As a former lead negotiator for the U.K. and EU, I often get asked what the Conference of the Parties (COP) is, what can we expect, why is it so important, and how likely are the high expectations from it to be met?
As COP21 in 2015 is remembered for the landmark Paris Agreement when consensus emerged around a global legal framework for tackling climate change, Glasgow must be remembered as the COP where action to deliver these goals really got underway.
What happens at Glasgow November 1–12 will not stay in Glasgow. The road from COP26 matters more than the road to it, and the direction of travel is clear – and accelerating.
Headlines will doubtless be distracted by geopolitics, such as China’s relationship with the U.S., Europe and others. But within the conference center on the banks of the Clyde river, there are three key reasons why this year’s COP is so important:
The process for so-called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) was established at Paris COP in 2015. Every five years, countries that are signatories to the Paris agreement are expected to submit more ambitious targets as part of a “ratchet process” to meet the 1.5°C target. Glasgow is the first ratchet.
Many countries have already submitted their NDCs ahead of Glasgow, but with mixed ambition so far. Nearly all big, developed countries (except Australia) have submitted significantly enhanced NDCs, with the EU, U.S., Japan, Canada and U.K. broadly committing to halve their emissions by 2030 in order to meet net zero targets by 2050. A few developing countries, such as Argentina, have also set ambitious targets. However, these NDCs would only result in less than 4Gt of additional carbon reductions. Yet global carbon emissions will have to be reduced by an additional 29Gt by 2030 in order to stay on track for 1.5°C.
To elaborate on the above. Current country commitments under Paris would mean the world emitting around 54Gt of GHGs by 2030, with a further reduction to 41Gt by 2030 needed to meet a 2°C target for this century, and to around 25Gt to achieve 1.5°C in the same time frame. Given the business-as-usual trajectory for 2030 might have resulted in 64GT, NDCs made in Paris have reduced the gap, but fell short of what is needed for Paris alignment.
Outside the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the picture on new NDCs is much less rosy. Emerging economies representing the bulk of global emissions, such as Russia, Indonesia and Mexico, have submitted unchanged NDCs, while Brazil even weakened its NDC by increasing the assumed emissions in its baseline year, from which percentage reductions are measured.
Other emerging economies, including China, India and Saudi Arabia, have yet to announce. Of these, China matters the most as its emissions are bigger than all the countries of the G7 combined. In September, President Xi Jinping announced China would stop building coal-fired power stations outside China, but emissions within the country are still a source of anxiety despite Xi’s unexpected September 2020 announcement of a carbon neutrality goal by 2060.
China’s sheer scale means that its emission trajectory matters hugely. China is currently committing that its emissions will peak only in 2030, with some indications that they might decline sharply only from 2035. Even those who watch China closely don't know what China will do – but their historic tendency has been to set targets that capture what the economy is likely to do anyway (rather than using targets to drive policy) and then to overachieve these targets somewhat.
On the other hand, China’s 2060 goal, along with its drive to move up the value chain and dominate new green industries, is already starting to influence core Chinese economic decision making. China’s ability to scale new industries very rapidly – as we saw with solar and are now starting to see with electric vehicles – can dramatically drive down the costs of these technologies globally.
Even if China were to do something transformational, the aggregate of additional reductions through NDCs will not yet be enough to put the world on track for temperature goals. So I expect to see three things in Glasgow to address this:
In Paris, signatories to the agreement also committed to increase their focus on adaptation because of the unavoidable global warming already “locked in,” and to support the most vulnerable countries that will be hit the hardest. Economies in the most at-risk regions are typically the least equipped to finance adaptation.
Article 7 of the Paris Agreement established the goal to “enhance adaptive capacity, strengthen resilience and reduce vulnerability…with a view to contributing to sustainable development.”
At Glasgow, attempts will be made to “operationalize” this adaptation goal. Adaptation is even more complex and location-specific than mitigation, and that is one reason that adaptation has not had enough attention to date from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. (It’s Willis Towers Watson’s expertise in adaptation and resilience that led me to join its advisory team, and it’s why we’re supporting the Resilience Hub at COP26.)
The mobilization of $100 billion a year from developed to developing countries for finance to help mitigate climate change and adapt to it will also be high on the agenda. In September, the OECD published figures that showed a shortfall of just over $20 billion in 2018 despite an upward trend toward the annual target agreed in at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. However, even if developed countries were to meet this target, albeit it only by 2022 or 2023, as seems likely, there will inevitably be controversy, including pressure to commit to increase the proportion invested in adaptation.
Another significant difference for this COP is the position on science following this year’s publication of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). The report found that impacts from two degrees of warming are much greater than those from 1.5, and have effectively put 1.5 degrees center stage as the goal toward which the world is working.
Meanwhile, those still doubtful about the climate transition may point to Europe’s energy crunch as a reason to curb action on climate change. But many others view it as an opportunity to double down on investments, such as renewable energy, storage and hydrogen to provide long-term protection against supply and price shocks.
There is likely to be disappointment from some quarters that Glasgow will not yet have put us fully on track for Paris, or that some major economies have not moved as much as they might have done. Indeed, this could generate some tension and heat at the end of the meeting. But even if I have some sympathy for these concerns, the direction of travel is now irreversible and accelerating, and any public spats should not obscure what is really happening.
Standing back, we now have very ambitious targets across much of the developed world, but without all the policies in place to deliver on them. In my view, this will create an inevitable policy crunch in the coming years as governments double down on the needed policies. Even if international targets for China remain modest, we are beginning to see this happen there too. Meanwhile, there will be increasing scrutiny of companies and the quality of delivery on their climate goals and against public expectations.
Regardless of how much is achieved in Glasgow, momentum will extend well beyond the negotiating halls this November.