The United Nations Climate Summit in Glasgow, COP26, has run into overtime, as leaders and negotiators kept working to reach a deal that could spare the world from catastrophic global warming.
“Without decisive action, we are gambling away our last chance to – literally – turn the tide”, UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, had said ahead of the meeting. But why could it be our last chance?
What is COP26?
To be concise, COP26 is the biggest and most important climate-related conference on the planet. In 1992, the UN organised a major event in Rio de Janeiro called the Earth Summit, in which the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted.
In this treaty, nations agreed to “stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere” to prevent dangerous interference from human activity on the climate system. Today, the treaty has 197 signatories.
Since 1994, when the treaty entered into force, every year the UN has been bringing together almost every country on earth for global climate summits or “COPs”, which stands for ‘Conference of the Parties’. This year should have been the 27th annual summit, but thanks to COVID-19, we’ve fallen a year behind due to last year’s postponement – hence, COP26.
Various “extensions” to the UNFCCC treaty have been negotiated during these COPs to establish legally binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries and to define an enforcement mechanism. These include the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which defined emission limits for developed nations to be achieved by 2012; and the Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, in which all countries of the world agreed to step up efforts to try and limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures, and boost climate action financing.
So, here’s where COP26 gets interesting: at the conference, among other issues, delegates were aiming to finalise the ‘Paris Rulebook’, or the rules needed to implement the Agreement. This time, they needed to agree on common timeframes for the frequency of revision and monitoring of their climate commitments.
Basically, Paris set the destination, limiting warming well below two degrees, (ideally 1.5) but Glasgow, is the last chance to make it a reality.
However, COP26 President, Alok Sharma, said late last Friday that a small number of key issues remain unresolved. “This is our collective moment in history, this is our chance to forge a cleaner, healthier and more prosperous world, and this is our time to deliver on the high ambition set by our leaders at the start of the summit, we must rise to the occasion”, he said during an informal plenary to update delegates.
He reported that ministers had worked late into the night to discuss finance and “loss and damage”, and that it was still his “sincere intention” to get a final agreement over the line by the end of the day. “We need a final injection of that can-do spirit to get our shared endeavour over the line,” he said.
The plenary heard statements from various countries, including a strong call from many representatives to add to the outcome text language that would lead to the end of all fossil fuel use, not just coal.
The latest draft text currently states: “Parties to accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies, and the adoption of policies, to transition towards low-emission energy systems, including by rapidly scaling up clean power generation and accelerating the phaseout of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels”.
“This is personal, it’s not about politics,” said the European Union’s top negotiator, adding that the targets in Glasgow would be “utterly meaningless” unless countries agree on a clear signal to end all fossil fuel subsidies.
On the same topic, John Kerry, the US climate envoy, said that to keep spending money on these types of subsidies is “insanity”.
“Those subsidies have to go. We’re the largest oil and gas producer in the world and we have some of those subsidies and President Biden has put in legislation to get rid of them,” he said.
The US, he continued, struggles each year to find money, “but $2.5 trillion in the last five or six years went into subsidies for fossil fuel. That’s the definition of insanity. We’re allowing ourselves to feed the very problem we’re here to try to cure. It doesn’t make sense,” stated Mr. Kerry.
Another thorny issue that remains unresolved is the extent to which developed countries will compensate vulnerable nations for ‘loss and damage’ caused by climate change.
The representative from the G77 and China negotiating group of developing countries said that they were “deeply disappointed” that their proposal to establish a Glasgow Loss and Damage Facility is not reflected in the text.
“That proposal has been put forward by the entire developing world, to respond to our needs…To address the loss and damage inflicted by climate change”, he said.
Likewise, there was a push from many countries to strengthen the call to keep alive the Paris Agreement goal to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and to demonstrate more ambition on climate finance.
“We came to Glasgow with high hopes and expectations, however in this final hour of COP26, we have doubts, and we still keep hearing some pushback on the ambition that is required to close the 2030 gap in line with the 1.5-degree target, reservations on support for loss and damage…and we are still waiting to see much-needed progress on climate finance”, said Buthan’s negotiator, speaking on behalf of the Group of Least Developed Countries (LDCs).
The people’s summit
Earlier, civil society groups took over the COP26 plenary room, the same one negotiators had sat in for their stocktaking meetings. To start, delegates were asked to stand if they had lost loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic and if they had experienced climate impacts. Most of them did.
“There is no doubt that we the people representing all countries across the world, in our diversity, have all felt the impacts of a pandemic and a climate crisis. It is the same sections of society that bear the full burdens of these different crises,” said Tasneem Essop, Executive Director of CAN-International.
Representing African civil society, Mohamed Adow claimed that they had been “locked out of the process” at COP26.
“We the people demand global North countries pay their climate debt, deliver a global goal on adaptation, address climate injustice and pay up for losses and damages”, he said.
After the interventions, the organizations, which included indigenous collectives and women’s groups, marched out of the plenary and were joined by many other participants waiting for them in the halls. Holding picket signs and banners, they shouted demands for climate justice as they made their way out of the conference.
Outside the gates, they met up with a larger group of demonstrators and they all continued together across the river towards the iconic Finnieston Street bridge, where some waited most of the day for the conference’s final outcome.
