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What is happening at COP26?

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COUNTRIES’ CLIMATE ambition is currently not enough to meet the goals of the Paris agreement, to keep temperatures from rising by no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century (and preferably to 1.5°C). One solution is to increase the frequency of nationally determined contributions, the emissions-reduction plans that countries must submit to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which are currently required every five years. (Countries are allowed to update them more frequently if they wish.) The next round of NDCs is not expected until 2025, a timeframe that many think is too slow: at current emissions rates, half of the carbon budget that will take temperatures to 1.5°C will be used up in the next five years.

More than 100 mostly-developing countries at COP26—including the 44 members of the Alliance of Small Island States, 54 members of the Africa Group and 48 members of the Least Developed Countries, the world’s poorest—are now pushing for NDCs to be required annually. Shortening the cycle is seen as a way to ratchet up ambition much more quickly, and thus accelerate decarbonisation. But they will have to convince some powerful countries who favour the existing five year timescale, including Britain, the European Union and Saudi Arabia.

Headed for 2.4˚C warming | Day 10, November 9th
Has the Paris agreement put the world on track to curb global warming? Yes and no. On the one hand, the agreement’s mere existence and its requirement that governments regularly come back to the table has helped to improve projections of future warming. On the other, there is still a huge gap between what governments have promised and what is needed to limit global warming to 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels—and in many instances an equally large gap between what governments have promised to do and what they are currently able to deliver.

At the time the Paris agreement was being negotiated in 2015 , number crunchers predicted that all the political promises on the table amounted to roughly 2.7˚C of warming by 2100. Five years on, political pledges have evolved: they now include targets for cutting emissions before the decade is out and intentions to reach net-zero by mid-century.

In new results released today, Climate Action Tracker (CAT), a consortium of climate modellers, says that if governments implement their 2030 pledges but no more, this would limit warming by 2100 to roughly 2.4˚C. That is an improvement on 2015 projections but still a far cry from the Paris goals. If the modellers add in the various net-zero pledges, projected warming comes down to a possible 1.8˚C by 2100. Last week, the International Energy Agency announced similar results.

But the CAT modellers warn that buying into this narrative demands something of a leap of faith. “The problem is that not a single country has the short term policies in place to put itself on a trajectory to net zero,” says Niklas Höhne of NewClimate Institute, one of the CAT partner institutes. Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics, another CAT partner, adds that “there’s a nearly one degree gap between government current policies and their net zero goals”.

Halfway through | Day 9, November 8th
The second week of COP26 started with a focus on adaptation and “loss-and-damage”—two complementary topics that are both central to relations between poor countries and rich countries. Adaptation seeks to limit the damage done by climate change; loss and damage is about compensating the most vulnerable countries—which are typically responsible for very few emissions—for the harm climate change is already causing them, and for future damage to which they will not be able to adapt. This concept has been brought up in climate negotiations for decades, though it wasn’t until COP18 in Doha in 2012 that countries agreed to establish a formal mechanism, a position which was confirmed in the Paris agreement of 2015. That has not been achieved in the years since but it is a priority for developing countries at COP26. The organisers promise that the operation of the “Santiago Network”—which is meant to help countries make claims for damages—is one of the things that will be hashed out this week.

Establishing a mechanism for loss-and-damage financing is not the same as stumping up the cash it will need to function. Rich countries have historically been hesitant to commit because the total bill is likely to be so high. By 2030, the projected economic cost of climate damages in developing countries is projected to be between $290-580bn. Until last week, no rich country had offered up any money at all. Then on November 1st the Scottish government broke the ice with a symbolic, if in practical terms paltry, promise of £1m ($1.3m). Whether others will follow suit remains to be seen.

Wrapping up the week | Day 7, November 6th

The first week of COP26 ended with a day centred on “agriculture and land use”. But those wanting significantly more to be done to protect biodiversity—including a sizable faction of the tens of thousands of protestors marching through Glasgow in the driving rain—were probably disappointed. The main announcements concerned forestry and agriculture. For the first, the British government boasted about establishing a new “dialogue” between the governments that produce and consume the commodities that most drive deforestation (such as palm oil, beef and timber), but gave no indication of what it was meant to achieve.

