This column is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration cofounded by Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
The COP 26 will mainly focus on two things: (1) commitments on greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions reductions; and (2) funding and technology transfers from developed countries to developing countries, to help them address and adapt to climate change.
This year’s climate negotiations are important since, in keeping with the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries have to submit information to the UN detailing their plans to curb greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions. Although discussions of ghgs tend focus on carbon dioxide (CO2), ghg emissions also include methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N20). The UN aggregates the commitments, which are called “Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDCs) and assesses the cumulative impact.
The Paris Agreement, which was adopted at the COP 21 in Paris in 2015 and went into effect in 2016, stipulated that the NDCs have to be reported every five years, with the intention of ratcheting up commitments over time. The deadline to submit was 2020, and 194 of 197 parties submitted their first NDCs.
The Paris Agreement also established a goal of taking measures to limit the average global temperature increase to well below 2.0 degrees Celsius and preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit), deemed by many nations, especially sub-Saharan African nations and low-lying islands, to be the limit. “1.5 to stay alive,” as island nations state.
Unfortunately, nations gathering at the summit have made little progress on these issues leading up to the COP 26. According to the UN, the commitments made thus far will not decrease emissions but actually allow them to increase—by 16 percent. Current commitments would lead to a temperature increase of 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 Fahrenheit).
Historically, developed nations (in UN-speak), such as the EU countries and the US, are the biggest emitters. The EU initially committed to reduce its ghg emission by 40 percent by 2030 based on 1990 levels. In December 2020, it updated its commitments to a more ambitious reduction of 55 percent by 2030, based on 1990 levels. The EU’s offer is in line with the reductions targets recommended by most scientific bodies.
Overall, current commitments would lower CO2 emissions only 7 percent by 2030. But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme, for example, argues that ghgs need to be reduced 45 percent by 2030 based on 2010 levels and then reduced to net zero by 2050, in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) and avert irreversible climate change.
The United States has stated that it will reduce its ghgs by 50–52 percent by 2030—based on 2005 levels. While most countries use 1990 as a baseline, the US uses 2005, which means its commitments are actually less. The current US 50–52 percent sounds close to the EU’s 55 percent but actually works out to 13–14 percent according to the 2005 baseline. Accounting tricks will not solve the climate crisis. (Many US states, such as California, Massachusetts, Washington, use 1990 as an emissions baseline.)
Germany, by contrast, increased its cuts from 55 percent to 65 percent by 2030 based on 1990 levels. Still, though the amount sounds significant, to achieve it Germany would need to phase out coal by 2030, as would top-producing nations China, India, the United States, Indonesia, Australia, and Russia. UN Secretary General António Guterres has called for “no new coal by 2021.” And COP 26 President Alok Sharma has demanded that the UN meeting “consign coal to history.” The Powering Past Coal Alliance, a group of 137 countries, regions, cities and organizations working to accelerate the phase-out of coal-fired power plants, will push to ensure that COP 26 consigns coal to the dustbin of history.
Developing nations, such as China and India, have proposed cuts based on their economic growth. (Developing nations, such as China and India, always remind of the historical inequities in emissions productions.) In 2020, China stated that it will aim to be net-zero by 2060 and that its emissions will peak by 2035. China’s President Xi Jinping will not attend COP 26. In his stead, China’s Climate Envoy Xie Zhenhua and Vice Minister Zhao Yingmin will lead the delegation and bring China’s NDC commitment.
In 2016, India offered a 33 to 35 percent reduction by 2030 based on 2005 levels and has yet to submit its 2020 NDC target. India’s Prime Minister Modi will attend the COP 26.
Reining in methane emissions will also be discussed. Methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. In September, the US and the EU unveiled the Global Methane Pledge, which aims to reduce methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030 based on 2020 levels. Already more than 35 nations have signed on to the Global Methane Pledge.
Ambitions have been scaled back somewhat in recent weeks by US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry. China’s President Xi Jinping, Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will not attend. That said, Biden and many other heads of state will be attending. COP 26 will be vital in bringing pressure on global leaders to take action and reduce emissions.
Aside from emissions reductions, finance is a key topic at the UN climate negotiations.
Developed nations have agreed to provide funding to developing nations to help them adapt to the impacts of the climate crisis, such as sea level rise and drought. A hundred billion dollars per year was promised to developing nations—a commitment that dates back to the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen.
This amount is far less, however, than the amounts called for by negotiators from various nation groups, such as the African Group, the Alliance of Small Island States, and the Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States, which have contributed the least in emissions and have already been experiencing the worst impacts of global warming. And as of 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, developed nations have contributed under $90 billion, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In 2018, the OECD, together with the UN and the World Bank published a report stating that it would take $6.9 trillion annually until 2020 to ensure that developing nations are resilient.
While lead climate negotiators and NGOs discuss these issues inside the negotiating halls, activists will take to the streets throughout the week to agitate for climate justice. A wave of protests will take place over the course of COP 26—likely the largest in Scotland since ones against the Iraq War in 2003. Yesterday, Extinction Rebellion’s Deep Water Rising actions highlighted how burning fossil fuels leads to sea level rise. On Friday, a youth-organized march, Fridays for Future, will take place. On Saturday, a Global Day of Action for Climate Justice will follow, with marches planned in Glasgow, in London, and around the world. And on Sunday, the People’s Summit for Climate Justice will kick off a series of in person and online workshops and events. This week, 350.org is also organizing a global week of actions. These actions in Glasgow and around the world will bring heat to the COP 26 negotiators to set high ambitions and take action. Time is of the essence, as this is the decade to reduce emissions.