In a world shaken by a pandemic, and a fast-closing window of opportunity to avoid climate catastrophe, the pivotal COP26 kicked off the previous Sunday in the Scottish city of Glasgow, with higher stakes.
Why is Glasgow the last chance?
Like a boa constrictor that slowly squeezes its prey to death, climate change has gone from being an uncomfortable low-level issue, to a life-threatening global emergency, in the past three decades.
Although there have been new and updated commitments made by countries ahead of COP26, the world remains on track for a dangerous global temperature rise of at least 2.7°C this century even if Paris goals are met.
The science is clear: a rise of temperatures of that magnitude by the end of the century could mean, among other things, a 62% increase in areas scorched by wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere during summer, the loss of habitat of a third of the mammals in the world, and more frequent four to 10 month-long droughts.
UN chief António Guterres bluntly calls it “climate catastrophe”, one that it is already being felt to a deadly degree in the most vulnerable parts of the world like sub-Saharan Africa and Small Island States, lashed by rising sea levels.
Millions of people are already being displaced and killed by disasters exacerbated by climate change. For Guterres, and the hundreds of scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scenario of 1.5°C warming, is the “only liveable future for humanity”.
The clock is ticking, and to have a chance of limiting the rise, the world needs to halve greenhouse gas emissions in the next eight years.
This is a gigantic task that we only will be able to do if leaders attending COP26 come up with bold, time-bound and front-loaded plans to phase out coal and transform their economies to reach so-called net-zero emissions.
The most recent UN Emissions Gap Report explains that a total of 49 countries plus the European Union have pledged a net zero target. This covers over half of global domestic greenhouse gas emissions, over half of global GDP and a third of the global population. Eleven targets are enshrined in law, covering 12 per cent of global emissions.
Sounds great right? But there’s a catch: many of the commitments delay action until after 2030, raising doubts over whether these net zero pledges can actually be achieved. Also, many of these pledges are “vague” and inconsistent with the officially submitted national commitments, known as NDC’s.
This again explains why COP26 is so important: “The time has passed for diplomatic niceties…If governments – especially G20 governments – do not stand up and lead this effort, we are headed for terrible human suffering”, warned Guterres in the UN General Assembly this week.
What COP26 hopes to achieve
The official negotiations take place over two weeks. The first week includes technical negotiations by government officials, followed by high-level Ministerial and Heads of State meetings in the second week, when the final decisions will be made – or not.
There are four main points that will be discussed during the conference according to its host, the United Kingdom: Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach. To do this, countries need to accelerate the phase-out of coal, curb deforestation, speed up the switch to greener economies. Carbon market mechanisms will be also part of the negotiations.
Adapt more to protect communities and natural habitats – Since the climate is already changing countries already affected by climate change need to protect and restore ecosystems, as well as build defences, warning systems and resilient infrastructure.
Mobilise finance – At COP15, rich nations promised to channel $100 billion a year to less-wealthy nations by 2020 to help them adapt to climate change and mitigate further rises in temperature. That promise was not kept, and COP26 will be crucial to secure the funds, with the help of international financial institutions, as well as set new climate finance targets to be achieved by 2025.
Work together to deliver – This means establishing collaborations between governments, businesses and civil society, and of course, finalising the Paris Rulebook to make the Agreement fully operational. In addition to formal negotiations, COP26 is expected to establish new initiatives and coalitions for delivering climate action.
How, when and where?
The main event will be held at the Scottish Event Campus, from October 31 to November 12, with the possibility of negotiations spilling over an extra day or two. So far, there are over 30.000 people registered to attend representing governments, businesses, NGOs, and civil society groups.
The 197 Parties to the UNFCCC treaty, often get in groups or “blocs” to negotiate together such as the G77 and China, the Africa Group, the Least Developed Countries, the Umbrella Forum, the Small Island Developing States, and the Independent Alliance of Latin America and the Caribbean.
The negotiations also include observers, which have no formal part in them but make interventions and help maintain transparency. Observers include United Nations agencies, intergovernmental organisations, NGOs, faith-based groups, and the press.
But besides the official negotiations, there will be a conference, a pavilion, and thousands of side events happening, divided over thematic days, on topics like finance, energy, youth and public empowerment, nature, adaptation, gender, science and innovation, transport, and cities.
The conference happened across two zones – The Blue Zone (Scottish Events Campus), and the Green Zone located at the Glasgow Science Centre. While the Blue Zone was a UN-managed space where negotiations are hosted, and to enter all attendees must be credited by the UNFCCC Secretariat, the Green Zone was managed by the UK government and open to the public. It will include events, exhibitions, workshops and talks to promote dialogue, awareness, education and commitments on climate change.
While COVID-19 continues to be a huge challenge across the world, tackling the climate crisis cannot wait according to the COP26 hosts. In-person negotiations are preferred over online ones, to ensure inclusive participation by high and low-income countries as well as ensuring scrutiny and transparency.
Fully vaccination is encouraged for those attending the conference, and the United Kingdom ran a programme ahead of time, to deliver vaccines to participants living in countries unable to get one. There is also strict COVID-19 testing protocols in place, including daily testing for everyone entering the Blue Zone to ensure the health and wellbeing of all those involved and the surrounding community.
There were also COP-specific arrangements for the COVID Travel Regime people will encounter as they enter England and Scotland, with some countries requiring quarantine (which will be funded by the UK Government for attendees in difficult circumstances.