Some 30,000 heads of state, environmental activists, business leaders and journalists are expected to descend on Scotland on Sunday for a climate summit that comes as world leaders are running out of time to break away from fossil fuels and prevent the most catastrophic effects of global warming.
Climate scientists say this year’s United Nations conference is critical if the world is to hold rising temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. The dangers of extreme heat, flooding, and wildfires rise exponentially above this threshold.
But the challenges are enormous. Despite being the leader of the nation that produces the most carbon emissions in the world, Chinese President Xi Jinping will not be attending in person. Australia, India, Russia, and Russia, all of which are major producers of fossil fuels, have not set ambitious goals to reduce their emissions as is typical for all countries. The United States’ credibility and status as a climate leader will be harmed if Congress Democrats fail to pass new climate legislation this week. This could leave President Biden in Glasgow empty-handed.
Though the climate summit is held annually, diplomats and scientists say the decisions made in the next two weeks will be the most important since the Paris agreement of 2015. Although many believe that getting leaders together in a room is crucial, there are no guarantees of a breakthrough. The success of the summit will depend on the willingness of global leaders to pledge additional emissions reductions and go beyond the achievements they have made.
What is COP26?
The 26th gathering of the Conference of Parties, or COP26 for short, is unlike other global summits that are restricted to only the wealthiest and most powerful countries. Each year, this conference brings together the 197 nations and territories that signed onto the original 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change is the first international agreement to acknowledge the dangers that human behavior can pose to the climate.
This year’s conference will be held in Glasgow, from Sunday to November. 12.
Leaders come to COP with their own ambitions, but the summit’s overarching goal this time is to build off the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which requires countries to report on their progress cutting emissions and to announce new climate targets every five years. These pledges are not enforced by the U.N. and many countries have failed to meet them, even the United States. Peer pressure can work if countries that are using it have credibility.
Who will attend?
There are essentially two conferences happening at the same time. The first is the official diplomatic meeting attended by more than 100 heads of state and their delegations who will conduct negotiations over emissions targets and financial assistance to help poorer countries cope with climate change. The U.S. is the second-largest carbon emitter in the world. Biden, Secretary Antony J. Blinken, other Cabinet officials and John Kerry, U.S. climate ambassador, are expected to lead a large delegation. According to The Times, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be bringing a delegation consisting of Democrats who will serve in a “reinforcing” role. Representative Garret Graves, a Louisiana Republican, is expected to be among the many House Republicans who will attend.
Outside of the diplomatic “blue zone” — so-named for the blue-colored badges required to enter areas where inter-governmental talks are taking place — a second conference attracts the leaders of multinational corporations, Wall Street bankers, celebrities and climate activists who hope to get face time with world leaders or at least their representatives. Leonardo DiCaprio, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos are among those expected to attend, according to a Politico report.
Many people attend to raise awareness for their causes. Others go because the two-week-long event, like most international conferences, is also a business opportunity and a forum to rub elbows with the wealthy while branding one’s interests as climate-related.
What are the big disagreements?
The fiercest debates will center on whether wealthy countries are putting forward climate pledges that are ambitious enough to change the world’s current trajectory, which is heading toward roughly 3 degrees of warming by 2100.
China, in particular, is under pressure to put new limits on its domestic coal consumption. Though the country pledged to stop financing the construction of coal-fired power plants overseas, it continues to approve new ones at home that will ensure it burns a lot of coal for decades to come. China’s leaders are unlikely to abandon coal anytime soon due to recent power outages and shortages.
Australia, one of the top producers of coal and gas, recently announced that it will pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. But Prime Minister Scott Morrison has balked at raising the country’s emissions reduction goal for 2030 and is facing criticism for putting forward a plan that environmental advocates view as weak and overly reliant on new technology and consumer behavior, rather than legislation. Another source of tension is
Rich countries responsible for most of the global warming-caused greenhouse gas emissions have pledged for decades that they would set aside money for poorer countries to help them adapt to climate change and transition away from fossil fuels. In 2009, the U.S. and other developed nations agreed that by 2020 they would provide $100 billion a year to developing countries, which are among the most affected by climate change.
But wealthy countries have fallen short, failing to raise more than $80 billion annually. Just days before the start of the summit, Canadian and German diplomats announced that they might be able to raise the money by next year and expressed confidence that they would meet their commitment by 2023.
How the group plans to make up for shortfalls this year and in 2020 is unclear. Meanwhile, environmental groups and leaders of developing countries say $100 billion is not nearly enough.
” This is a difficult issue,” stated Alden Meyer, senior associate at E3G (a European climate think-tank). He said that industrialized countries are afraid of being held responsible for decades of pollution from fossil fuels. He said that climate change was a serious threat to the future of vulnerable countries.
How much can COP26 really affect climate change?
If the next two weeks result in a series of detailed climate pledges from countries responsible for the majority of carbon emissions, then the conference could have a huge effect — especially if countries follow through on those promises. Experts in international climate negotiations state that the majority of the work to shift away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner energy will be done at the local level, regardless of what happens in Glasgow. The details of net zero emissions targets that business leaders and civic leaders announce before and during conferences are being closely examined.
“Ultimately, what really matters in most of the world is what happens inside companies,” said David Victor, a professor of international relations at UC San Diego. “They’re watching this whole process for direction of travel.”
The spread of COVID is still a major concern. Why is this summit being held in-person?
COP26 was initially scheduled to be held at the end of 2020, but between the rapid spread of COVID-19 and the lack of vaccines, Britain, the host of the talks, asked for it to be postponed. A coalition of more than 1,500 environmental advocacy groups called for the summit to be delayed again this year, arguing that vaccines are still impossible to come by in parts of South America, Asia and Africa and would prevent the leaders of many developing nations from meeting the event’s attendance requirements. The U.N. continued to push forward despite concerns about equity and the fact that thousands of diplomats fly to Scotland, which generates large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.
Karen Orenstein is the director of the Climate and Energy Justice program at Friends of the Earth. She said that the conference is not fundamentally an equal playing field. However, it would tilt more in favor of rich countries if it was held virtually. She stated that poor Wi-Fi connectivity, technology failures, and large time zones would probably exclude more people from the poorer countries than an in-person conference. Orenstein stated that the conference is a closed and elite process but it is the only one. “And it’s really critical that voices from the global south and frontline voices in the U.S. are heard.”