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Opinion & Analysis

COP26: What difference will it make?

Photo by Oriental Image via Reuters

By Prof Daniella Tilbury

Few will have escaped the news that the Glasgow Climate Summit is under way. CoP26 as it is commonly known, was initially due to take place in November 2020 and was delayed as a result of the pandemic. For two years, governments have been mulling over the cost of cutting carbon and the complexity of transitioning to clean economies whilst their communities experience climate change first-hand and the consequences of delayed action.

Climate change disruption is coming and will affect all of us. In Gibraltar, observers have noted changes in weather patterns with marked increases in the intensity of storm and frequency of high wind events. The move to a two-season climate is also notable; this autumn many of us swapped our shorts for our jeans in a matter of days. The vulnerability of our ecosystems is also being tested and nature is noticeably adapting to changes. A decline in bird numbers and later migration patterns have been observed locally, for example. If your preference is for scientific data rather than anecdotal evidence then read the IPCC reports that point to the likelihood of Gibraltar, along with the rest of southwest Europe, experiencing a sea level rise and an increased risk of flooding over the coming decades.

As scientists continue to present these likely scenarios, social citizens return to the streets of major cities and celebrities to concert stages to remind us of the urgency for action. We have seen David Attenborough’s plea to world leaders to decarbonise, to innovate and set limits to protect the planet. This social activity is happening against a backdrop where emissions continue to rise even though the Paris Agreement to keep the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees celsius requires them to fall by 50%. It is therefore not surprising that Greta’s chant of ‘Blah Blah Blah’, that echoed through the conference halls of Milan some weeks ago may find some resonance with my colleagues who have been engaged with this agenda for some time. I am not of the same view.

I acknowledge that we are a long way away from getting to where we need to be but we have come far. My first CoP was in Copenhagen in 2009 and although the global effort to cut emissions continues to be slow and painful, we are no longer talking about abstract concepts or disputing the science. In the Paris Agreement there is global commitment and a tangible framework that can be used to fight climate change.

As we head into Glasgow, there is some clear evidence that world leaders have upped their game as we see tangible shifts in investments, meaningful contributions to the international agreed targets and support for the developing nations who are most vulnerable to climate change. I agree that we are certainly not there yet, and Glasgow will need to raise the scale of the ambition and pace of implementation, but much has happened since we all met at CoP25 in Madrid two years ago. The world is a different place with America re-joining the fold following Trump’s departure and the European Union bringing carbon commitments to the core of their economic plans. The Covid19 crisis has also sharpened minds with many nations aligning recovery measures with climate action. Nevertheless, the stakes are high, so do not take my word for it. If you want to know what difference the Glasgow meeting will make follow the CoP26 news and look out for movement or signals of progress, particularly in these two key areas:

Cutting emissions: All countries are expected to revise their national pledges in line with a 1.5 degree celsius target. The international media are drawing attention to the major emitters including India, China, Russia and Australia which are yet to declare. They are the ones to watch. Worth highlighting, however, is that the EU, the United States, and some other G20 countries have recently set fairly ambitious 2030 emission reductions. Japan for example, has formally committed to cut its emissions by 46%-50% below 2013 levels by 2030 and the UK’s 2030 emission reduction target certainly hits the mark.

Climate Finance: The success of CoP26 is likely to be measured but its agreements on climate finance for adaptation, loss and damage. Let me explain this in plainer terms. Wealthier countries have committed to financially support climate-vulnerable nations by helping them prepare for what is to come. Over the last decade, they have pledged to USD 100 billion per year; yet only 25% of climate finance is going towards adapting our infrastructure to be resilient to climate change. This figure has been the focus of much of the dialogues. Developing nations are pushing the agenda further seeking finance for ‘loss and damage’ that is, funds to rebuild communities given forced displacement, loss of agriculture and damage to homes and businesses. If successful, COP26 will have generated a road map on how to advance this and may even agree a separate stream of financing for loss and damage.

Key outcomes in the two areas above, in my view, will make a core difference to changing the direction of travel mapped and the scenarios outlined in the IPCC reports. Of course, there will be dialogues on energy generation and conservation, the scaling up of nature-based solutions, and the role of business and industry as well as the effectiveness of people engagement strategies but it is in climate finance where Glasgow is likely to break ground. In fact, there is a key initiative that is expected to cause waves called the ‘The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero’. Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England, chairs this Alliance that has identified ways of assessing financial flows, reporting risk management and returns to assess progress towards a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CoP26 will establish the International Finance Reporting Standards Foundation to push for the adoption of a net-zero standard for financial institutions. I know that colleagues working in the sector are waiting to see what emerges from this with bated breath.
There is also the matter of ‘Transparency and Timelines’. At present, it is difficult to judge or compare country contributions where there is inconsistency of carbon reporting or when reporting occurs against different timelines. Glasgow will require countries to agree on the reporting formats and the technicalities of reporting. This will help ensure we have accurate, consistent and comparable data key for accountability and assessing progress. How else are we expected to know if countries are meeting their targets?

The fact is that the detail of the negotiations is technical, dry and of little interest to non-specialists. This poses a challenge to tabloid journalists who find it hard to convey where success has been made and instead often opt to draw attention to where these meetings fall short. This leads me to making a prediction about this week’s coverage: as world leaders gather in Glasgow and the climate diplomacy reaches its peak (regardless of progress), expect more bleak headlines.

Prof Daniella Tilbury will be attending CoP26 as a formally accredited expert and member of the UK Government’s delegation. On November 5th, she will be moderating a high level inter-ministerial event opened by Alok Sharma, CoP President, and in which country commitments will be announced. She is currently HMGoG Commissioner for Sustainable Development and Future Generations.

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