For months, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his aides have been raising expectations for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, which they are hosting in Glasgow. But heading into the two-week gathering they have been sounding far less confident.
In Rome at the G-20 summit Saturday, Johnson said the chances of a big enough agreement emerging from COP26, one really capable of containing global warming, were not much better than 50-50.
At the opening ceremony Monday of the critical climate-change talks, Johnson warned fellow leaders from nearly 200 countries that humanity has “long since run down the clock on climate change” and he cautioned that if we don't get serious today, “it will be too late for our children to do so tomorrow.”
Earlier his foreign secretary, Liz Truss, said there is no certainty anyone would see the action needed from global leaders. It is “touch and go,” she said, and there will be “really intense negotiations” between leaders over the coming days. The summit represents a “massive opportunity” to “hold these leaders to account,” she added.
A few months ago, Johnson, who by nature prefers the role of optimistic booster, appeared much cheerier about the prospects for COP26, talking breezily about how Britain will use the presidency of COP26 “to galvanize ambitious global action on climate change.” But British ministers and officials now admit it is uncertain whether Britain as host will be able to secure the deals adequate enough to curb irreversible climate change at COP26.
Under the Paris Agreement on climate change made at COP21, nations agreed on the need to limit warming to two degrees and ideally 1.5 above pre-industrial levels. It left them to develop their own action plans and to review them every five years.
At Glasgow, the summiteers will formally review the action plans and evaluate how successful they have been.
The review will almost certainly highlight nations have fallen far short of their commitments and goals and that sobering assessment is partly at root of Johnson’s uncharacteristic gloom on the eve of COP26, say British officials.
While noting whatever is agreed at Glasgow “will never be enough to satisfy climate activists,” The Times of London newspaper editorialized Sunday: “You can almost hear the thudding of expectations such is the vigor with which they are being lowered ahead of the COP26 climate summit.”
One source of worry is the absence of two key global leaders. President Xi Jinping of China, the leader of the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, isn’t attending in person. And neither will Vladimir Putin of Russia, another big polluter.
Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had been listed among the global leaders expected to speak at the conference Monday, pulled out at the last minute, traveling back to Turkey from the G-20 summit in Rome instead of heading to Glasgow, and giving no reason for his unscheduled return, according to Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu news agency. Later a dispute over security arrangements was cited by aides for his absence.
But the major source for alarm is the scale of the challenge and the huge scope of the action needed to be taken to curb the rise in temperature. “COP26 is a critical summit for global climate action,” says Anna Åberg, a research analyst at Britain’s Chatham House.
“To have a chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, global emissions must halve by 2030 and reach ‘net-zero’ by 2050. The 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report underscores it is still possible to achieve the 1.5-degree-target, but only if unprecedented action is taken now,” she adds.
She explains that the action plans countries submitted in 2015 were not ambitious enough to limit global warming. The signatories of the Paris Agreement are expected to submit at Glasgow new pledges. One of the main ‘benchmarks for success’ in Glasgow is that as many governments as possible submit new plans and “when put together, these are ambitious enough to put the world on track for ‘well below’ 2 degrees, preferably 1.5.”
Eighty-six countries along with the European Union’s 27 member states have submitted new action plans.
“A successful outcome in Glasgow also requires developed countries to honor a promise they made back in 2009 of mobilizing $100 billion per year by 2020 to support climate action in developing countries. The official figures for 2020 will not be available until 2022, but it is clear the goal was not met last year,” she says.
On this score — as well as other key issues — the G-20 summit of leaders held Saturday and Sunday in Rome did not prompt optimism. Leaders of poorer and smaller nations had hoped to see far more emerge from the Rome summit.
There was progress in terms of a significant pledge to reach net zero emissions by around the middle of the century but Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda and chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, remained disappointed. “From what I’ve seen it appears we are going to overshoot 1.5C. We are very concerned about that,” he told reporters.
Sonam Wangdi, chair of the Least Developed Countries group, said: “The progress is definitely not enough up to now. We are a long way from a 1.5C pathway. We need them to ramp up ambition.”
Climate activists and scientists say the Glasgow conference needs to see a commitment to large and fast reductions in methane emissions, too, and much more detailed planning for adaptation and resilience so countries, developed and developing, are better able to withstand climate shocks and extreme weather events.
COP26 will set the climate agenda for decades to come and much will hinge on the developed countries stepping up and ratcheting up their efforts. But in the meantime, the leaders of the richer nations are also facing a cash crunch and an energy crisis, both partly thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, and some economists have been warning that in the pledge-making rush, Western political leaders are making climate promises they are unlikely to be able to keep without major economic damage and electoral consequences.
The huge transformation that is going to be needed, and the large costs involved, most of which are likely to be shouldered by Western taxpayers and households, is a challenge for even the richest of countries to pull off. British economist Liam Halligan, among others, questions whether meeting ambitious climate action targets are possible without derailing economies already struggling to regain footing in the wake of a pandemic that has disrupted supply chains, roiled energy markets and boosted inflation.
Policymakers face a trade-off between the high upfront cost of moving quickly toward net zero carbon targets, and the long-term damage to economic growth caused by climate change, if they delay action, say analysts. Glasgow will likely highlight that dilemma.