In the last few weeks, the climate community has been abuzz with news surrounding the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) taking place in Glasgow, Scotland. The conference began October 31 and will run until November 12. While those involved in the climate movement may be familiar with COP, many may not know much about the conference and its role in progressing international climate policy. It may seem confusing or even overwhelming to read articles discussing target emissions, countries’ plans to address the climate crisis, and how COP aims to solve, or not solve, these key issues.
With COP26 being particularly important this year, given that the event was not held in 2020, let’s discuss and answer a few key questions surrounding the history of the conference, why it’s important, who’s going to be there, and what we should expect.
Brief History of COP
The Conference of the Parties (COP) was first held in Berlin, Germany in 1995. The conference brings together 197 countries, with the location often rotating among the five recognized U.N. regions consisting of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe. The venue, as a result, is not static and has a tendency of changing among these five regions.
The main goal of COP is to serve as a forum for international policymakers to convene and discuss efforts towards global emissions reduction. In addition, the conference aims to hold countries accountable for the stipulations laid out in the Paris Climate Agreement signed six years ago at COP21, and is responsible for implementing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Paris Climate Agreement is considered a pivotal moment in climate history because it was the first time that 196 countries came to an agreement that climate action is necessary for a livable future and, as a result, signed a voluntary and non-binding treaty addressing climate change. The treaty’s goal is to limit the temperatures from reaching 2 degrees Celsius, with an ideal target of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Where Are We Now?
It is important to note that COP will not provide a sole solution to the climate crisis, mainly due to the deep division among countries in taking climate action. While COP has been viewed in a positive light post-Paris Agreement, the limelight only lasted a short while as many countries resumed old habits. Countries such as Russia, China, Brazil, and Australia, who all submitted pledges to reduce planet-warming emissions have been proven to be “critically insufficient” or “highly insufficient,” according to the Climate Action Tracker.
Additionally, the BBC recently reported on various leaked documents indicating that since the publication of the IPCC report, many countries have taken issue with various submissions and statements of the report, mainly due to the economic effects it would have in their countries. Brazil and Argentina took issue with the suggestion to turn away from heavy meat-based diets due to the amount of planet-warming emissions being released during production. Both countries are the largest producers of meat at the global level. Brazil called for the report to eliminate the suggestion of a “plant-based diet” and “meatless Mondays.” Another example is Australia, which asked IPCC scientists to remove the analysis of the role played by fossil fuel lobbyists in downgrading the climate action in Australia and the U.S.
Key Concerns to Watch
As of now, finances, carbon pricing, and high-emitting countries are noted as some key concerns that will be discussed at COP26.
The financial status for many developing countries has emerged as a focal point for discussion. It must also be noted that many countries in the Global South have been the most affected by the climate crisis, as many industrial facilities are established in these countries, in addition to being dumping grounds for trash and other pollution. At COP15 in 2009, developed nations promised to fund $100 billion USD worth of assistance for developing nations by 2020 — a promise that has yet to be kept. However, Australia states that “developing countries’” climate pledges do not all depend on receiving outside financial support. It also describes a mention in the draft report of the lack of credible public commitments on finance as “subjective commentary.”
Carbon Pollution Pricing
Carbon pollution pricing is slated to be another topic of discussion at COP26. As the climate crisis becomes more severe, carbon pollution pricing remains a viable solution to mitigating emissions as it becomes a “promising policy option to help facilitate the transition to a green sustainable economy,” according to Jonah Kurman-Faber, research director at Climate XChange.
However, there are also some concerns with carbon pollution pricing, mainly that “carbon trading arrangements could allow countries to hit already-weak targets without cutting additional emissions.” In the United States, pollution pricing has been proposed at the “federal level for decades, but the policy — failing in 1993, 2010, and again in 2011 — has not seen any success,” says Melanie Mathewson. As a result, the discussion on carbon pollution pricing leaves many policy makers hesitant due to the concern that it will be perceived as favoring taxation. In addition, Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, discusses with CNBC how COP26 may represent a new situation due to the involvement of the European Emissions Trading System and their efforts to address various polluting industries. “I think we will start seeing carbon pricing spreading and so that has to be on the table at a global level,” says Rockstrom.
At the conference, the key actors will be China, the United States, India, and Russia.
China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Last year, President Xi Jinping announced that China pledged to speed up emission reductions and achieve carbon-neutrality by 2060. Recently, however, the president stated that he would not attend COP26, in addition to the country denouncing a net zero by 2050 target, similar to that of India. The country filed new documents to address emissions and shared their plans with the U.N., citing that China is still a developing country and, as a result, much of its emissions comes from “large-scale fossil fuel consumption of developed countries.” The documents also state that China “attaches high importance to addressing climate change,” and notes that it plans to “achieve sustainable development at home, as well as to fulfill its due obligation to build a community with a shared future for mankind.”
The United States is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Recently through the Biden Administration, special envoy for climate, John Kerry, created a voluntary initiative called the Global Methane Pledge. The pledge was a collaboration between the U.S. and the European Union with the goal to reduce methane emissions by 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. As of now, over 90 countries have joined the pledge with initial support from Argentina, Mexico, Ghana, Indonesia, Iraq, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
India is the largest consumer of coal and the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases following China and the United States. The country recently rejected setting a net-zero target ahead of COP26. The environment secretary R.P. Gupta stated that net-zero was not the solution to the climate crisis. India has committed to cutting the intensity of emissions by 33 to 35 percent of its GDP by 2030 from that of 2005 levels, meaning a total reduction of 24 percent.
Russia is the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Earlier this year, President Putin announced that he would not attend the conference and failed to give a reason why; however, a Russian delegation would instead stand in his place. The country is one of the top exporters of natural gas and petroleum with the majority of exports supplying 70 percent of Europe, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Although Russia announced its pledge to become carbon neutral by 2060, there is a lot of criticism towards the president, citing that “Russia, a top exporter of fossil fuels, has been dragging its feet on policies to curb climate change,” according to the New York Times.
What We Can Expect from COP26?
During the 12-day summit, there will be various discussions and a heavy focus on Article 6 of the Paris Climate Agreement. Article 6 of the Paris Climate Agreement helps “regulate the modalities of voluntary cooperation among Parties to promote mitigation ambition as well as sustainable development.” There are three articles to note: Article 6.2, Article 6.4, and Article 6.8. Two of the articles touch on carbon markets. In correlation to Article 6, energy is a major point of discussion. Many scientists and activists have proclaimed the need to rapidly transition to renewables in countries that are heavily reliant on fossil fuels, but that transformation is rarely seen thus far. According to the IEA World Energy Outlook 2021, there is still a chance for fossil fuel use to peak by the middle of this decade.
The other significant aspect of COP conversations is mitigation. Rockstorm highlights that there needs to be a minimum of 195 countries with a net-zero plan that aligns with the latest science. “Not even delivering, but just in their plans – and that requires net-zero targets by 2050 at the latest,” he says. However, the UNEP warns that “vague and inconsistent” net-zero promises cannot be enough. “They need to make their net zero pledges more concrete, ensuring these commitments are included in NDCs, and action brought forward. They then need to get the policies in place to back this raised ambition and, again, start implementing them urgently,” states Inger Andersen, UNEP’s Executive Director.
In the end, these conferences, negotiations, discussions, and conflicts are all to emphasize that our future is on the line. An important reminder after this past year’s natural disasters is that climate change waits for no one.