To many following the decades-long journey of the United Nations climate negotiations, the 26th Conference of the Parties beginning Monday in Glasgow, Scotland looks like one of the last chances to steer the planet away from the fiery wreck that warming of 2 to 3 degrees Celsius will bring. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms that the climate is still heading that way, with no way to change course other than reducing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
That warning was reinforced last week by a report from International Red Cross and Red Crescent societies showing that, in 2020, climate extremes like floods, wildfires, heatwaves and droughts accounted for almost all of the 30.7 billion people displaced by disasters. Scientists say the pace of the climate breakdown could accelerate, with dangerous extremes like heat waves and flooding intensifying and compounding one another in a vicious climate spiral.
To avoid that outcome, the “overarching goal” of COP26 over the next two weeks is to keep the most optimistic goal of the Paris Agreement—to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius—“within reach,” COP26 President Alok Sharma said. That will require developed countries to deliver deeper cuts of greenhouse gas emissions than any of them have promised.
About 120 world leaders will attend the early stages of the climate talks, and Sharma said that, to avoid worst-case global warming impacts, they must deliver more ambitious climate targets and that “donor countries” have to complete delivery of the $100 billion in climate aid they committed in 2009 to provide, with negotiators fixing the details in the subsequent talks.
“I would say … what we’re trying to achieve at Glasgow is in many ways harder than Paris,” Sharma said. As a sign of hope, he added, more than 80 percent of the global economy is now aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050, up from 30 percent when he assumed the presidency in January 2021.
Meeting the goal of the Paris Agreement would give some communities and ecosystems a fighting chance to adapt, while others, like coral reefs and mountain glaciers, will be mostly lost even at warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius. So even if COP26 isn’t the very last chance to stop global warming, every step taken makes a difference, because every additional ton of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to more loss and suffering.
Climate Finance Questions Persist
COP26 was delayed a year by the pandemic and is now going forward while still challenged by Covid-19, which is raging in many nation’s that most need to be there. That raised charged questions among participants about global health equity and access to the talks, as well as some calls for another postponement.
But there’s no more time for delay in dozens of island nations and the world’s least developed countries, where millions of people are already losing their homes, croplands and infrastructure to rising seas, droughts and fires.
Those countries are home to about 1 billion people who have done very little to cause global warming, but are taking the biggest hits. For them, the Glasgow meeting is a chance to settle once and for all the question of who will pay for the damage; how much, how fast, and with what strings attached.
A fair resolution is needed, said Clare Fyson, a policy expert with Climate Analytics who tracks the global climate talks and noted that one sticking point is whether nations that get climate aid should have to pay it back.
“A delegate from a developing country once described it like if someone crashed into your car and then said they would give you a loan in a few years to fix it,” she said, describing the debate over whether climate aid should be disbursed as loans or as grants.
“Vulnerable countries are already suffering extreme impacts at 1.1 degrees Celsius of warming,” she said. “They need easier access to finance. Governments of wealthier countries need to take it more seriously and put more money on the table.” In Glasgow, where delegates from rich countries and poor countries meet eyes at the negotiating table is, “in itself, a very powerful experience,” she said.
During ministerial meetings leading up to COP26, there seemed to be an emerging urgency to implementing the Santiago Network—a U.N. mechanism that could quickly spur a transfer of technical assistance to developing countries such as engineering expertise, better climate data and help with food security to avert and minimize climate-driven losses, Sharma said.
“This is an area where there are differing views,” he said. “We will have an opportunity to discuss these issues, but ultimately on this, as with everything else, we’re going to have to build consensus.”
How the World Sees the US
The United States could play a critical role in breaking the climate finance logjam at COP26, said Anju Sharma, a climate policy expert with the Stockholm Environment Institute who has attended almost all the COP meetings since 1997, where she represented an Indian environmental organization. As the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluter historically, it also has a big responsibility to set things right, she added.
During many climate talks, however, the U.S. has blocked efforts to address climate equity in a meaningful way, she said. As a result, she added, the annual climate talks’ two most significant climate deals, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, are both weaker than they could have been.
In 1997 at COP3, in Kyoto, Japan, developing countries wanted to address global equity but were warned by their colleagues from developed countries to avoid the topic for fear of driving the United States from the table. Despite the efforts to keep what was then the world’s largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases involved, the U.S. withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, with ripple effects that disrupted global talks for years afterward.
The omnipresent geopolitical, economic and cultural weight of the United States continues to tilt the negotiating table, she said. “We never have that much understanding for the internal workings of another country,” she said, “but we all know why it’s such a problem for the U.S. to convince Republicans on climate.”
At COP21 in Paris, “It was deja vu all over again,” she said. “The U.S. is the reason we have such a voluntary treaty with no punitive action.”
“So there have been two big agreements where the U.S. has not played the leadership role that it should have,” she said. “I can tell you that, at least in India, everybody thinks the U.S. is a rogue nation.”
That may be because the U.S. is still “fundamentally a fossil-based economy, still deeply conflicted about climate change,” said Sivan Kartha, a climate expert with the Stockholm Environment Institute who has also led the editing of major global climate reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
America’s addiction to fossil fuels has led the nation to be seen as playing a “schizophrenic good cop, bad cop role.” U.S. involvement has been “unmistakably helpful in raising the global profile of climate issues the past 30 years,” both at global climate talks and also through direct diplomatic channels. American tech know-how and innovation is also helping the world inch toward its climate goals, he said, and many key global warming studies have come from U.S. agencies and universities, based on data gathered by U.S. satellites.
“But the bottom line is, last year, the U.S. was the world’s largest producer and consumer of natural gas and oil,” he said. “The U.S. as a country is highly ambivalent about whether this is a problem it wants to solve. Other countries aren’t naive when they look at this. John Kerry going around the world exhorting other countries isn’t going to be enough.”
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The United States is still sending mixed messages about whether it will significantly cut its own emissions, he said. The Biden administration sent important early signals that it would, such as with its attempts to curb fossil fuel production on U.S. public lands. But in recent months, Kartha said, it has been permitting new leases for oil and gas drilling in some regions at a rate faster than during the last few years of theTrump administration.
And, of course, it’s not just the U.S.
“There is a lot of hiding among other countries as well,” Sharma, at the Stockholm Environment Institute, said. “There’s too much of a blame game going on. The U.S. is blaming China, India is blaming someone else. What we really need is for nations to step up and say, ‘We take responsibility, we recognize this is a global problem and we’re going to do something about it.’ That’s what the U.S. needs to do.”
Biden’s climate plans are an improvement, but not enough on emissions reductions, on climate finance, “on any count,” she added.
Civil Society Must Hold Leaders Accountable
Don’t expect a silver bullet solution from COP26, Sharma cautioned. Unrealistic expectations for the largely voluntary COP process aren’t helpful, because there are no ways to enforce climate promises and agreements, or to impose sanctions for breaking them.
“We’re certainly not going to get an answer or result that will solve climate change for us at this COP,” she said, “or any COP.”
“What we have with the COP process is what countries have decided,” she said. “So the only way we can push ambition, to push the world, is for each of us to push our governments to commit to doing more under that process. Given the voluntary nature of the agreement, we as civil society—that’s all of us—have a huge role to play in pushing our governments to do better, and in trying to negate the influence of big vested interests that might be pushing them in another direction.”
“It’s up to countries to be as ambitious as they can and to bring their peers with them to show equal ambition,” she said. “Particularly the countries that have contributed to the problem historically need to show that leadership and say, ‘I can do this, meet me here, and try and do more.’”
“That’s the sort of game that we’re looking at right now,” she said.