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Expectations for COP26 are low but here's what would make it a success

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By Alice Tidey
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Steam comes out of the chimneys of the coal-fired power station in Niederaussem, Germany, Oct. 24, 2021.
Steam comes out of the chimneys of the coal-fired power station in Niederaussem, Germany, Oct. 24, 2021.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Michael Probst

World leaders are gathering in Glasgow for this year's climate conference as recent evidence suggests the world is falling behind in its effort to keep the rise in temperature low enough to avoid catastrophe.

But expectations ahead of the crucial summit are low.

The COP26 summit in Scotland opens on Sunday and will run through to November 12 after being postponed by a year due to the global pandemic.

It comes six years after the landmark Paris Agreement which saw more than 190 countries agree to keep the rise in global temperature well below 2°C and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels by reaching peak greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.

Countries worldwide have unveiled new, more ambitious climate plans in the run-up to the conference but new data painting an even bleaker picture has also been published.

The latest alarming report, released earlier this week by the United Nations Environment Programme, warns that emissions reduction plans submitted by 120 countries fall woefully short of what is truly needed to avert global warming.

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the report's findings as "a thundering wake-up call", stressing that "the climate crisis is code red for humanity."

Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdon, this year's host country, has also seemingly sought to temper expectations telling schoolchildren earlier this week that "it's very, very far from clear that we will get the progress we need".

"It is going to be very, very tough this summit," he said, adding: "I am worried because it might go wrong and we might not get the agreements that we need and it is touch and go, it is very, very difficult, but I think it can be done."

So what would constitute success? Euronews reached out to NGOs and experts to find out.

No more than 1.5°C

The Paris Agreement set "well below 2°C" as the target with wording indicating the world should strive for 1.5°C.

"Back then, that was just a bit of a win for vulnerable small island nations because the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C (means) a lot of these small island nations won't exist anymore, period," Jennifer Tollman, Senior Policy Advisor at the Berlin-based E3G climate change think tank, told Euronews.

"Now what the 2018 (IPCC) report told us is 'actually, it's not just small island nations that are screwed. If you don't aim for 1.5°C, you're all going to be a lot impacted'," she added, citing this summer's climate disasters such as the deadly floods in Germany and Belgium and the devastating heatwave-fuelled wildfires around the Mediterranean as proof it's already happening.

Leaders, she said, should set 1.5°C as the new benchmark.

Juan Pablo Osornio, Greenpeace's international head of delegation to the COP, concurred.

"We want emission reductions on a path towards staying within the 1.5°C pathway," he said. "A global average temperature rise of 1.5°C would be hard, even devastating, but would avoid a much worse humanitarian catastrophe."

Governments from India, China, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Brazil are the ones that urgently need to put on the table plans that are fit for the task at hand.
Juan Pablo Osornio, Greenpeace

More ambitious climate plans

This Glasgow summit marks the end of the first five-year cycle since the Paris Agreement with countries compelled to review and enhance their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to reach the temperature target. This is why there has been a flurry of new pledges over the previous weeks and months.

"Quite a number of countries have stepped up, such as the EU, USA, and many smaller countries. This would not be the case without the mechanisms of the Paris Agreement," Sven Harmeling, International Climate Policy Coordinator at CAN Europe, a coalition of climate NGOs, highlighted to Euronews.

"The downside to this is that we have started from a too low level of ambition so that even these enhanced NDCs are not balanced in relation to the big emitters' fair share of climate action, and why we see a big gap towards the emission reductions needed for the 1.5°C limit," he said.

Many countries including Canada, the European Union, the UK and the US have pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2050.

But Elisabetta Cornago, a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform (CER) think thank, said that "experts are hoping for a leap forward with final climate actions plans" at the summit to keep the 1.5°C target "within reach."

"Currently, that seems hard, as most plans fall far short of that goal," she deplored.

She flagged, for instance, that the EU's latest plan, which includes a 55% reduction in emissions by 2030 compared to 1990s level, "is still not compatible with the 1.5°C objective"; that the US President's $1.85 trillion social spending plan is being scaled back to gain approval by Congress; and that China has offered little detail on its commitment to reach net-zero by 2060.

India, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Brazil also "urgently need to put on the table plans that are fit for the task at hand," Greenpeace's Osornio, said. "That’s why, in Glasgow, we need the richest nations to show leadership and move significantly faster."

Coalitions of the willing

Getting more than 120 countries to agree on a plan can be nigh on impossible which is why the "well below 2°C" was so historic back in 2015.

But experts also flag that several countries banding together to strike sectoral deals can also have a profound impact on reducing emissions.

"That's also how we managed to tip international coal finance because one of the big success stories of this COP is obviously the fact that we've pretty much stopped all international coal finance," Tollman explained.

"I know that there are efforts underway for like a coalition of the willing to step forward and say we're going to end international fossil finance or export credits for fossil financed by 2023," she added.

This coalition would "ideally" involve "as many of the G20 as possible, as well as in developing countries," she added.

Other sectoral deals that Tollman is hoping to see emerge include one on zero-emission vehicles pledge as some G20 member states — including Canada and France — have already put a date on phasing out polluting vehicles.

"I think the second one that I'm very interested in, but honestly don't know how impactful it will be, is deforestation-free supply chains," she highlighted.

Large gaps in promised funds still remain a few days away from COP26. This is a very negative signal to send to developing countries.
Elisabetta Cornago, CER

More money for developing countries

Developed countries attending the COP16 in 2010 agreed to jointly mobilise $100 billion (€85.8 billion) a year between 2020 and 2025 to address developing countries' needs.

The problem is, that target wasn't reached last year and is unlikely to be reached until 2023.

But every expert contacted by Euronews agreed that not only does the target need to be met as soon as possible, but it also needs to be increased.

"Not only is significantly more finance needed to help developing countries adapt to the impacts of the climate crisis and develop clean energy systems and transition away from fossil fuels, more money on top of that is needed to compensate for the damage already caused by climate impacts in developing countries," Greenpeace's Osornio said.

Cornago from the CER pointed out that "hard numbers published by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) ahead of COP26 have increased pressure on developed countries to meet their pledges" toward developing countries.

"While many observers hoped this pressure would be sufficient to whip contributors to meet pledges, large gaps in promised funds still remain a few days away from COP26. This is a very negative signal to send to developing countries. Pressure after the Glasgow conference risks to lapse," she said.

Accountability

Few countries have so far turned their pledges into legally-binding domestic legislation, and accountability mechanisms at the international level are missing.

COP26 will not be the summit that will see such a mechanism emerge but any conversation on the topic will be seen as a win.

"We probably won't see the answers to that question, but kind of mandating the conversations is going to be really important for the work next year to figure out how that accountability happens," Tollman said.

A start of the conversation now could see some sort of accountability mechanism take form in 2023 when the first "Global stocktake" mandated by the Paris Agreement will take place to review where countries are in accordance with their NDCs and the efficacy of their measures so far.