The 26th Conference of the Parties to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was postponed for a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is now scheduled for November 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. This COP will be a critical step towards the Global Stocktake, a process agreed as part of the Paris Agreement to reconvene in five years (now scheduled for 2021-2023) to assess progress and to augment their national commitments. The goal of the Paris Agreement is to “limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius” (3.6 to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), compared to pre-industrial levels.
It will be the first time that the UK is hosting the Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In May 2021, the organizers said that the UK government was planning to host COP26 as an in-person gathering, but there is still uncertainty given the worsening coronavirus situation in the UK. The UK would very much like a ‘face-to-face’ meeting, which they believe will induce the assembled delegates from all the countries of the world to show ‘increased ambition’ in setting their climate change targets and timetables. Much greater efforts are needed in order for the world to fulfill the goal of the Paris Agreement.
Before COVID, these conferences of the parties were like ‘medieval fairs,’ with tens of thousands of people coming together to encourage action on climate change. The official part of the COPs is attended by delegations from every country, all of whom are ‘Parties’ to the UNFCCC Agreements. Also attending are designated observers from climate change interest groups, and many media outlets. Unofficially, many Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) concerned about climate change come as well, many of whom put on lively side events, host colorful booths, or gather for protests.
This year may be very different, with the pandemic still raging in many countries and vaccine distribution skewed to rich countries. Whatever the attendance and the atmosphere, this year’s COP26 is important for several reasons.
The first is that it is occurring as the world is emerging from the COVID pandemic, with the urgent need and opportunity to firmly embed climate action into national plans for what is labelled a ‘green recovery.’ However, initial indications from many countries have not been promising. They are returning to fossil fuel-based energy systems, or even redoubling investments in them, a course anathema to meeting the Paris Agreement goals. Therefore, COP26 has an important role to play in encouraging all nations to seize the opportunity to build back greener, with climate change front and center in recovery policies and programs. Simply put, climate change must be integral to the world’s economic recovery.
Yet the delegates to COP26 must also be aware that the coronavirus pandemic still rages in parts of Asia, South America, and Africa, that vaccines are not universally available to all people, and that nations are at very different stages in their recovery processes.
How can these green recovery packages help both to restart moribund economies and jumpstart climate action at the same time? The main way is for governments and international donor organizations to provide incentives to massively scale up solar and wind farms, electric vehicle, public transport, and home electrification. Besides supporting these low-carbon, ‘ready to go’ technologies, governments with the capacity to do so need to ramp up research and development on zero-emission air and sea transport, carbon capture and storage, and hydrogen power. These are some of the areas where innovations are needed to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, the current overall goal set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Other areas ripe for action are movement toward low-carbon food systems with more plant-based diets and ‘nature-based solutions (NbS); such as planting trees, restoring coastal wetlands, and increasing soil fertility by adding carbon in the form of crop residues to agricultural fields. All of these will take investments in known technologies as well as in innovative research.
Another requirement to maximize the climate impact of a green recovery is to overhaul the finance mechanisms needed to fund it, so that it will be cost-effective for public sector donors and profitable for the private sector. These are all topics that the delegates to COP26 will address.
The next reason that COP26 is important is the growing recognition that countries simply are not doing enough to reach the Paris Agreement target of holding the global surface temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius. They aren’t even nearly reaching the targets knows as nationally determined commitments (NDCs) to which they committed themselves to achieving at the Paris COP in 2015. NDCs are the way that countries signal to their global partners in the Paris Agreement their plans to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change impacts. They are deliberately designed to not be ‘one size fits all,’ in order to reflect the different contexts and capacities of each country to take climate change action.
The UNFCCC recently tabulated the nationally determined commitments (NDCs) some countries had submitted by the end of 2020. Extrapolating from the countries that were included in the report, the UNFCCC found that the world’s combined countries weren’t on track to meet the Paris Agreement goals. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), countries need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 45% in 2030 compared to 2010 in order to limit warming to that level. The UNFCCC report demonstrates the urgent need to increase ambition significantly at COP26 in November.
A final reason that COP26 is important is that it is the first since the U.S. has rejoined the Paris Agreement. John Kerry, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, will play a large role in the discussions, as he did at the Paris COP in 2015. President
Biden is also likely to attend, highlighting the return of the U.S. to leadership in the global effort to limit climate change.
For all these reasons – the need to centralize climate action in the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, the cumulatively inadequate national commitments to greenhouse gas emission reductions and the failure to reach even those low bars, and the return of the U.S. to climate leadership – COP26 in Glascow is shaping up to be of momentous importance for ensuring that the Earth remains a hospitable home for humans everywhere.
It is imperative that all with a stake in a livable Earth – individuals, nonprofit organizations, corporations, financial institutions, as well as governments, reflect on the consequences of failing to achieve a sustainable climate, reevaluate the costs of inaction and the benefits of acting decisively now, and then recommit to a global effort that entails undergoing short-term disruption for an enduring sustainable life on Earth. From now until COP26, all entities must join in ’Increasing Ambition’ to attain that quintessential goal.