COP26: Issues and Expected Storylines

The UK will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow from October 31 through November 12, 2021. 

The Paris Agreement (2015) is a non-binding international agreement that commits countries to work together to limit global warming this century to well below 2˚C, preferably to 1.5˚C above pre-industrial temperatures. The latest IPCC report concluded emissions “unequivocally caused by human activities” have already pushed the average global temperatures up 1.1˚C. 

COVID-19 Context and Challenges of COP26

Delayed a year due to the pandemic, COP26 in November will take place as the coronavirus crisis grips much of the world. Countries, particularly from the Global South, face what WHO Director-General describes as “vaccine apartheid.” This is of particular concern for the approximately 60 countries who are currently “red-listed” by the UK government due to high rates of COVID-19. Participants from these countries must quarantine for at least 5 days upon arrival. Attendees from green- or amber-listed countries (the US is currently on the amber list) are not required to quarantine, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated. 

Civil society organizations have warned COP26 will end up being dominated by participants from rich countries that don’t require visas, are better equipped to absorb hotel costs, and face fewer travel and logistical hurdles. Climate Action Network (CAN), comprised of more than 1,500 civil society organizations in over 130 countries, has issued a call to postpone COP26 unless the UK presidency can address these concerns and enable all countries’ negotiators and observers to participate in a meaningful way — describing calling this issue “a microcosm of the larger patterns of global injustice and exclusion.” Concerns about equal participation and the call for a delay, those groups reiterate, do not negate the need for urgent climate action. 

The Climate Vulnerable Forum, composed of member states from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Pacific, have asked for the climate talks to go as scheduled, saying that the cost of delay would be too great. This is echoed by the negotiating blocs the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS). The UK has rejected the call to postpone the Summit, promising vaccines for all and funding for quarantine hotels for delegates from “red list countries,” and U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said delaying COP26 would be a “huge, huge mistake.” 

Key Objectives of COP26

COP26 is seen by many as the last credible opportunity to limit planetary warming to 1.5˚C. This is also the first COP at which all countries must deliver new or enhanced climate plans. The U.S. has done so, countries including China and India have not, yet. 

Key objectives for the talks include: 

  • Countries setting common time frames for their climate targets. At COP24, it was decided that climate targets implemented beginning in 2031 should have common time frames, but there is no agreement yet on length. Currently, the end-date of these targets vary – some run through 2025, while others run through 2030. Shorter-time frames are hoped to encourage countries to increase ambition more frequently. 
  • Climate finance refers to the financial support that richer, high-emitting countries provide or mobilize to help less developed nations deal with climate change and build low-carbon societies. Developing country coalitions, including the Least Developed Countries group, the Alliance of Small Island States, and the African Group of Negotiators, have called for COP26 to meet a target of $100B/year as promised, direct half of those funds to support adaptation, and increase those annual sums by 2025.
  • Negotiators hope to reach agreement on a transparency framework, through which countries will report and communicate progress in meeting their climate targets. This is important to increase trust and confidence in the Paris Agreement process and to better hold countries accountable to their commitments. Countries had planned to finish technical aspects of the issue in 2020. 
  • Loss & Damage refers to situations where the climate impacts a country faces — either from slow-onset events like drought and sea-level rise or sudden-onset events like storms — exceeds their adaptive capacity. The key asks from climate-vulnerable and poor countries are for new and additional funding as well as technical assistance and capacity building for dealing with the loss of land, property, livelihood, and culture that are now inevitable, or will be caused by continued insufficient climate action. The US has traditionally opposed efforts to be held financially or legally liable for the damage of climate impacts on vulnerable nations, and this is expected to be a thorny issue again this COP 
  • International carbon markets (Article 6 of the Paris Agreement) are another area of contention. While negotiators made some progress at the most recent talks in Madrid, key issues remain unresolved, including how carbon markets will work so that carbon credits aren’t double-counted. Indigenous and vulnerable communities have also raised concerns around human rights and land rights, especially in the context of communities whose livelihoods are affected by carbon offset projects such as tropical forests conservation or hydropower schemes.

