Road to Glasgow: Key summit asks

Three essentials, three nice-to-haves: What the Glasgow summit has to deliver.

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By Richard Black

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The Glasgow climate summit of 2021 – COP26 – is a key staging-post towards fulfilling the commitment governments made at the 1992 Earth Summit, to prevent ‘dangerous’ climate change.

Despite signing the Paris Agreement in 2015, governments have not yet pledged emission cuts strong enough to keep global temperature rises within the limits set out in the accord, aiming for 1.5°C. This is conventionally regarded as ‘safe’, although that is only relative, as we can see from the devastating climate impacts already evident at just over 1°C of heating.

The Glasgow summit is the first time at which governments are due to upgrade their Paris emission-cutting targets, and so go some way towards bridging the gap between pledges and delivery.

Glasgow in context

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) holds a summit every year; although a year has effectively been skipped owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused COP26 to be delayed from 2020 to 2021.

The 2009Copenhagen summit had many leaders but little leadership. Image: Pete Souza/White House, CCL
The 2009 Copenhagen summit had many leaders but not enough leadership. Image: Pete Souza/White House, CCL

Some summits are more important than others. The 2021 summit, to be hosted by the UK and held in Glasgow, will be one of the most crucial, ranking alongside those such as Kyoto in 1997 and Paris in 2015 in terms of delivering the Convention’s ultimate objective of 'stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that prevents dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.’

The Paris Agreement marked the first occasion at which all the world’s governments pledged to constrain their greenhouse gas emissions. Richer ones set targets for cutting emissions, and less advanced economies pledged to reduce the rate at which their emissions are rising, with the intention of cutting them at a later date.

Governments also collectively committed, based on science, to keep global warming since pre-industrial times ‘well below 2C’ and ‘make efforts’ to hold it to 1.5ºC. Scientists have since shown that allowing warming to progress to 2ºC carries significantly more risks than meeting the 1.5ºC target.

Ratcheting up

Governments wrote into the Paris Agreement a ‘ratchet mechanism’ designed to progressively increase emission-cutting pledge in order to achieve the agreed targets.

Key Glasgow asks

Essential:

    • Many governments have yet to pledge tougher emission cuts by 2030
    • A number of governments have yet to publish plans to reach net zero emissions by 2050
    • Richer nations are expected to fulfil their pledge to deliver at least $100bn pa to help poorer ones protect against climate impacts and speed decarbonisation.

    Desirable:

    • Coalitions to advance emission-cutting in specific areas (eg race to zero, phasing out coal, protecting forests and slashing methane emissions)
    • Agreements to protect poor nations against climate change impacts, or compensate them for damages
    • Mechanisms to shift investment from fossil fuel use into clean energy.

    In essence, every five years governments will review their commitments and upgrade them in line with what the best climate science indicates.

    The Glasgow summit is the first turn of the ratchet. Governments included in the Paris Agreement a clause ‘requesting’ nations to submit updated pledges (Nationally Determined Contributions, NDCs) during 2020, setting tougher targets for reducing emissions by 2030.

    How many governments do so ahead of the summit in 2021 will be a key test of the Paris Agreement. At the moment, if existing pledges were delivered, we would still likely see average global temperature rises of around 3°C: nearly double the Paris goal.

    The next turn of the ratchet comes in 2025; and if emissions continue to rise 2020-2025, the risk of it becoming impossible to meet the 1.5ºC global warming target, and perhaps the ‘well below 2ºC’ target as well, increases.

    The UK’s role, along with its partner Italy, and Chile (which holds the UNFCCC Presidency until the Glasgow summit) will be to use its diplomacy to persuade more nations to set ambitious targets ahead of COP26. To learn which countries have submitted updates, and the strengths of the updates made, view Climate Action Tracker.

    Targeting net zero

    Climate science is now clear that stopping climate change at any level of global heating, involves reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

    A sharp downturn is needed in global emissions to keep the 1.5ºC target within reach. Image: Climate Action Tracker
    A sharp downturn is needed in global emissions to keep the 1.5ºC target within reach. Image: Climate Action Tracker

    In order to halt at 1.5°C, governments committed in the Paris Agreement to reach global net zero in the second half of the century.

    But the 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made clear that in order to stand a chance of keeping global warming to 1.5ºC, they need to do so by 2050 – or in the decades immediately afterwards in the case of less developed countries.

    More than 120 nations – including the UK – have already committed to hit net zero around mid-century, with varying degrees of rigour. So have a growing number of states, regions, cities and businesses.

    Some are members of the Climate Neutrality Coalition; others signed up to the Climate Ambition Alliance launched at the UN Secretary-General's Climate Action Summit in September 2019.

    The Paris Agreement ‘invites’ governments to submit Long-Term Strategies (LTSs) during 2020 – although this is now understood to mean ‘ahead of COP26’, since it was delayed to 2021. It is expected that a number will choose to include 2050 net zero targets in those strategies. Here, the UK’s role here as hosts of the UN climate summit will be two-fold:

    • again, to use its diplomacy to bring more nations into the net zero fold
    • to introduce national policies that put the UK on track to meet its net zero target well before the summit opens, so providing a real example of global leadership.

    Financing the transition, unlocking the change

    At the Copenhagen summit of 2009, the world’s traditionally prosperous nations pledged that by 2020 they would ensure the provision of $100bn per year to help the poorest countries ‘green’ their economies and prepare for climate change impacts. This target was reconfirmed in the Paris Agreement.

    The funding is supposed to be ‘new and additional’ – ie, not replacing Overseas Development Aid – and can come from public or private sources.

    The funding package has to be finalised by the time of the Glasgow summit, along with a clear commitment and mechanism for delivering it year after year and increasing the sum before 2025. This is essential for securing the support of the developing world. In addition, a number of developing countries’ NDCs contain pledges to curb emissions further if the financial support comes through – so, money unlocks emission cuts.

    The UK has consistently been a relatively ‘good performer’ in climate finance, and its role is to ensure sufficient international ‘push’ on developed country governments that the money issue is not side-lined. However, its case has not been helped in recent months by its own decision to cut its ODA from 0.7% of GDP, to 0.5%.

    Sectoral issues

    Many previous UN climate summits have seen new coalitions and initiatives launched that speed decarbonisation in specific areas. For example, the Paris summit saw the launch of, among others, the International Solar Alliance, Mission Innovation and the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures.

    Given the interests of the UK government and growing movement among investors, businesses and financial regulators, it is anticipated that the Glasgow summit could see coalitions or initiatives spring up in areas including:

    • Nature-based solutions and tackling deforestation– conserving and restoring forests and other ecosystems that absorb and store carbon, and which can also make communities and nature more resilient to climate impacts
    • Transitioning away from coal, and towards clean energy – extending the reach of the Powering Past Coal Alliance, and/or starting new initiatives in areas such as renewables, energy storage and electric vehicles.
    • Moving money in the City of London, which currently brokers about 15% of the world’s fossil fuel finance, into clean energy.

    2022 and beyond

    The Glasgow summit alone cannot ‘solve’ climate change; no single event can.

    A sustained diplomatic commitment by the UK government, along with Italy, can build momentum, throughout 2022, when the UK retains the presidency of the UNFCCC until COP27, which will be hosted by an African nation.

    Meanwhile, the UN climate talks would be expected to result in a further tightening of the ratchet in 2025.