The United Nations will soon convene its 26th Climate Change Conference, COP-26, amid a global pandemic, a two-year hiatus, and the most alarming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report yet. It is also the first since the US re-entered the Paris Agreement. Expectations, always high, are now stratospheric.
Lest they topple the entire conference, these great expectations should be tempered by an understanding of its dual nature. These annual climate conferences contain a complex UN negotiating process, with lengthy agendas, difficult texts, and 197 governments pulling in different directions.
But they also provide a focal point for the world’s hopes and ambitions for combating climate change. For the latter, COP-26 presents nothing less than a global reckoning on climate action, as its political signals must re-energise the process of making the systems transitions needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
As a negotiating process, governments at COP-26 are tasked with completing the set of rules needed to operationalise the Paris Agreement. While most of the rules were completed in 2018, the technical rules for emissions trading markets remain particularly contentious. Most negotiators have not met in person for two years, and only a fraction of the usual preparatory work has been done. But negotiators must nonetheless get these rules right, so as to ensure robust accounting measures and real emissions reductions.
As a moment for global reckoning, COP-26 faces a much higher hurdle — it must deliver signs of hope to a worried, pandemic-weary world. The IPCC’s latest report released in August found “unequivocal” evidence that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land, that temperature has already risen by 1.07 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial levels, and that widespread, pervasive, and unprecedented impacts are in evidence across the world.
For sea-level rise, the findings are particularly sobering, with seas rising faster since 1900 than any preceding century in the last 3000 years, and a continued rise expected during the 21st century, possibly for millennia. This has profound existential implications for small island states and low-lying regions and the UN climate regime is not on track to avert such a catastrophe.
India, with both a high disaster risk level (with exposure to flooding, landslides, cyclones) and high socio-economic deprivation, will be on the front line for such climate change impacts.
Under the Paris Agreement, governments agreed that in 2020 they would update or resubmit their “nationally determined contributions”, known as NDCs, which spell out their national climate change plans. But the pandemic slowed the number of submissions to a trickle, and the plans submitted until a few weeks ago cover only 61 per cent of the global emissions. Some countries like Indonesia are yet to submit.
Brazil’s newly submitted plan now faces a court challenge for being insufficiently ambitious. India, on track to surpass its current contribution, will reportedly announce an updated plan during COP-26. The UN’s latest synthesis report concludes that if all these contributions are implemented, the total global GHG emission level in 2030 will be 15.9 per cent above the 2010 level.
But scientists with the IPCC predict that carbon dioxide emissions need to be 45 per cent below 2010 by 2030 and “net zero” by 2050 if we hope to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Another recent study, the 2021 UNEP Gap Report, estimates that current contributions will lead to a temperature increase of 2.7 degrees Celsius, a far cry from the Paris goal.
The much-needed course correction cannot happen without system-wide transitions across the world, which in turn require ambitious levels of finance and support for developing countries. The 2010 commitment by developed nations to mobilise US$100 billion per year by 2020 — a fraction of what is necessary — has yet to be realised. The UK, host of COP-26, released a “climate finance delivery plan” earlier this week, charting a course for delivery in 2023, three years behind schedule.
States have been far more ambitious in announcing their long-term “net zero” GHG and carbon dioxide emission reduction targets. Over 130 targets have been adopted so far, which if faithfully implemented, could limit global temperature rise to approximately 2.2 degrees Celsius.
There are, however, serious issues of credibility, accountability, and fairness at play. Short term contributions are seldom aligned with long-term net zero targets, and many presume extensive reliance on carbon removal technologies.
They also shift the burden of mitigation and removal to future generations, leading youth claimants to challenge governments in court over intergenerational unfairness. Earlier this year, the German Federal Constitutional Court directed the German government to strengthen its short-term climate actions so as not to place freedom- and rights-limiting burdens on future generations.
Intra-generational unfairness is also at stake, as long-term targets are demanded of all nations, regardless of their national circumstances, even though the Paris Agreement recognises that emissions will peak later in developing countries.
If COP-26 wants to provide inspiration, it must encourage countries to respect the Paris Agreement provisions on differentiated responsibility. Some countries will need to lower their emissions sooner than 2050 to create room for others, like India, to get there later.
UN Climate Conferences are always a high-stakes affair. But in the wake of a devastating global pandemic and ever more harrowing headlines of disastrous floods, fires and droughts, and the mounting human toll, the approaching conference feels like a moment of truth.
Perhaps more than ever, COP-26 should not only strive to tick items off its “to do” list and complete the Paris Rulebook, but also generate a clear sense of momentum and political will to put the world on track to deliver on the goals identified in Paris. It should seek to trigger significantly enhanced national action and financial commitments, and instill credibility, accountability, and fairness for net zero targets. In short, it must ensure the world still has a fighting chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 30, 2021 under the title ‘Climate of hope’. The writer is Professor of International Environmental Law, Oxford University & Visiting Professor, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi