COP26: World leaders in a race against time to save the planet

From today, November 1, until November 12, world leaders will gather in Glasgow, United Kingdom, for the 26th UN Climate Conference of the Parties, known as COP26. They will be hosted by Boris Johnson, British prime minister, who is hoping for a successful conference. Yet, despite warnings that the climate summit must deliver significant results […]

COP26: World leaders in a race against time to save the planet
COP26: World leaders in a race against time to save the planet

From today, November 1, until November 12, world leaders will gather in Glasgow, United Kingdom, for the 26th UN Climate Conference of the Parties, known as COP26. They will be hosted by Boris Johnson, British prime minister, who is hoping for a successful conference. Yet, despite warnings that the climate summit must deliver significant results to mitigate the devastating impacts of climate change, Prime Minister Johnson himself described the prospects of a successful summit as “touch and go”, hanging in the balance. But why?

Well, the first problem is that everyone who should be in Glasgow for the summit will not be there. President Xi Jinping of China and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, whose countries are, respectively, the world’s first and fourth biggest polluters will not physically attend the conference. In a summit, where face-to-face negotiations can make a difference, their absence puts a damper on the event. Symbolically, the fact that Her Majesty the Queen, aged 95, has to pull out of the conference after medical advice to rest also takes the shine off the summit.

But not all the big polluters will be physically absent. President Joe Biden of the United States, whose country is the world’s second biggest polluter, and who makes tackling climate change a key policy agenda, will be in Glasgow. So will Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, whose country is the third biggest polluter in the world. Well, Nigeria is the 27th biggest polluter out of 193 countries globally, and our president will personally be in Glasgow. Indeed, according to media reports, President Buhari is attending the COP26 summit with a large delegation of state governors, ministers and select government officials.

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Now, so far, I have focused on in-person attendance. But while that is important from the point of view of personal interactions, which are relevant in summitry, the most important thing is whether a leader makes ambitious or shallow climate pledges. A leader may not personally attend the conference but commit his or her country to strong pledges, while a leader may attend but make weak pledges. At the end of the day, it is the willingness of each country to commit itself to strong climate action that would determine whether the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels can be achieved. On that count, it is good and bad news!

The good news is that the science of climate change is now widely accepted. John Kerry, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate and former Secretary of State, said at the London School of Economics last week: “Let us be clear: the time for debating the cause of climate change is long over. The time for action is also long overdue. Needless to say, the stakes could not be higher”. Truth is, the science of climate change could not be clearer; climate change is real.

Another piece of good news is that more countries now accept the urgency of action to mitigate the impacts of climate change. For instance, just about three years ago, less than 30% of global GDP was signed up to net zero or carbon neutrality targets. Today, that figure is now over 80% – and rising. So, some countries are taking commitments to climate action, more specifically, to net zero, a key test of tackling climate change, seriously. Indeed, last week, Saudi Arabia, the world’s 14th biggest emitter, pledged to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2060. And last month, the UK, which commits itself to net zero legally, published its Net Zero Strategy, which sets out the action it would take, first, to cut emissions by at least 68% by 2030 and, then, to reach net zero by 2050.

But here’s the bad news: not every county is taking climate action seriously enough. For instance, the coal-dependent countries are simply not prioritising cutting emissions. Recently, the Financial Times published a report titled “China and India cast all over climate ambition ahead of COP26”. According to the report, the world’s first and third polluters “rejected calls to set new climate targets”. Although China committed itself to reach net zero by 2060, it really has no plans to wean itself off coal. Similarly, India is not in a hurry to reduce its dependence on coal. While some countries like the UK are closing down their coal and gas plants and increasing the renewable’s contribution to their energy mix, many others remain hooked on fossil fuels.

At the Paris climate conference in 2015, it was agreed that, in order to achieve the goal of limiting global temperature to 1.5 degrees, countries should set out their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), that is, their plans to reduce emissions across their entire economy. Every country is expected to update its NDC every five years. Last year, 2020, marked the end of the first of the five-year cycles, so every country should submit a revised NDC this year, ahead of COP 26.

Unfortunately, while some countries, such as the UK, have submitted ambitious revised NDCs, others have, more or less, stuck with their original 2015 NDC, unwilling to set ambitious new targets. For instance, Nigeria’s revised NDC, submitted to the UN on July 30 this year, simply repeats its 2015 commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% (unconditionally) and 47% (conditionally) by 2030, compared to BAU (Business as Usual), even though Nigeria’s GHG emissions grow by nearly 6% annually!

Unfortunately, while some countries, such as the UK, have submitted ambitious revised NDCs, others have, more or less, stuck with their original 2015 NDC, unwilling to set ambitious new targets

In a recent editorial, the Financial Times described this month’s climate summit in Glasgow as “a pivotal moment for the planet”. That is true because this is the decade of action. In order to limit temperatures to 1.5 degrees, net emissions must be halved by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. Given that there are two five-year cycles between now and 2030 and given that the NDCs submitted this year will last for the next five years, this month’s summit is the first hard-stop deadline to check whether we are on track to keep 1.5C alive. The levels of ambition shown in the NDCs submitted will determine whether real progress is being made towards limiting global temperature to 1.5 degrees.

But the omens are not good. Last week, the UN warned that global climate pledges are drastically off track and that emissions could increase by nearly a fifth by 2030, and rise to 2.7 degrees by 2100, if countries do not significantly raise their ambitions.

So, what are the plans for COP26? Well, the UK, which holds the COP26 Presidency, has set out four goals: mitigation, adaptation, finance and collaboration. The first is to put real pressure on countries to produce ambitious plans to cut emissions so as to keep 1.5C within reach. The second is to mobilise support for those already suffering from the devastating impacts of climate change, such as extreme heat, floods and wildfires, with measures such as improving early warning systems and flood defences. The third goal, finance, is intended to create the framework for raising public and private finance for tackling climate change, and to ensure the fulfilment of the developed countries’ pledge to mobilise $100bn every year in climate finance to support developing countries. The fourth goal is to finalise the rules needed to implement the Paris Agreement, called the “Paris Rulebook”.

At the Climate and Development Ministerial convened by UK COP26 Presidency on March 31, the ministers supported the goals. But, as discussed above, there is no guaranteed any of the goals will be achieved at COP26. That is because UN negotiations are consensus-based, and the likelihood is that there may be no consensus, particularly on the controversial issues of mitigation, finance and rules. If so, the urgent task of tackling climate change, of helping the planet, would suffer a devastating blow!