paris goal, and reductions of 30 per cent are needed to stay below 2C.

So at Cop26, all eyes will be on how the countries work out a way of bringing down this large gap.

This is vital because the new policies for 2030 currently put the world on track for a temperature rise this century of at least 2.7C, which UN chief Antonio Guterres last month described as a “catastrophic pathway”.

Climate finance

Another key area in which the summit is already running into trouble is in climate finance for developing nations.

Back in 2009 at Cop15 in Copenhagen, wealthy nations promised to deliver $100bn (£72bn) a year for poorer countries to help build cleaner economies and help pay for climate crisis mitigation efforts.

But this week, new analysis has found the figure will not be met until 2023.

Mohamed Adow, director of Nairobi-based think tank Power Shift Africa, said: "One hundred billion dollars is less than the UK alone is spending on the HS2 rail link, yet the combined wealth of all the world’s developed nations refuses to stump up the cash to help tackle the climate crisis."

Ahead of the summit, Cop26 president Alok Sharma said: “We can and must do more to get finance flowing to developing nations.

“So in the lead-up to Cop26, it’s vital we see further pledges from developed countries and action on key priorities such as access to finance and funding for adaptation.”

Which countries could throw a spanner in the works?

While there is broad international agreement that emissions must come down through reducing use of fossil fuels, there remains considerable antagonism over exactly how this is done and how quickly it should happen.

As well as representatives from some countries showing reluctance to attend the summit, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who has said he won’t travel to Glasgow, China’s Xi Xinping, who is yet to commit to travelling, and Australia’s Scott Morrison, who only recently confirmed his attendance, there are other indications of how the climate crisis is viewed by some administrations.

Last week, leaked documents revealed Australia, China, Saudi Arabia and India are among the nations attempting to water down a major forthcoming UN climate report.

Representatives of the countries made submissions to a panel of scientists urging them to remove key phrases or downplay the need to switch away from fossil fuels.

While the countries’ efforts do not directly relate to the Cop26 negotiations, they provide considerable insight into their governments’ economic concerns over how they deal with climate legislation and the threat they might perceive it to be.

For example, the leaks revealed that major beef producers Brazil and Argentina reportedly disputed assertions that the world needs to reduce its meat consumption in order to tackle the climate crisis.

Meanwhile India and several eastern European countries said the draft report should be more positive about nuclear power, while Australian officials challenged the idea that coal-fired power stations would need to close.

The end of coal?

The UK has said the introduction of a new international agreement to phase out coal is a one of the key aims of the summit.

As Britain’s dependence on coal hits an all-time low, and with plans to close the last coal-fired power stations in the next three years, it is an easy win for the country. But can the hosts convince countries like Australia, China and India to end their addiction to the world’s most-polluting fossil fuel?

The British government said last month that around 480 gigawatts-worth of new coal power stations are planned around the world.

Mr Sharma said: “So ahead of Cop26 and at the summit itself, we need governments to make those strong, clear commitments to end polluting coal generation and prioritise clean power.”

The UK-led effort to bring the world’s biggest polluters on board with such an agreement, is another measure by which the success or failure of the summit might be measured.

Adaptation and nature-based solutions

In addition to agreeing cuts on harmful practices, one of the key purposes of the summit is to showcase the most beneficial methods of addressing the impacts of the climate crisis, adapting to the changing world and preparing for the reality of a warming planet.

This is also where the summit will reconcile the link between the human-driven climate crisis, and the resulting environmental emergencies including the biodiversity crisis.

Both the climate crisis and biodiversity crisis cannot be solved without addressing the other.

Agriculture, forestry and other land use account for nearly a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UK government. However, this sector also supports global food production, and millions of jobs.

At the conference, one of the key messages is that nature-based solutions are cheap and straightforward.

Expanding forests will clean the air and support greater levels of biodiversity; rewilding projects can deliver climate gains, from sequestering carbon in trees and peat bogs, to mangroves defending coastlines; while wildlife reintroductions can improve the function of ecosystems to boost vegetation, prevent flooding and reduce the impact of heatwaves.

Famous faces, protests and fringe events

International summits of this kind are not just about officials debating one another behind closed doors, but are also a carnival of fringe events, with pressure groups, campaigners and protesters well represented.

Greta Thunberg will speak to “tens of thousands” of climate campaigners at the Cop26 Coalition’s Global Day for Climate Justice rally, on Saturday 6 November.

She will join Mitzi Jonelle Tan from the Philippines, Vanessa Nakate from Uganda, and Scottish activist Darren McGarvey, also known as rapper Loki, who will all speak to those in attendance.

Greta Thunberg has urged people to join a climate strike march on 5 November in Glasgow

She will also take part in the Climate Strike march from Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Park to George Square on Friday 5 November.

Writing on Twitter she said: “On Friday Nov 5 I’ll join the climate strike in Glasgow - during COP26 Climate justice also means social justice and that we leave no one behind.

“So we invite everyone, especially the workers striking in Glasgow, to join us. See you there!”

Rail workers in the RMT union are striking throughout the two-week conference.

Meanwhile, refuse and recycling workers from more than half of Scotland’s local authorities will also be out on strike from 8 to 12 November, along with school cleaners, janitors and catering staff.

Sir David Attenborough is also attending the event. Speaking ahead of the summit this week, the broadcaster said leaders must act now or “it’ll be too late” for the planet.

He told the BBC: “Every month that passes, it becomes more and more incontrovertible, the changes to the planet that we are responsible for that are having these devastating effects.”

Extinction Rebellion and spin-off campaigns such as Animal Rebellion and Ocean Rebellion – all of which aim to preserve biodiversity through direct action campaigns – will also be in attendance, organising events and stunts to draw attention to the role the climate crisis, and those who facilitate it, play in making the planet less hospitable to life.

Additional reporting by agencies

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