Your Guide to COP26, the World’s Most Important Climate Talks

Your Guide to COP26, the World’s Most Important Climate Talks
A general view shows the Milan Conference Centre, MiCO, set for the Pre-COP 26 summit on September 30, 2021. (Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP, Getty Images)

Maybe you’ve educated yourself a little bit about what COP26 is all about. You know what a COP is (that’s “conference of the parties” for those who didn’t do their 101 homework), you know why everyone is going to Glasgow, and you know that this conference is our last best chance at keeping global warming below catastrophic levels. Now that we’re past the basics, let’s take a look at some of the big-ticket items everyone will be focusing on in November.

What’s the deal with the Paris Agreement and COP26?

Almost every country in the world has signified support for the Paris Agreement, while 192 countries have formally approved the accords. Turkey was the latest country to ratify the Agreement, reaching a decision just last week. (The five remaining holdouts include bigger emitters like Iran and Iraq, as well as smaller countries Eritrea, Libya, and Yemen.) The U.S., the world’s largest historic emitter, is back in the agreement as of earlier this year. (It was out for a few months due to former President Donald Trump’s questionable decision making.)

But there’s more going on than just who is in and who is out. The Paris Agreement isn’t meant to be a static document, but more of a starting point for us to get to where we need to go. Countries’ original pledges were inadequate on their own to meet the agreement’s stated goal of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. (Nevermind the world set a stretch target of 1.5 degrees Celsius.) The agreement requires countries to submit nationally determined contributions, or NDCs, to make sure they’re constantly working to cut emissions.

Once every five years, the UN mandates that countries ratchet up their NDCs, making aggressively higher and higher cuts to get us closer to the targets set out in the Paris Agreement. In July, the first UN deadline to submit updated NDCs came and went, and a whole bunch of countries missed that deadline, including big emitters like China, India, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia. As of last year, the updated pledges had the world on track to heat up by nearly 6 degrees Fahrenheit (3.3 degrees Celsius).

What are some of the big ticket items on the negotiating agenda for COP26?

Many see this last COP as the world’s last chance to keep warming by the end of the century below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the more aggressive target laid out in the Paris Agreement, and negotiators will have that number in mind when talking things out. COP26 president Alok Sharma has often used the catchy slogan “keep 1.5 alive” in speeches about the meetings — a play on the phrase “1.5 to stay alive,” which small island nations popularised during the Paris discussions to push for more aggressive action.

In Glasgow, negotiators will work on a lot of different mechanisms meant to help countries report climate targets and communicate with each other, including setting common timeframes for NDCs and a common transparency framework that helps countries see each other’s progress and build trust that everyone is doing their climate homework. Negotiators will also be discussing how to carry out promises made on climate finance, specifically how wealthier countries take on responsibility for helping poorer ones transition their economies and adapt to climate change.

Are there any loose ends from the last climate talks?

Why yes, yes there are. It’s been two years since the last COP due to the pandemic. Those talks were held in Madrid, and there are a number of outstanding issues, including carbon credits. But there’s none bigger than what’s known as loss and damage, or protocols for countries suffering disproportionately from the impacts of climate change to get help.

Loss and damage negotiations are centered around justice: The countries bearing the brunt of climate change have done relatively little to cause the problem. Meanwhile, those that have caused the problem have seen dramatic growth by tethering their economies to fossil fuels. The issue of how much developed countries owe developing ones for climate damages has been kicking around since 2013 and will likely be among the hot button issues. Speaking of which…

What are the big tensions?

There are a lot of potential disagreements around some pretty major issues that we’re likely to see come up in the negotiations. Where to even start?

