What to expect at COP 26

The clock is ticking to the start of the COP 26 climate summit with public, private and third sector organisations making final preparations for engaging with what may prove to be the largest ever UK-hosted international event. While COPs are held every twelve months, except for 2020 during the first year of the pandemic, Glasgow is the most important since Paris, and UK ministers have sought to learn key ‘lessons’ from that landmark 2015 conference.

One of those learnings is the importance of a long ‘run-in’ prior to the event with French officials engaging international stakeholders for two years before the start of Paris. The French Government threw the full weight of the state behind that 2015 event with then-foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who was in the 1980s France’s youngest ever prime minister, the most effective ever COP president.

Former UK business secretary Alok Sharma is this year’s COP president and he has done extensive diplomatic legwork having flown to more than 30 countries this year alone. Yet, while he has clocked up the air miles, UK preparations have been significantly hampered by the pandemic and geopolitical tensions, and London is currently still scrambling to try to ensure attendance of key world leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping who at the time of writing has still not confirmed whether he will attend.

Xi’s absence, if he doesn’t travel to Glasgow, could be a particular challenge for the UK Government delivering a successful summit. China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions and Xi, alongside then-US president Barack Obama, was a pivotal player in the build-up to Paris in 2015. This included the momentum he brought to the signing of the US-China climate agreement that year that helped pave the way for securing the new global climate treaty in France.

The fact that there is still much left to do, diplomatically, to get Glasgow on track was highlighted by Sharma earlier this month when he made a point of warning that “COP 26 is not a photo op or a talking shop. It must be the forum where we put the world on track to deliver on climate. And that is down to leaders”.

Climate diplomacy super-surge in October and November

With ‘success’ in November far from certain, London along with key allies is now engaged in a global diplomatic climate super-surge.  This began in New York last month at the United Nations when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson met counterparts from across the world to try to get progress in five key priority areas, namely;

  • The energy transition
  • The shift to zero-carbon transport
  • Adaptation and resilience
  • Nature and safeguarding of ecosystems
  • Unleashing green finance

It will be enormously hard to get substantive deals in all of these areas this Autumn. Privately, some key figures involved in the talks have admitted that a key headline goal of securing enough pledges on greenhouse gas emission cuts from major economies will most likely fall short of the halving needed this decade to limit global warming to the 1.5C cap agreed in Paris.

The goal instead may therefore become that of trying to keep 1.5C ‘alive’ with Glasgow potentially setting a pathway to avoid the worst impact of climate change in the decades to come. Any such Glasgow deal could allow for future updates to emissions pledges in the next few years to try to allow the world to stay within scientific advice on carbon levels.

Yet, even that goal remains in the balance for now, and that is why the UK Government is undertaking a diplomatic surge, including at this month’s G20 leadership summit in Italy. In New York last month, for instance, UK efforts were aided by several high-profile announcements, including US President Joe Biden’s pledge to work with Congress to try to quadruple the US financial commitment to help developing nations confront the climate crisis to 11.4 billion dollars per year.

However, even with this new money, the target for an important new fund of 100 billion dollars from industrialised countries for climate help to the developing world is still an estimated 10 billion dollars a year short. So other countries will also need to dig deeper into their pockets too.

With much therefore yet to fall in place, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres warned again last month that “if we don’t change course, we may be headed for a catastrophic temperature rise of more than 3C this century” above pre-industrial levels. He urged all countries to move as quickly as possible to carbon neutrality to limit temperature rises to no more than 1.5C. Both the UK Government, and the United Nations are therefore now doubling down on the process of encouraging countries to adopt tougher emission reduction targets to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5C, and ensure that developing countries on the frontline of the climate crisis get increased financial support.

Creating a post-Glasgow summit roadmap

While Glasgow will be a key staging post in the battle against global warming, Guterres and other key players are already looking ahead too in case the COP fails to deliver on the high expectations surrounding it. Following the challenges of the Trump presidency, and with Biden in power till at least January 2025, and potentially for four years on top of that, there may now be a 3-7 year opportunity to act in what the US president has called a ‘decisive decade’.

What key UN officials and others are hoping, if this opportunity can be harnessed, is development and implementation of a clear roadmap into the 2030s. While this bridge to the next decade still requires greater definition, it involves not just setting ambition targets, but also creating the framework for meeting them.

This requires implementation of the Paris and any Glasgow deals through national laws where politically feasible to make them most effective. The country ‘commitments’ put forward so far, which will hopefully be enhanced in November, will be most credible — and durable — if they are backed up by legislation where this is possible.

In the United States, part of the reason then-president Donald Trump was able to go about unravelling Obama’s Paris ratification so relatively straightforwardly is that it was, politically, impossible to get the treaty approved in Congress. Obama therefore embedded the agreement through executive order, which Trump rescinded, before Biden reinstated it this year.

Compared to executive orders, legislation is more difficult to roll back. And this is especially when supported — as in many countries — by well informed, cross-party lawmakers who can put in place a credible set of policies and measures to ensure effective implementation.

While world-wide climate pledges made are not yet enough for 1.5C, domestic legal frameworks are being put in place that are potentially crucial building blocks to measure, report, verify and manage greenhouse gas emissions. In the future, the ambition must be that these frameworks are replicated in even more countries, and progressively ratcheted up. And there are some clear signs of this happening already in numerous states, from Asia-Pacific to the Americas, as countries seek to toughen their response to global warming.

Going forward, Glasgow therefore still has the potential to help co-create, and implement, what could be a foundation of global sustainable development for billions across the world. This must start with speedy, comprehensive implementation of Paris, but needs to move beyond this and capitalise on the greater climate ambition that November’s summit will hopefully offer.

Andrew Hammond leads Quiller Consultants, and heads the global affairs offer of Quiller and Grayling. He has been engaged in the COP process since Copenhagen in 2009, and is providing strategic counsel to clients before and after the Glasgow summit on ESG issues.

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