The final countdown to COP26
“Twenty-twenty was not only the year of the pandemic, it was also the year of intensifying climate impacts,” wrote Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN environment programme in the foreword of the latest climate adaptation gap report.
“Floods, droughts and storms affected over 50 million people. Wildfires devastated forests and communities. Plagues of locusts devoured vital crops in East Africa. We have not heeded these warnings.
“Based on current pledges under the Paris Agreement, the world is heading for at least a three degrees temperature rise this century. If this happens, 2020 will seem like a walk in the park.”
Another year, another stark warning about the mounting and catastrophic impacts of climate change. The World Meteorological Organization confirmed the last decade had been the warmest on record and the average global temperature for 2020 was 1.2 degrees above pre-industrial levels – perilously close to the 1.5 degrees limit needed to avoid the worst effects.
Meanwhile, one casualty of 2020 was the postponement of COP26, the UN climate summit to be hosted by the UK. Now nine months away from the rescheduled conference in Glasgow on 1-12 November, the importance of ensuring it is a success is bearing down.
We will get a Glasgow Agreement. It’s inconceivable that the world... cannot come to a strong agreement
“This is absolutely a seminal COP,” says Tim Ash Vie, the director of the Under2 Coalition Secretariat, a group of state and regional governments co-chaired by Nicola Sturgeon, which is committed to climate action. COP26 marks five years since the Paris Agreement was adopted. It is the point at which countries agreed to review progress.
Ash Vie says: “I don’t think you have to be a cynic to look at some of those parameters and think, not going that well, because clearly the most scientific recent reports are saying 1.5 [degrees] is essential but it looks really, really tough. And it looks tougher in 2020 than it did in 2015.”
In advance of COP26, each party to the Paris Agreement must submit their nationally determined contributions – the level they believe they can reduce their emissions by – and plans on how to get there. The UN will publish a synthesis report at the end of this month.
It is also the year the wealthier nations were due to deliver $100bn per year in climate finance to help developing countries meet their targets.
But that figure is “nowhere near” $100bn and even if commitments from Paris are fully implemented, it is still not enough to keep global temperatures below two degrees, says Ash Vie.
Still, he remains optimistic about November’s summit – in part because the two-year gap since the last COP in Madrid, widely considered a failure, has led to “a real mobilisation of diplomatic effort”.
“Everyone will want a good outcome. Even battle-hardened journalists want some good news stories. The idea of reporting on a dismal failure of COP is insupportable. I don’t believe for a second that the UK presidency or Sturgeon or anybody involved in the hosting of this could bear to see a bad outcome,” he adds.
What a good outcome looks like is difficult to predict. Even the Paris Agreement, hailed at the time, falls short. Ash Vie explains: “We will again be in the situation in Glasgow of trying to work out whether the sum of the bottom-up pledges [from each individual country] meets the macro requirements of trying to achieve a world of well below two degrees of warming.”
Scotland and the UK will be looked to as leaders on that front.
Towards the end of last year, both took some steps towards it. The Prime Minister confirmed the UK’s nationally determined contribution would be to cut emissions by 68 per cent by 2030, on the road to net zero by 2050. The Scottish Government went a step further – it published its updated climate plan, a roadmap for how it would reach net zero by 2045.
This showed “really strong, clear leadership from Scotland,” says Ash Vie. “That’s not to say all the numbers are going in the right direction, but you’ve got that plan, you’ve got the institutional framework, you’ve got accountability and metrics and measurements.”
This sentiment was echoed by Chris Stark, chair of the Committee on Climate Change, in his recent evidence to Holyrood’s environment committee. He told MSPs the plan was “the most detailed and thorough assessment of the pathway to net zero for Scotland and the rest of the UK,” but also warned it was “on the fringes of credibility”.
He said: “It seems that there is a deficiency, in that there is a gap between what is promised in the numbers and the modelling exercise, and what is promised in the policies.”
This is a criticism that could apply globally. The imperative of reducing emissions is recognised, but the key theme of COP26 will be determining whether the new commitments are enough. What can we expect?
“We will get a Glasgow Agreement,” says Ash Vie. “It’s inconceivable that the world, with everything that’s going on, with this crashing realisation of the urgency and the public awakening around climate change that I really think is very striking over the last two or three years, it feels inconceivable to me that the world cannot come to a strong agreement.
