Glasgow, once the second city of the British Empire and the biggest shipbuilder on the planet, next month hosts the 26th conference of nations aiming to halt dangerous climate change. The negotiators face the challenge of turning the aspiration of the 2015 Paris Agreement to achieve “net zero” emissions by mid-century into the detailed near-term action plans necessary to turn those hopes into reality in time to halt warming at or near 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
Sadly, while aspiration is going well, progress on action is slow, say scientists. Most big emitters have in recent months promised to achieve national net-zero targets by 2050, allowing the British hosts to claim that Glasgow will “keep 1.5 alive.” But scientists warn that such ambition remains hot air. They say we have to all but halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, or net zero by 2050 will slip out of sight. Yet most of the national plans unveiled so far do little more than prevent further rises in emissions over the coming decade.
The question for delegates meeting in Scotland comes down to this: Should the focus be on 2050 aspiration or 2030 action, on “keeping 1.5 alive” or on delivering credible plans to make it happen?
It is six years now since governments meeting in Paris committed to restricting warming to “well below” 2 degrees C from pre-industrial levels while “pursuing efforts” to cap it at 1.5 degrees. They agreed that would require bringing net greenhouse-gas emissions (total emissions less any agreed carbon capture) to zero by mid-century.
But even amid the euphoria, negotiators recognized that there was a gap between national emissions pledges on the table in Paris and the declared goal. So they set up a timetable for ratcheting up commitments and for taking account of emerging science. The first deadline for new pledges, known as nationally determined contributions, was set for 2020 and postponed until 2021 because of the pandemic.
So the Glasgow Conference of Parties (COP26) should be high noon for delivery — for turning aspiration into action.
The post-Paris pledges are no substitute for action. And with warming already above 1 degree C, time is short.
Its importance has grown because it is the first COP since the return of the United States to the negotiating table after the Trump years. And the urgency has been reinforced by escalating extreme weather events — wildfires, floods, droughts, and extreme heat waves — and by modeling studies suggesting such extremes will increase sharply if global temperatures rise beyond 1.5 degrees C.
The potential for achieving the ambition of Paris has improved since that conference, because of the advance of technology. Electric cars were barely on the horizon in 2015. And solar power and battery prices have more than halved since then.
So how are we doing? More than 130 countries have made net-zero pledges since Paris. Those nations are collectively responsible for more than 70 percent of current global emissions. That is a diplomatic triumph of sorts. But pledges are no substitute for action. And with warming already above 1 degree C, time is short.
In a 2018 assessment, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that if current trends continue, 1.5 degrees would be reached about 2040, but potentially as early as 2030 or as late as 2052. It found that for a 50-50 chance of halting warming at that point, the world has to reduce emissions by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and then go on to reach net zero by 2050. For climate scientists, securing that trajectory is the benchmark for success in Glasgow.
But national pledges to make the required 45 percent cut by 2030 remain a distant prospect (only the United Kingdom comes close). And since the Paris Agreement is based on voluntary targets, there is no legal means for closing the gap or sanctioning backsliders.
The most definitive assessment of where the world stands came in a detailed comparison of climate models and national pledges published in the journal Nature Climate Change last month. It found that emissions in 2030 are set to be almost the same as today — almost double what is needed to be on target for net zero.
The prognosis for temperatures will be devastating. The report found that policies currently in place will lead to a rise of around 3 degrees C. If pledges for 2030 so far submitted for Glasgow were implemented in full, they would limit the rise to 2.4 degrees, at best. And even if there were a systematic advance toward net zero, it would deliver only a 50-50 chance of keeping warming to below 2 degrees, according to one method used in the study.
“The good news is that the 2050 net-zero targets for the first time put the ‘well below’ 2 degrees and 1.5 limits of the Paris Agreement within reach,” the study’s chief author, Niklas Hohne of the NewClimate Institute in Cologne, Germany, told Yale Environment 360. “But the bad news is that no single country is on target to implement the short-term 2030 policies needed to be on track to meet their own net-zero targets.”
The paper is optimistically titled: “Wave of net-zero emissions targets opens window to meeting the Paris Agreement.” But the current pledges, Hohne says, “will lead to roughly stable emissions from now until 2030,” not the required 45 percent cut. Co-author Joeri Rogelj of Imperial College London agrees that the national pledges to date are “not at all consistent” with reaching net zero.
So can the tide be turned? Will climate diplomacy and public pressure force delegates in Glasgow to up their game? The British government’s chief negotiator, former business secretary Alok Sharma, who will be president of the COP, conceded in March that current 2030 targets were “nowhere near enough,” but declared that “the UK is using the COP presidency to urge all countries to set 2030 emissions reductions targets that put us on a path to net zero.”
Britain’s negotiator has been downplaying the importance of 2030 targets but talks of aiming to “keep 1.5 [degrees] alive.”
Six months on, his advisors are now reported to privately concede that the hoped-for big improvements won’t happen on anything like the scale needed. Probably in consequence, the hosts’ narrative has shifted.
