Will COP26 Be a Success? That Depends on 4 Critical Questions.
At the highest level, the 26th UN Climate Conference (COP26) must rebuild confidence that global, collective action can solve humanity’s greatest challenges.
Following the sobering report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), together with months of unprecedented extreme weather events with devastating impacts, governments and other actors must come to Glasgow determined both to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions this decade and address the climate impacts being experienced worldwide.
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State of Play for Climate Action
The world is making important progress in the fight against climate change. For example, the transition to electric vehicles is rapidly accelerating, renewable energy use is growing exponentially, some nations have put forward ambitious 2030 emission reduction targets, and many countries and companies are now rallying behind ambitious net-zero targets.
At the same time, current national climate commitments (or NDCs, Nationally Determined Contributions) are not yet enough to put the world on track to avoid breaching 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) of warming. And the most climate-vulnerable countries aren’t getting the support they need to protect forests, adopt more clean energy, or better protect themselves from climate impacts.
At or before the World Leaders Summit during the first two days of COP26, heads of state need to come with an even greater level of commitment – especially those major emitters that have not yet enhanced their emissions reduction or finance targets. Then the formal negotiations should provide a clear path forward for addressing the gaps we still face and to further accelerate action to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.
How decision makers and key actors respond to the following four fundamental questions will shape whether COP26 is a success:
Will Countries Deliver Deep 2030 Emission Cuts and Agree to a Process to Keep the 1.5 Degrees C Goal Alive?
Six years ago in Paris, countries agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions to help limit global warming, preferably to 1.5 degrees C, and avoid much more costly and dangerous consequences if temperatures continue to climb. To avoid breaching this threshold emissions need to be slashed in half by 2030 and reach net-zero by around mid-century.
Ahead of the COP26 summit, countries are on the hook to deliver updated national climate commitments for 2030 to make progress toward the Paris Agreement’s goals, and so far over 120 countries have submitted NDCs, while many have also made net-zero announcements. So how do they stack up against what is needed?
The United Nations’ recent analysis of NDCs from 112 countries and the European Union (submitted by July 30) found that by 2030 those countries would collectively decrease their emissions 12% from 2010 levels. But if you consider existing commitments of all countries — including those that haven’t yet submitted updated NDCs — global emissions by 2030 are on track to increase by 16% from 2010 levels. This is a far cry from cutting global emissions in half by 2030.
Another analysis by WRI and Climate Analytics looked at temperature trajectories. The paper found that current climate commitments combined with legally binding net-zero targets would put the world on track to 2.4 degrees C (4.32 degrees F) of warming by the end of the century. If you further consider the additional targets that have been announced, but not yet formally adopted, by G20 countries then temperature rise could be limited to 2.1 degrees C (3.78 degrees F). The paper also found that if all G20 countries set bold 2030 emission reduction targets and reach net-zero emissions by 2050, global temperature rise could be limited to 1.7 degrees C (3.06 degrees F) — keeping the 1.5 degrees C goal within reach.
Since these two reports were released, South Africa unveiled much stronger 2030 targets that shift the country close to a 1.5 degrees C-aligned trajectory. This was very welcome, especially from a major developing country. Japan also formally committed to cut its emissions by 46%-50% below 2013 levels by 2030. This is a significant improvement over the weak plan it submitted last year. But much more is needed. China, India, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — which are collectively responsible for 33% of global greenhouse gas emissions — have yet to submit their plans. If they put forward stronger plans by COP26, they could help fill part of the yawning gap.
Earlier, Australia submitted a plan without a stronger 2030 target, while Brazil and Mexico set targets that are weaker than their previous plans. It’s critical that these laggards rejoin the global community with serious commitments that drive emissions downward.
Here’s one more wrinkle: Even fairly ambitious 2030 emission reductions from the EU, the United States, and some other G20 countries don’t fully align with a 1.5 degrees C trajectory. The United Kingdom’s 2030 emission reduction target hits the mark, but the country still needs to strengthen policies to get there and deliver more finance for developing countries.