Money fights

In 2009, wealthier countries promised to start delivering A$136 billion in aid to poorer countries each year by 2020 via what’s known as the Green Climate Fund. However, the pledges have not added up, and the goalposts keep moving on how that money can be used. The latest accounting shows rich countries have come up A$27 billion short last year. President Joe Biden announced the U.S. would contribute $US5.7 ($8) billion to the fund this year, which is a big step up from the Trump years but still far short of the U.S. fair share of nearly $US44 ($60) billion. The fund itself has also come under fire for mismanagement, which could set up a struggle over money and accountability.

Emissions fights

Letting global warming get above 1.5 degrees Celsius would be disastrous. But some of the world’s biggest emitters are reluctant to actually codify the 1.5-degree-Celsius target into policy, preferring that it stay the Paris Agreement’s aspirational goal. Australia, for instance, reportedly pressured the UK into taking out an explicit mention of the target in a recent trade deal. We may see more instances of big polluters who pay lip service to aggressive action wavering on measures that would help that action happen.

Fossil fuel fights

Coal is going to be a big point of contention: Alok Sharma, the president of COP26, said he wants to use the meeting to “consign coal to history.” That would be poetic given the UK is where coal got its start in powering the economy during the Industrial Revolution. But countries like China, Russia, and India recently opposed a G20 commitment to phase out coal. And although the UK has restricted the role of oil and gas interests at this COP, the country did give out a climate champion award to a tar sands executive. There’s no doubt oil and gas interests will try to find a way to weasel themselves into the negotiations as well. How much sway they have could go a long ways toward determining if this meeting delivers for real or offers another set of false promises.

Will there be net zero announcements?

Almost certainly. Some countries have already committed to net zero emissions this year, most recently being the United Arab Emirates. We could see more pledges like that in Glasgow. But it’s important to remember that net zero targets for countries aren’t as specific as NDCs, and can be prone to greenwashing. With so many businesses and local governments gathering on the sidelines of COP, they’ll likely get in on the net zero action, too.

It’s important to take these pledges with a degree of scepticism. They’re nonbinding and the UAE pledge didn’t come with a promise to wind down oil production. Some companies that have committed to go net zero are also planning on using carbon offsets rather than actual emissions reductions. That raises a lot of questions about the efficacy of these standalone pledges.

Will the U.S. be a climate leader?

Definitely. The U.S. has jumped back in with both feet after rejoining the Paris Agreement, submitting an aggressive new NDC in April as well as doubling its previous climate finance commitment. John Kerry, currently serving as the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, has been particularly active on the international stage as he gets back into his familiar role as a key negotiating figure.

However, it remains to be seen just how much damage four years of Trump did to U.S. standing. The former president withdrew from talks and even staged a pro-fossil fuel event at the 2018 meeting in Poland. Even if the U.S. is back, Trump has made these conversations a lot more fragile.

Additionally, the best U.S. attempt to address climate change is currently in limbo in the Senate. The reconciliation bill contains meaningful climate provisions, but they could be watered down in an attempt to get fossil fuel-loving Sen. Joe Manchin on board. If they’re watered down or the bill remains in stasis, it could undercut U.S. negotiating positions. (The Biden administration said it has plenty of leverage to lower emissions even without the bill passing.)

How will the pandemic impact the meetings?

It may be, to put it bluntly, a total shitshow. The vaccine apartheid much of the developing world is facing has put a real question mark on those countries’ ability to show up and participate in the discussions. The UK has offered to vaccinate all attendees who are unable to access vaccines in their home countries, but the process has been murky and the timeline perilously close to the start of the conference. What’s more, the UK keeps a tally of “red list” countries where travellers need to undergo stricter quarantine protocols regardless of vaccination status; delegates from those countries may be delayed in participating in negotiations as they quarantine. The extra costs of quarantining and daily testing could further strain developing countries’ budgets.

Add in the fact that the meeting will involve some degree of social distancing and require masks for attendees who speak dozens of languages and may have a hard time reading facial cues, all as tens of thousands of people have heated conversations about an emotional and pressing issue in the same venue — frankly, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Will the Pope be there?

No. Sad! But the Queen will be. Yay?