For more on negotiation issues at COP26:

Other Storylines & Issues to Watch at COP26

  • 1.5˚C ambition: Keeping a 1.5˚C limit to global warming within reach is a key ask of the UK COP26 presidency. The COP26 outcome may codify this with text about net-zero by 2050 and language that gives more prominence to the importance of a 1.5 target and the pathway to get there. This is also being pushed for by high-ambition nations, and generally supported by the US and Canada, while countries such as China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, and others have resisted calls to codify this increase in ambition. In September, the UNFCCC will report how close all country climate targets to date are to getting the world on a 1.5˚C compatible-path.
  • Net zero emissions: According to IPCC scientists, it is possible to halt and possibly reverse global warming if we reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions and limit warming to 1.5°C  by 2050. In the lead-up to and at COP26, we’ll see new commitments from countries, cities, businesses, and others, even as net-zero commitments already cover 68% of the global economy. While this is an important long-term climate goal, critics say net-zero targets risk being co-opted for greenwashing by the fossil fuel industry. They are often designed to use dubious offsets, can be built on questionable accounting practices, and are used to evade deep near-term emissions reductions that are at the heart of the global strategy for limiting warming to 1.5°C. One net zero strategy that some countries and businesses are using in tandem with mitigation efforts is Carbon Dioxide Removal.
  • Carbon Dioxide Removal: CDR is the process of removing existing carbon dioxide pollution from the atmosphere and locking it away for decades, centuries, or longer. It consists of nature-based solutions, such as planting trees, and technological solutions, such as direct air capture (DAC). While carbon removal conversations at COP are likely to arise in the context of net zero commitments, they may also surface by countries questioning who has responsibility for legacy climate pollution clean-up and the financial cost of doing so. Earlier this year, India’s energy minister said that developed countries should outline clear plans for what they will do by 2030 to remove emissions that they have added to the atmosphere, as they have also used up 80% of the carbon budget. The 2021 IPCC report identified gigatons of carbon removal as crucial to limiting warming to 1.5°C. CDR can never be a replacement for mitigation, but CDR technology is advancing in a way that it can begin to help play a part in combating climate change. Climeworks recently launched the world’s largest direct air capture plant, Orca, which removes CO2 from the atmosphere and buries it underground. Deploying CDR responsibly, at scale, and with community input are crucial aspects of carbon removal that may surface at COP.
  • Show me the money: Developed countries are overdue to meet a promise they made in 2009 to mobilize $100 billion annually in climate finance (by 2020) to support mitigation and adaptation for developing countries. Green Climate Fund investments support adaptation projects such as urban flood management in Senegal or an early hazard warning system in the Philippines, as well as mitigation projects such as improving electricity access in sub-saharan African or climate-friendly cooking in Kenya and Senegal. While there is a lag in tallying up contributions, countries only mobilized around $80B in climate finance in 2018, falling short of the $100B target. Recent estimates show the US ranks last in terms of contributing its fair share. It remains to be seen if any finance pledges made before or at COP include enough public funding or if this COP will be overly reliant on leveraging private finance to make up a public financing gap. Climate activists are also tracking if the funding will mostly be delivered in grant form or “loaned” with strings attached.This will now be especially contentious as the COVID-19 pandemic has caused major social and financial upheaval across the world, particularly in Global South nations that are facing major budget shortfalls and are being forced to divert money from climate to public health and pandemic relief efforts. 
  • The US is back at the international climate table: This is the first meeting of the UN climate talks since 2016 where the US will have an engaged federal government that is generally supportive of climate action. The US now plans to reduce emissions 50%-52% below 2005 levels in 2030. This target — also known as a Nationally Determined Contribution, or NDC — was well-received. UK COP26 president Alok Sharma has been leading a diplomatic effort throughout the year to steer all nations towards deeper climate commitments. John Kerry has been a key figure in engaging other countries in this effort, in particular through diplomatic engagement with China and Japan focused on reducing coal use at home and abroad. COP26 will be a test of how much credibility the US still has. 
  • Fossil fuel funding: The EU, UK, and European Investment Bank have made commitments to stop international public financing of nearly all fossil fuel projects and to encourage other groups to do the same. COP26 also aims to call on nations to abandon the use of coal power and to end international coal financing. The biggest greenhouse gas emitters are under pressure to end fossil fuel financing, commit to more ambitious emissions reduction targets, and increase financing for vulnerable countries. To ensure private-sector banks, investors, and insurers are aligned with the overall goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, they must cease lending to and investing in fossil fuel infrastructure. Alok Sharma, has said that he “want[s] COP26 to be the COP where we consign coal power to history”. 
  • No polluters at COP26: The fossil fuel industry has a tradition of having a greenwashing presence at COP, through direct sponsorship or holding events focused on “clean” solutions like methane-based so-called “natural” gas. For the first time, the COP host city of Glasgow has banned polluters from public venues during the summit. However, the UK COP presidency has still received some criticism for some sponsors.
  • Youth & Mobilizations: About 400 youth will hold a Youth4Climate event in Milan on September 28 on driving multilateral ambition, engaging non-state actors, and building climate-conscious societies. Youth delegates will also participate in Pre-COP, the final official ministerial meeting at the end of September. Extinction Rebellion is planning a November 6 protest around COP26, demanding the UK declare a climate emergency, commit to net zero by 2025, and establish a citizens’ assembly to monitor climate progress. Ten thousand public order officers will be deployed in Glasgow to police demonstrators.