What Would a Successful COP26 Look Like?
As global leaders convene this week in Glasgow for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, the stakes could not be higher. COP26 comes less than ten years away from the often cited deadline of 2030 for the world to have reached a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry has called it the “last, best opportunity to get real” on climate change. It also arrives in the wake of tremendous social and economic upheaval due to COVID, and a raucous year for energy pricing in major economies.
The success of climate conferences are difficult to judge during their actual proceedings. Climate summits have a history of masking unrealistic pledges behind lofty proclamations, and of obscuring tangible, less glamorous moments of real progress behind diplomatic spectacle.
The UK government as host of COP26 has listed four broad priorities for the conference: secure global net zero by 2050 and keep 1.5°C above pre industrial levels within reach, adapt to protect communities and natural habitats, mobilize climate financing, and work together to deliver tangible reporting guidelines.
Yet with COP conferences, the devil is in the details. Every global climate summit from the last five years could be said to have those priorities. As we prepare for the flurry of reporting that will be coming over the next two weeks, it’s important to ask: what would success at COP26 really look like? What should we look to see agreed upon by the closing ceremonies?
1. Higher Nationally Determined Contribution plans, especially from the big emitters
The 1.5°C warming goal was agreed upon in 2015 at the Paris Conference. In order to reach it, each country pledged to provide a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) plan every five years, detailing their long term emission reduction targets. 2020 was to be the first year that these plans were to be presented.
The NDCs are the crux of international climate action. All domestic emissions frameworks stem from these long term, national-level goals. Collectively, these total emission pledges are supposed to add up to an amount beneath what would lead to 1.5°C of warming.
At the moment, the total emissions allowed by NDCs far exceed the 1.5°C goal. The latest 2020 report by the UN Environmental Partnership states that together, NDCs would produce at least 2.7°C of warming, above even the higher 2°C warming goal.
In order for Glasgow to be a success, nations need to present much more aggressive NDCs that together fall under the 1.5°C threshold. Many small countries are on well on the path to meeting their goals, while others are languishing.
Three countries to watch for here are China, the US, and Russia. Together they constitute over 50% of global emissions, and are of by far the greatest consequence. China alone could derail the goal, as it produces a third of all emissions and its NDC plan is currently ranked as highly insufficient by Climate Action Tracker.
Heading into the conference, all three of these countries need to offer more aggressive NDC goals.
2. A guarantee by developed countries to deliver at least $100 billion a year to climate financing in developing countries
A widening fault line in diplomatic discussions at the COP conferences is the promise by developed countries to finance $100 billion a year to developing countries’ green transitions starting in 2020. These latter nations are at a crucial moment in their economic development, and the 2020s decade will determine their emissions trajectory. On top of suffering more acutely from climate disruptions, currently they lack the wealth to finance more expensive green alternatives to traditional fossil fuel-based energy sources.
With COP26 comes the arrival of the 2020 deadline, with the latest estimate from the OECD stating that this funding only reached $79.6 billion in 2019. It was almost certainly not met in 2020. Earlier this month officials from Canada and Germany put together a Delivery Plan that asserts the figure will be met in 2023, but the commitment is still far from secure. After all, this promise was enshrined in the Paris Agreement, yet it still remains unfulfilled.
Unless the developed world can guarantee at COP26 that they will provide the necessary funding, developing countries will not be able to meet their Paris NDC plans, jeopardizing the entire framework. Owing to the conference being delayed a year and the 2020s now well underway, COP26 is likely the only summit wherein the issue can be resolved within the window available.
3. The Paris Rulebook being fully finalized, and global carbon markets being clarified
After the Nationally Determined Contributions framework was set up at the Paris Conference, a set of guidelines on how those NDCs will be implemented — known as the Paris Rulebook — was created. The Rulebook, which outlines rules around transparency, reporting, and compliance with regard to the NDCs, was officially adopted in 2018.
However, several key provisions of the Rulebook remain unresolved. Two areas of contention are Article 6, which deals with global carbon markets, and Article 13, which outlines transparency and accountability for climate reporting. Article 6 in particular has been characterized as a point that could ‘make or break’ the Paris Agreement.
For Article 6, the issue is clarifying the acceptability of double counting emissions credits. In the global carbon market, there’s a set number of carbon credits allocated around the world. Nations with excess credits — where they didn’t emit as much carbon as was allocated to them—can sell those credits to nations wishing to emit above their limit.
However, when both parties claim the reduced emission towards their targets, there is no real reduction. Several countries, namely Brazil, Russia and India, have been said to be in support of this behaviour.
If the rules are not tightened at COP26, then countries will use double counting to avoid lowering their emissions. According to Carbon Brief, this would lead to nations “deliberately exclud[ing] parts of their economies from their NDCs, so as to be able to sell any related emissions reductions on the global market instead.”
That threatens a critical failure to the success of the NDCs, and thus broader climate action.