Sharma has been traveling the world in recent months, pushing countries such as Russia and Australia to join others in committing to net zero. But he has been downplaying the importance of 2030 targets. He no longer talks of putting the world “on a path” to net zero. Rather he speaks repeatedly of aiming to “keep 1.5 alive” through 2050 pledges.
Perhaps, say optimists, national emissions pledges at big UN negotiating events matter less now that there is more potential economic gain from switching to cheap low-carbon technologies. “The world has changed a lot since Paris,” economists Kingsmill Bond and Sam Butler-Sloss of the UK-based think tank Carbon Tracker noted last month. “The old trade-off between development and climate mitigation … has been solved.” Shifting to the new technologies was now about “gain not pain,” since that would give nations a head start on the low-cost energy technologies of the future.
Maybe so, but despite apparent technological tipping points, overall carbon dioxide emissions have continued to rise since Paris. The main obstacle, Bond and Butler-Sloss argue, comes from “the forces of incumbency and inertia,” reflected in government subsidies for fossil fuels that a report published by the International Monetary Fund this month estimates at $11 million every minute.
Glasgow will debate many issues besides national emissions targets. Sharma’s agenda has broadened in recent months to embrace commitments phasing out coal, promoting electric vehicles, reducing non-CO2 greenhouse-gas emissions such as methane, and funding both for forest planting to keep more carbon in natural ecosystems and for helping developing countries adapt to future extreme weather.
The push to banish coal burning in power stations may have triggered China’s September promise to end all funding for overseas coal power stations. It is also behind a recently announced plan for rich nations to provide funding to South Africa to end its reliance on coal burning.
But of much greater moment for many of the developing-world governments, whose votes will dominate in Glasgow, is finance. Twelve years ago, at the otherwise failed Copenhagen COP, developed nations promised that by 2020 they would collectively provide an annual $100 billion to developing countries to help them both bring down their own emissions and adapt to climate change.
Those promises were reaffirmed in Paris. The UN’s chief Paris negotiator, Christiana Figueres, says that the risk of missing this target “looms the largest” for her successors. Delivering this funding is a prerequisite for a successful conference for countries whose contribution to climate change is very small compared to that of rich industrialized nations. “Promises must be kept,” says Figueres, “otherwise a lack of trust undermines the whole process.”
But faith and trust are in short supply. The formal accounting process on the 2020 financial payments will not be completed until next year, but sources familiar with the process told Bloomberg that payments fell at least $10 billion short. And there are continuing concerns about how the money is being allocated by donors. Most of it has so far funded reducing emissions, with only a small portion going for helping countries adapt to the impacts of climate change, such as hurricanes, floods, and droughts.
A big unknown is the role that China will take, and how its relations with the U.S. play out on the conference floor.
Other outstanding business for Glasgow includes completing the technical rules for implementing the Paris deal. Delegates still have to decide how often countries should report and update their pledges in the future. The European Union this month agreed to join the U.S. and many poor climate-vulnerable nations in pushing for updating targets every five years. But others want a 10-year cycle, and China and India oppose any internationally agreed time frame. Some observers say that without synchronized reporting, it will be impossible to align national targets with the changing science of climate change.
There is continuing controversy too over rules on accounting for, and trading in, credits for carbon captured by forest conservation and planting. These “nature-based solutions” are seen as a crucial element in achieving net-zero emissions, which will allow countries to continue greenhouse-gas emissions provided they are offset by carbon-uptake elsewhere. But nobody is sure how to prevent bogus offsets and carbon fraud.
Though apparently technical issues, rule-book resolution depends a lot on political goodwill. A big unknown here remains the role that China will take, and how its diplomatic relations with the U.S. will play out on the conference floor.
There is history here. A major cause of failure in Copenhagen in 2009 was a stand-off between the two nations; but Paris succeeded in part because of a deal on climate reached between the two nations in Washington the previous year.
In recent months, diplomatic relations between the China and the U.S. have been increasingly frosty, leading to Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry pleading with his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua to separate climate from other issues.
But China has rejected such overtures. It has committed in advance of Glasgow to what it believes is a generous pledge for a still-developing nation, by promising to peak emissions by 2030 and reach net zero by 2060. But the West is not satisfied. In September, Sharma publicly called for China to “pick up the pace” and present “more detailed plans.” And Kerry’s chief negotiator Todd Stern, a veteran of the process, called testily on Twitter for China to “pledge a major cut in its emissions now, in this decade.”
Such calls may seem unfair, given the much greater responsibility for overloading the atmosphere with CO2 born by early-industrializing nations such as the U.S. and UK. This “carbon debt” is an increasingly hot topic as the world edges towards its carbon limits.
So, how should we judge the success or failure of the Glasgow COP? The hosts appear tempted to paint aspiration as victory. They may hope that delegates less versed in the science of climate change will fly home satisfied that they have delivered a “wave” of net-zero pledges for 2050 and “kept 1.5 alive.” For others, an absence of concrete plans for 2030 would make the aspirations look like delusion.
Almost 30 years ago, at the Earth Summit in Rio, nations agreed to a convention that promised to prevent “dangerous” climate change. The Glasgow COP is the 26th conference of the parties to that treaty. If it can deliver on 1.5 degrees, it will be the most important. But it could be another 30 years before we know for sure.