“The devil will be in the detail. What will the US come back with? What are the timelines that China are talking about? What is India going to move on? Can the European Union see through its ambitious new agendas?
“It’s going to be what those big mega blocs do, but then underpinning it, is there the trust in the system, in climate finance, that gets the least developed countries – the small island states, the African group, the Latin American group – to really get behind and believe in the process?”
It will be the second week of COP26 where these discussions ratchet up. Traditionally that is when the heads of state arrive. Ash Vie predicts negotiations will not be wrapped up neatly by 5pm on the Friday. He anticipates talks to run on through the weekend to ensure a Glasgow Agreement is secured.
That face-to-face encounter is seen as being so integral to the negotiating process. That would be the bit they’d want to hold on to, come what may
Who will the key players be in making this happen? “President Macron will be important. He co-hosted the Climate Action Summit with Boris Johnson in December. That’s important because there is this sense of Paris handing over to Glasgow, the French handing over to the UK. How that transition plays out, there’s obviously a lot of politics going on with that, but that’s a key dynamic.”
Ash Vie also points to the readmission of the US to the Paris Agreement next month, following the election of President Biden. “What that implies requires some scrutiny. The US has not been at the forefront of climate action historically. Even under Obama, it came quite late in his presidency that he was able to line stuff up and it was obviously quickly dismantled.
"Their ability to have a rich USA-wide process, involving state governments and cities and investors and businesses and so on, in the space of a few months is very limited.”
President Xi will also be integral. China, the world’s largest emitter, committed to reaching net zero by 2060 late last year.
In addition, the relationship between the USA and China was “really key to getting the Paris Agreement in place,” Ash Vie explains, though diplomacy between the two has faced difficulties in recent years. “Notwithstanding Biden is a different person and not as directly confrontational, it’s not clear that US-China relations will come back onto the level they were before.”
Of course, there are still questions around how COP26 will happen amid the ongoing global pandemic. Even with the rollout of vaccines, it seems unlikely that 30,000 people will be able to descend on Glasgow for the event.
This idea of something you can’t see, that’s nebulous, that’s a bit unknown... we kind of get what that is in a very vivid way
Last month, Scotland’s national clinical director Jason Leitch confirmed public health experts were being actively consulted, including about the possibility of cancelling.
He said: “It's a UK Government-led process, but Scottish public health leaders are in those conversations and there are plans for everything you can imagine, from cancellation right up to a full COP26, with everything in between – perhaps just the negotiators, perhaps just a virtual event. All of that will depend on where the UK is, but more importantly where the rest of the world is.”
Ash Vie expects that, if nothing else, the high-level political negotiations will take place. He says: “That trust building, that face-to-face encounter, is seen as being so integral to the negotiating process. That would be the bit they’d want to hold on to, come what may.”
The ease at which this can be done will become clearer as we near November, but one difficulty will be some states being so preoccupied with the COVID response that government officials and civil servants have had to be redeployed.
“We have members like Amazonas state in Brazil… in a dreadful state with the pandemic, a complete collapse of medical and social infrastructure. I don’t think they’re going to be able to get there. It’s absolutely incumbent on us to think about how we involve them in this discussion, because absolutely we need the voice of the Amazon present,” Ash Vie says.
But he also highlights the adjustments to help people take part could tackle the “hypocrisy” of the conference – namely thousands of people boarding planes to get there. The pandemic has made people more open to technology and platforms have vastly improved to facilitate online events.
Another possible benefit of the pandemic, Ash Vie suggests, is that it has helped shift attitudes about following the science. “That calibration is quite different now to what it was 12 months ago and I think on climate change, this idea of something you can’t see, that’s nebulous, that’s a bit unknown, that’s going to have impacts for a long time but you’re not quite sure where and how, it’s like we kind of get what that is in a very vivid way.
“That’s not to equate it with the immediacy of a pandemic, but suddenly people are like, ‘we need to be guided by the science’. No kidding. That’s what people in the sector have said for a long time.”
As UN Climate Change executive secretary Patricia Espinosa highlighted at a recent lecture, against the twin crises of coronavirus and the climate, “never has a generation had the opportunity to change so much in so little time… This is the year we can get it right, the year that we achieve a pivotal, transformational change in global climate policy and action.”