Major emitters that have not yet come forward with strengthened NDCs need to do so by COP26. And at COP26, governments should agree that major emitters whose 2030 targets are not aligned with 1.5 degrees C improve them no later than 2023, when countries finish taking stock of their collective progress as part of the Paris Agreement’s Global Stocktake.
Potentially strengthening climate targets again by 2023 may be a tough pill for policymakers to swallow — and countries will still have to submit new plans in 2025 as part of the regular cycle under the Paris Agreement — but the fact is they have no choice. If we collectively fail to rapidly curb greenhouse gas emissions in the 2020s, the 1.5 degrees C goal will slip out of reach. The dire consequences of breaching that limit are unthinkable and must be avoided at all costs.
Countries also need to take aggressive action to curb emissions beyond 2030 and reach net-zero emissions as soon as possible. There has been a huge uptick in net-zero commitments in recent years. To date, 63 countries (representing 54% of global emissions) have a net-zero emissions goal — including many vulnerable countries and a number of major emitters like China, the EU, the U.S. and Brazil. However, Brazil and China, among others, have yet to make near-term commitments to curb emissions that offer a credible pathway to achieve their net-zero ambitions.
To ensure credible pathways to achieve these targets, negotiators should agree on a COP26 outcome calling for countries to continue to prepare long-term strategies — and regularly review and revise them over time. This would provide the necessary long-term path towards reaching global net-zero emissions by mid-century, and a way to transparently track progress towards this goal.
Will Developing Countries Get the Finance and Support They Need?
In Glasgow, countries need to agree to a package that meets the needs of vulnerable countries facing the brunt of climate impacts — today and in the future. In addition to major emitters adopting ambitious emission cuts, COP26 needs to support developing countries’ efforts to protect forests and transition to cleaner sources of energy, as well as recognize the importance of adaptation and addressing losses and damages. All these efforts require high-income countries to deliver much more climate finance, which is a crucial step toward rebuilding trust with developing countries.
Here’s a snapshot of what’s needed:
Climate finance. In Copenhagen in 2009, developed countries committed to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 from public and private sources. Recent OECD estimates show that total climate finance reached $79.6 billion in 2019, reinforcing the likelihood that developed countries missed the 2020 target.
At the UN General Assembly President Biden announced the U.S. would double its international climate finance pledge again to reach $11.4 billion per year by 2024. That is a good step in the right direction, although still not its fair share of the effort to meet the $100 billion goal.
Before COP26, Germany and Canada will unveil a “delivery plan” for the annual $100 billion, crafted in consultation with developing countries at the request of the UK COP26 Presidency. Ahead of and at COP26, more developed countries should scale-up their own contributions to get all the way there, and developed countries should agree to deliver at least $500 billion for the 2020-2024 period.
Starting a process to establish a post-2025 climate finance goal is another top priority for COP26.
Previous decisions have provided general guidance but in Glasgow, negotiators should get more concrete on what the process will be. Various general approaches have been suggested by negotiators, including some ideas for and approaches to reach the new climate finance goal that must be set before 2025, from a floor of $100 billion per year.
It’s essential to create a robust process that considers the needs and priorities of developing countries and the long-term goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Countries will also need to consider whether and how the negotiations on the new goal will address things like scaling-up public climate finance, a specific goal for adaptation finance, and dedicating funds for cross-cutting efforts such as nature-based solutions which help curb emissions and boost resilience.
Adaptation. Alongside reducing emissions, the Paris Agreement established a global adaptation goal that aims to increase climate resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate impacts. Achieving this goal requires collective tracking and assessment of progress countries have made so far.
At COP26, countries are expected to discuss options and agree to a road map on how to advance work on the adaptation goal. Given continuing lack of clarity amongst countries on what is needed to achieve the global goal on adaptation, IPCC could produce specific guidelines or a special report to help measure, assess and spur progress.
Furthermore, developing countries require predictable and significant increases in financial support to adapt and build their resilience to climate change impacts.
At COP26, developed countries need to significantly scale up adaptation finance to reach a balance with the level of support that is mobilized to reduce emissions. Strengthening the quality — more concessional finance, including grants, versus loans — and enhanced access to all climate finance must also be considered.
