Analysis: COP26: It’s crunch time

Sir David Attenborough addresses the COP26 conference. Photo credit: UN Climate Change / Kiara Worth via Flickr.

By Anders Lorenzen

Never before has so much weighed upon a single summit.

But as world leaders and negotiators arrived in Glasgow for COP26, which officially began on Sunday the 31st of October, this really is now or never on climate change, and really is the last chance to limit temperature increases to below the 1.5C degrees threshold.

Already before the summit has begun there seems to be a few sticking points. The constant issue of climate finance seems to again be a problem as the $100bn per year which developed countries promised to developing economies to help them deal with the impacts of climate change has yet again been delayed. The money will not be available before 2023, and the total amount has not even yet been guaranteed as some of it still has to be pledged by nations to bring the tally up to $100 bn.


Then there is the ongoing controversy in the UK of new fossil fuel projects. As the host nation which should lead by example, the UK has as yet been unwilling to promise that three new controversial fossil fuel projects will not go ahead. The International Energy Agency (IEA) have in its recent outlook said that no new fossil fuel project must go ahead if we are to have any chance of meeting the 1.5 degrees C target.

While every UN member state would need to agree to the new agreement (if reached in Glasgow) which would replace the Paris Agreement, the landmark deal agreed in Paris in 2015, it really depends on a handful of countries.

Climate maths

Success in Glasgow is really a maths issue. And if the world’s largest emitters, China, US, the EU, India and Russia do not make drastic moves, although whatever every other country does matter, we are unlikely to get anywhere near what is needed. If these five major players and largest emitters do not take significant actions, it is unlikely other countries would want to do so either.

Current Intentional National Determined Contributions (INDC), which is the pledge of emission cuts that each individual country must declare ahead of COP26, brings us to warming of around 2.7 degrees C.

Analysts have found it hard to guess where the increased ambition for those five players will come from. Both China and Russia have chosen not to send Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin respectively to the summit creating speculation that they do not intend to take increased action.

On Monday India has finally committed to a net-zero target but by 2070, twenty years later than the target of 2050. The energy-hungry country, which is expected to overtake China as the world’s most populous nation in the not so distant future, is unlikely to want to rule out any energy source needed to fuel their economy.

In the US, President Biden’s hands are tied and he has had to make several compromises in order to get a huge spending and infrastructure plan through Congress.  Even then a whopping $500 bn will be spent on climate efforts, but at this stage, it looks unlikely that the US would commit to any further emission reductions.

That leaves us with the EU, which has the most ambitious emission cuts among any of the five parties. But any changes will need to be approved by member states so it is unlikely that any more ambitious targets will happen in time. The most plausible hope is increased commitment from some of the EU heavy hitters such as Germany, where talks are underway to form a new government.

Bleak prospects

In the lead up to the summit, analysts have been pretty bleak about a successful outcome and, at this point, it is difficult to see where action and more ambitious targets will come from. There will be increased pressure on the UK to bring parties together and bridge differences and find a way through.

We need to consider also what success or failure means?  If only a 1.5 degrees C deal means success, then the writing looks to be on the wall already.  But if we are just talking about progress from the Paris Agreement then success will be more likely. 

But of course, the only successful outcome for climate advocates and activists is a deal that would limit warming to 1.5 degrees C. 

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