Finally, the UN climate summit (COP26) is approaching! In November, the world will meet again in Glasgow. But hold on… Wasn’t COP26 supposed to take place in 2020? Correct! Despite the urgency to achieve progress regarding the climate crisis, the conference had to be postponed due to the even more immediate threat of the crisis caused by the coronavirus.
This year, the UK and Italy are determined to host the negotiations in Glasgow, despite the ongoing pandemic. In November, the 197 countries who ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will finally meet in person again. Many consider this the most important climate summit since the passing of the Paris Agreement in 2015. How so? This becomes apparent as soon as one takes a look at some of the most crucial issues to be negotiated:
- Increasing ambition to mitigate climate change: According to even the most recent analyses, the global community is still far from a safe pathway to reaching the goals set out in the Paris Agreement. While carbon emissions dipped in 2020due to the pandemic, it is painful to witness that fossil fuel emissions have bounced back and greenhouse gas concentrations reached an unhealthy record high this year. Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), warns: “Not only is clean energy investment still far from what’s needed to put the world on a path to reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century, it’s not even enough to prevent global emissions from surging to a new record.” To stay true to the goals of the Paris Agreement and well below a 2 degree Celsius temperature increase and to “keep 1.5 alive”, it is now key that the world — especially major emitters — increase their emission reduction targets and respective action. Parties are expected to show their ambition by submitting new and updated national climate action plans – or, in the language of the Paris Agreement, so-called “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs). Many have done so – including the EU and the US – but by no means all and with overall insufficient ambition. For the Glasgow summit, countries need to commit to strengthened reduction targets for 2025 or 2030 in combination with a convincing long-term strategy aiming at carbon neutrality by 2050. And they need to act on the ground – be it by expanding renewable energies, transforming the transport sector, insulating the housing stock, halting deforestation and land-degradation or creating jobs within a sustainable agri-food system.
- Adaptation to climate change: The impacts of climate change can already be witnessed in every continent across the globe. 2021 has seen devastating extreme weather events attributed to human-caused climate change, be it extraordinary extreme heat waves or devastating floods. With such evidence, the issue of adaptation becomes more and more pressing, especially for the most vulnerable countries. Developing countries need help adapting to — and building resilience against — the tangible impacts of a changing climate on their coastlines and cities, their people and economies, their forests and wildlife. Those nations living in fear of losing their territory altogether, as is the case for low-lying island states like the Maldives or Tuvalu, are in even greater peril. Consequently, the long-term expectations for — and the further operationalization of — the so-called “Santiago Network for Loss and Damage” will be high on the agenda in Glasgow.
- International climate finance: In 2009, at the ultimately failed UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen, one of the few bright spots was the promise of developed countries to mobilize “100 billion US$ a year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries.” But a recent OECD analysis concludes that developed countries mobilized only about 80 billion US$ by 2019. While actual 2020 data will only be available next year, the general assumption is that the promise was not fulfilled. Trust is deteriorating. Accordingly, the issue of international finance to support mitigation and adaptation efforts in developing countries – both now and in the future – will be key for a positive outcome in Glasgow.
Considering the complexity of these issues and the political landscape, the postponement of COP26 to 2021 may not have been such a bad thing after all. Despite the urgency of the matter, building consensus between countries as diverse as China and the US, Saudi Arabia and Costa Rica or Brazil and Denmark is cumbersome. The possibility of failure is a grim companion of the negotiations, especially as so much is at stake. Therefore, it is good to see that two key parameters conducive to the probability of success changed between 2020 and 2021:
First: After the devastating years of US leadership under Trump, the US is back as a partner at the multilateral table with President Joe Biden. This changes the prospects for success on climate issues for all international efforts throughout this crucial year. He brought the US back into the Paris Agreement the same day he took office in January of this year. Biden also installed a strong team at the highest level in his government to push the climate agenda. Early on, he invited key leaders to a high-level climate conference. On Earth Day, he submitted an updated climate commitment (NDC) to the UN climate secretariat and pledged to double international climate finance by 2024. More recently, at the UN General Assembly in September, he promised to ask Congress to further increase that amount to 11 billion US$.
Second: Like a string of pearls, there is a unique alignment of presidencies in 2021. Not only does the UK preside over the G7 and Italy over the G20, but together they lead the global community to COP26. While this might be perceived as a potentially overwhelming European presence in the process, it can also be considered a fortuitous political alignment. At the beginning of the year, the two countries expressed their will to leverage this partnership to “help build momentum towards a successful COP26 outcome.”
Now, where do we stand in 2021 with regard to signals for sincere climate action after the G7 Summit in June and with the upcoming G20 summit in October? Do these developments provide positive signals in the run-up to COP26 in November?
The Carbis Bay G7 Summit Communiqué already brought some political progress: Leaders agreed to embark on a “green revolution” and want “to increase (…) efforts to keep a limit of 1.5°C temperature rise within reach.” They commit “to net zero [emissions] no later than 2050”, to submit enhanced NDCs, “halving our collective emissions” until 2030, and “increasing and improving climate finance to 2025.” The Communiqué also promises long-term strategies, an accelerated phase-out of unabated coal burning (though a date is missing), and an end of “new direct government support for unabated international thermal coal power generation by the end of 2021.” These are important steps in the right direction – if backed by proper implementation action on the ground.
Achieving an alignment of the much more diverse Group of 20 will be a bigger challenge. The G20 accounts for around 80% of global GDP, 60% of the world´s population and is collectively responsible for around 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions. There is a plethora of options for the G20 to advance the climate debate, taking into account that the cost of action is much lower than the cost of inaction, as Prof. Nicholas Stern detailed already back in 2006 in his prominent Stern Review Report. Evidently, without political determination and ambitious action by these nations, there will be no success at COP26. Members of the G20 are, however, as diverse as India, China, Mexico, France and the US – whilst Turkey hasn’t even having ratified the Paris Agreement yet and countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia still have a “critically insufficient” level of climate ambition.
While the Italian Presidency is still working towards an impactful outcome for the G20 Summit in October, it faces severe controversies over issues like the phrasing surrounding the 1.5-degree objective, the net zero emission goals or the coal phase-out. There is still some way to go here before the Rome Summit – with no guarantee for success.
However, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in September offered some sparks of hope: China announced it will stop financing new overseas coal projects. This is a major breakthrough: not only is China the biggest single emitter of greenhouse gases, it’s also the largest single funder of coal projects worldwide. Considering that countries like Japan and South Korea also made similar announcements earlier this year, most foreign funding for coal projects could be about to cease. With this tailwind, the Italian G20 presidency might be successful in building an agreement on language to end international coal financing this year.
Much needed yet much more difficult to achieve will be an agreement on stopping new, domestic coal construction and licensing as well as phasing out unabated domestic coal all together – keeping in mind India’s continued domestic promotion of coal and South Africa’s plans for new coal capacity, just to name a few. Moreover, setting a date – 2025? – for the G20’s longstanding aspiration to phase out “harmful subsidies” or, more specifically, fossil fuel subsidies, appears challenging. But the Italian Presidency still seems committed to making progress on these issues. Right on!
While some political analysts insist that there is no choice but to get the job done, others look at the global trends and find net-zero scenarios improbable. I was inspired by the great pioneer and philosopher for sustainability, Prof. Hans Jonas, who once said that the deadly sin of our time is fatalism.
To protect intra- and intergenerational justice, we have to embark on a quest to meet the climate challenge, take the opportunities we have, and turn them into gold. 2021 can be a crucial year to advance in this endeavour.