Loss and Damage. The latest IPCC report concluded that every inhabited region across the globe is already experiencing effects of climate change. But the reality that many climate-vulnerable countries are facing impacts so severe they cannot be adapted to, such as forced displacement, loss of agricultural land, and sea level rise encroaching on homes and businesses.
At COP25 in 2019, countries established the Santiago Network for Loss and Damage, a platform intended to catalyze technical assistance for vulnerable countries needing to address loss and damage. While it’s a start, the platform is essentially just a website; what’s needed instead is a robust and operational mechanism.
For COP26, vulnerable countries are calling for making loss and damage a permanent agenda item in the UN talks to discuss solutions, including a separate stream of financing.
Will Negotiators Agree to Rules that Maintain the Integrity and Ambition of the Paris Agreement?
Negotiators largely agreed on the rules to bring the Paris Agreement to life three years ago, but punted a couple of thorny issues to COP25: establishing rules for international carbon markets and agreeing on what time periods NDCs should cover.
During the 2019 conference, countries continued working on these issues as well as advancing additional work to finalize a framework for countries to transparently report on their climate actions and support.
At COP26 negotiators will again attempt to get the following rules over the finish line:
Carbon Markets. By encouraging and maximizing additional emissions reductions in all sectors and generating finance for climate adaptation, carbon markets can help address climate change. However, without robust rules carbon markets may not reduce carbon emissions as much as was intended.
One practice to avoid is the possibility of buyers and sellers of carbon credits “double counting” the same emissions reductions. Another problematic practice would be allowing countries to reach their new emission reduction targets using old credits generated under the Kyoto Protocol.
At COP26, negotiators must stand firm against allowing such activities. For carbon markets, the goal at COP26 must not be to finalize the rules no matter what, but rather to ensure they are robust and align with the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Common Timeframes. Ahead of the 2015 Paris climate summit, countries submitted NDCs with different target end dates — some finished in 2025 while others aimed for 2030. Since then, countries agreed to align future national commitments (those implemented from 2031 onward) using a common time frame.
At COP26, negotiators need to decide what the length of that time frame should be — such as 2031-2035 or 2031-2040.
Given the urgency of addressing the climate crisis, the shorter five-year timeframe would help prompt countries to more frequently adjust and strengthen their NDC targets, enabling them to respond more frequently to major scientific advances and technological, economic and societal changes as we have seen in even just the last 3-5 years. This would also support effective implementation of other provisions of the Paris Climate Agreement.
Transparency Framework. In 2018, countries were able to agree on guidelines outlining the Paris Agreement’s enhanced transparency framework. However, at that time countries gave themselves a homework assignment: to further develop technical details, such as reporting formats, outlines of transparency reports, and a training program for technical expert reviewers who assess the reports submitted by countries. This homework was originally due in 2020, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, countries now need to deliver it at COP26 in Glasgow.
While this topic is quite technical, the details will be important. This framework should provide stakeholders with transparent, accurate, complete, consistent and comparable information on what actions countries are taking and what financial and other support they provide. This is a critical basis to assess progress and ensure accountability against commitments in future.
Will Countries and Corporations Commit to Breakthrough Revolutions that Drive System Change?
COP26 is also an opportunity to unveil new partnerships and pledges that can help get the whole of society involved in the systems change needed to address the climate crisis. These include public-private partnerships, multilateral declarations, new coalitions, regional initiatives, and other deals. There will be a whole host of these at COP26, some of which will be under wraps until we get there.
Here are a few areas worth watching:
Net-zero. In June 2020 the UN High-Level Climate Champions kicked off the Race to Zero global campaign to rally businesses, cities, regions and investors behind reaching a net-zero emissions economy. Support for the campaign has grown in leaps and bounds.
To date, one-fifth of major companies by revenue across 15 of the economy’s biggest sectors are now committed to halving emissions this decade. More than 250 asset owners, asset managers and banks — together responsible for assets in excess of $80 trillion, or about 77% of total assets under management worldwide — have committed to transition their portfolios to net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest, under the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero.
