COP26: drive the decade of change or bury hope for the planet

Accelerating the energy transition, the main objective of a climate summit that arrives a year late and with homework to be done

5 min
Windmills combined with coal-fired power plants in Germany.

to do BarcelonaWe are a year late and six years behind schedule. Since the Paris Agreement was reached in 2015, the world has still not managed to set a course towards the goals set out in that historic pact: to keep global warming below 2ºC, at least, and ideally below 1.5ºC. The UN climate summit that kicks off this Sunday in Glasgow, COP26, is a historic new opportunity to achieve this. A key meeting that should lay the foundations for the radical economic and energy transformation that scientists are calling for before 2030. But the 190 countries that signed the agreement have their homework to do and their credibility is being called into question.

The fact that this will be the first summit after the Trump era, with the United States back at the forefront of the climate fight, is no guarantee of success either. Not only because Democrat Joe Biden's promises run the risk of being buried in the U.S. Congress, but also because, despite the pompous announcements of some powers, the state commitments on the table are still totally insufficient, as has been noted over the last few days by both the UN and the International Energy Agency.

So what should the governments meeting in Glasgow do? What is expected from the summit? We explain the keys to understanding what is at stake at COP26.

The 1.5°C limit still at stake

EU and US pledges not enough, more ambition needed

The key decade to stop the worst effects of the climate crisis started with a pandemic that brought everything to a halt. 2020 was the year the Paris Agreement officially kicked in, despite having entered into force in 2016, and countries had to update the climate pledges they had submitted in Paris five years earlier, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). These revised NDCs are now a year late and not all of them are in place. Of the 190 signatory states, 120 have updated the NDCs they submitted in Paris and only 13 small states have submitted new commitments (a second NDC, which is technically due in 2025 but the urgency of the situation recommends moving it forward).

Among the updated NDCs are new commitments announced this year by the European Union and the United States to halve emissions by 2030 and reach clean zero by 2050, and even China's pledge to achieve clean zero by 2060, formalised at the UN on Thursday. But there is still not enough. Other countries such as Australia, Brazil and Mexico have submitted NDCs in which they maintain the same or even raise their future emissions. And even within the G-20, which meets just before COP26 and should serve to give impetus to climate negotiations, Russia and Australia are blocking a unanimous agreement to set a limit of 1.5 ºC, and not 2 ºC, as demanded by science. All of this puts us on course for a global temperature rise of around 3ºC by the end of the century, with all the dire consequences that this implies.


Getting the 100 billion promised by rich countries, a question of "credibility"

Also in 2020, the fund of 100 billion a year that rich countries pledged to "mobilise" (with both public and private investments) to help the poorest states to cut emissions and adapt to the effects of the climate crisis, which is hitting them the hardest, was to be put in place. But a year on, the fund has only secured pledges of 80 billion. Getting the full figure and a firm commitment to repeat it and even raise it every year is the most important goal of this summit for the countries most vulnerable to climate change. The president of COP26, for the moment, has assured that the 100,000 will be available from 2023 onwards. Three years late.

However, the agreement to create this fund, in fact, predates the Paris Agreement: it was reached in Copenhagen in 2009. "What is at stake at this summit is the credibility of rich countries", says Farhana Yamin of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, which brings together 48 developing states. Poor states are also calling for the money to go into a multilateral fund overseen by the UN, but rich states want to manage the money bilaterally with the recipient countries.

The 100 billion a year agreed upon is too little compared to what would be needed. Yamin calculates that 600 billion a year would be needed, half of which would only be for projects to adapt to climate impacts in the most vulnerable countries. And beyond adaptation, the IEA estimates that a global investment in renewables of $4 trillion per year is needed by 2030. "The energy transformation will cost us 1% of global GDP, but it will prevent the destruction of 4% or 5% and a lot of human misery", says Christiana Figueres, who headed the UN climate agency in 2015 when the Paris Agreement was reached.

Article 6

Brazil continues to block a deal on carbon markets, the only point to close in the Paris Agreement

The stone in the Paris Agreement's shoe continues to be the section on international carbon markets. It is the only article of that agreement that could not be deployed in the regulation approved at COP24 in Poland. And the following year in Madrid it was not closed either. It is a legacy of the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, which created these markets so that countries that emit less than they were allowed under that agreement could sell unused emission rights to other countries. As a result of that system, some states like Russia still have emission rights that they did not sell, and they do not want to give them up.

In addition, Brazil is determined to defend a double accounting that has not allowed the agreement to be closed: it wants the emission rights generated by its forests, as sewers that capture carbon, to be sold in this world market and at the same time also count in the calculation of the reduction of emissions made by its country. Once all the technical avenues have been exhausted, the solution will have to be political and it will have to be seen what concessions are made to Brazil and Russia.

Maximum alert

The science is clearer than ever, but the oil states want to ignore it

The only optimistic note in the face of the governmental summit is the atmosphere outside. The youth movement against the climate emergency is stronger than ever and Greta Thunberg is going to Glasgow. Public opinion is much more aware of what is at stake, especially as the science is now clearer than ever.  The latest report from the UN panel of scientists (the IPCC), published in August to extraordinary acclaim, made it clear that all the extreme events we have experienced in recent years, from hurricanes to devastating floods and fires, are the result of human-caused climate change. Some of these human-induced effects are in fact already irreversible, but many could be avoided if we keep global warming below 1.5ºC.

Yet, as always, countries with economies dependent on fossil fuels are resisting change, and the efforts of some of these, such as Saudi Arabia, Australia and Japan, to get sentences removed from this scientific report have been revealed in recent days.

A rarefied background

Covid-19 and the electricity price crisis shape the talks

The covid-19 pandemic and the global energy crisis are conditioning these new climate negotiations. The former not only delayed the decisive summit by a year, but has also had obvious effects on the decarbonisation process. Lockdown succeeded in reducing emissions that cause climate change for the first time in 2020 (by 5.4%), but instead of taking advantage of it to maintain that downward path, governments' economic recovery packages have generated a rebound effect that is causing them to rise even more than before.

The electricity price crisis caused by gas also has a contradictory effect on governments' climate action. On the one hand, it highlights the need to end economic dependence on imported fossil fuels and to bet on renewables, in a way that "gives wind to the sails of the decarbonisation of the energy sector", says Figueres. However, on the other hand, it has meant that governments like China, the world's leading emitter of CO2, return to coal, which pollutes even more, to avoid running out of electricity supply in the middle of winter.