By COP26 the campaign also aims to recruit 1,000 cities to reduce emissions quickly enough to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C. In order to ensure these commitments are delivered, they will need to be backed up by clear intermediary targets (for example for 2030) and adhere to rules ensuring transparency and integrity.
Following an extensive consultation process, the Science Based Targets initiative will release a standard on net-zero targets in just ahead of COP26, to help set the globally harmonized, science-based approach to net-zero target setting by corporations.
Financial Sector. The third goal of the Paris Agreement is to make financial flows consistent with a pathway to low-carbon, climate-resilient development. The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero — part of the Race to Zero — is chaired by Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England, who has identified reporting, risk management, returns and mobilization as key areas to watch for progress.
At or before COP the International Finance Reporting Standards Foundation will establish an International Sustainability Standards Board. Relatedly, at COP26 the Science Based Targets initiative will present a draft paper and kick off a consultation process for developing a net-zero standard for financial institutions.
Coal, Oil and Gas. South Korea and Japan recently pledged to stop funding coal power development in other countries and, at the UN General Assembly, President Xi Jinping announced China would stop building coal plants abroad as well. Meanwhile Hungary and Uruguay were the latest countries to join the Powering Past Coal Alliance, while Denmark and Costa Rica recently forged the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, committing to a plan to stop fossil fuel production.
In September the U.N. launched a pledge for countries to build No New Coal plants, which includes seven countries so far. At COP26 expect to hear from more countries, investors and others that are transitioning away from fossil fuels.
Renewable energy. In 2010, solar and wind power accounted for 1.7% of global electricity generation. Ten years later, it had climbed to 8.7%. That exponential growth far outstripped what models had predicted.
Plummeting costs and technological breakthroughs have made countries and companies far more comfortable with setting aggressive renewable energy targets and they will likely showcase more of these in Glasgow. At COP26, India and the U.K. are also expected to announce a joint declaration on creating a trans-national electricity grid to supply solar power around the world.
Forests. Carbon emissions from tropical forest loss last year alone were more than double the emissions from all cars on the road in the U.S. At COP26, watch for renewed commitments to end deforestation and concrete measures that demonstrate an increasing recognition of how forests absorb carbon emissions and help communities adapt to climate impacts. Forest-related initiatives to be featured at the COP include bringing countries together to promote deforestation-free supply chains through the Forest, Agriculture and Commodity Trade (FACT) Dialogue.
We’ll also be looking for significant announcements of government and private sector financing to achieve these goals, including through initiatives utilizing voluntary carbon markets, such as the LEAF Coalition launched at the Leaders Summit on Climate in April 2021.
Electric vehicles. Major auto makers like Ford, GM, BMW and others have made major investments in electric vehicles, and more and more countries and companies are committing to phase out sales of vehicles with internal combustion engines. At COP26, expect more such bold pledges from countries and corporations signaling an inflection point in the shift toward clean transport.
Methane. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with 86 times the warming power as CO2 over a 20-year span. Studies estimate that quick efforts to cut methane emissions could avoid 0.3 degrees C of warming by 2050.
To address this super pollutant, the U.S. and the EU announced the Global Methane Pledge at the 2021 UN General Assembly, calling for countries to commit to collectively reduce methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030 compared to 2020 levels. Over 30 countries have indicated their support for the pledge thus far. At COP26, expect to see continued momentum.
All Hands on Deck
COP26 in Glasgow is not only a moment for countries to demonstrate their commitment thus far. It’s also a critical point in time for countries to redouble their efforts and focus attention on the next urgent steps we need to take to keep 1.5 degrees C within reach and to respond to the growing effects of climate change.
No matter how countries’ NDCs collectively stack up following COP26, our imperative to rapidly cut greenhouse gas emissions will only escalate as temperatures rise and the consequences of climate change get worse.
COP26 is an all-hands-on-deck moment for everyone to rise up and demand their leaders take bold climate action.
WRI’s experts are tracking progress throughout the UN climate negotiations. Explore our COP26 Hub for the latest news, articles, research and more.