For the second, 26 governments signed pledges to “repurpose” agriculture to make it more climate friendly or to “accelerate innovation” in the sector. (America and the United Arab Emirates claim they will mobilise $4bn of investment over the next five years in support of this.) Neither agreement includes any concrete goals or mentioned the meat and dairy industries, which produce more greenhouse-gas emissions than any other agricultural commodity. Elsewhere Alok Sharma, the summit’s president, summed up the negotiations that have occurred thus far, confirming that ministers still have a lot on their plates for next week, including financing for poor countries, timeframes for nationally determined contributions and global carbon markets.

Suffer the children | Day 6, November 5th

Friday November 5th was “youth and public empowerment” day at COP26, crammed with events designed to reach out across generations and boundaries of expertise. But their target audience was mostly to be found outside the venue. Several thousand protesters took to the streets of Glasgow as part of a “Fridays for Future” march. Though they were kept well away from the conference centre by police they were joined some of the conference’s stars, including Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swede who founded the movement, and Vanessa Nakate, a young activist from Uganda.

Both Ms Thunberg and Ms Nakate participated in the youth summit in Milan that preceded COP26 and sent recommendations to negotiators at the main conference. These included requests to concentrate on reducing inequalities and to involve young people in decision-making processes. The latter has been something of a sticking point in Glasgow: young activists (along with members of other environmental groups, particularly from developing countries) were invited to the conference as “observers”, meant to watch negotiations to make sure their concerns were being addressed. But almost all have been shut out of the relevant rooms because of covid-19 social distancing measures. Other protests during the week have included indigenous activists railing against carbon offsetting on their land and a march against “greenwashing” (the overselling of organisations’ and politicians’ environmental credentials). An even larger protest of up to 100,000 people is scheduled for Saturday.

Brazil’s green gloss | Day 6, November 5th

Jair Bolsonaro’s government has so far been a challenging participant in annual UN climate summits. At the last two summits Brazil’s negotiators have opposed consensus on the rules that might govern a UN-sanctioned international mechanism for trading carbon credits, provided for by Article 6 of the Paris agreement. As a result, this remains the last piece of the “Paris rulebook” that has yet to be operationalised. Mr Bolsonaro once seemed to relish his reputation as a pariah; he now seems keen to try to improve his reputation. In an attempt to look greener, last month the government announced two climate initiatives: a revamp of a low-carbon agriculture plan and a new green growth programme. In the last week, representatives have said the country would increase its target to cut emissions, to 50% by 2030 from their level in 2005 and reach net-zero by 2050 instead of 2060. But not everyone is convinced the turnabout is sincere or material. For starters, rampant deforestation in the Amazon meant that Brazil’s emissions grew 9.5% in 2020, compared to 2019, even as covid-19 caused world-wide emissions to fall by a whopping 7%. To find out why Brazil’s stance on climate is unlikely to change in spite of its slightly greener gloss, read our analysis in this week’s edition.

The coal shoulder | Day 5, November 4th

“Energy Day” on November 4th began with activists in inflatable “Pikachu” costumes campaigning against Japan’s coal industry across the river from the COP26 venue. Inside, leaders from more than 40 countries—plus businesses and financial institutions—announced a pledge committing themselves to phasing out coal power for good. (Sadly for the Pokemon, Japan is not among them. It has also not signed a separate pledge to stop funding foreign fossil-fuel projects, though it has said it will end financing for overseas coal plants.) Among the countries promising to stop the domestic use of coal for electricity are several that rely on it heavily, including Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Poland, South Korea, Ukraine and Vietnam. Richer countries have been encouraged to choose end dates in the 2030s; poorer ones in the 2040s (Poland is quibbling over which category it belongs in). Britain has promised to do away with coal by 2024. But it’s not all good news. Details of how the phase-outs will be achieved are sketchy and Japan is far from the only big hold-out. Others include America, Australia, India, Russia and the world’s biggest coal-user, China, which already committed to stop financing coal overseas but relies on it heavily for domestic power.

Blowing through the budget | Day 5, November 4th

Thursday morning saw COP—and the rest of the world—given a reality check in the form of the latest global carbon budget, an analysis of carbon-dioxide sources and sinks produced by a consortium of academics called the Global Carbon Project. Emissions from fossil fuels fell by 5.4% in 2020 when covid-19 hit the world economy; this year they are set to bounce back by 4.9%, thus almost returning to their pre-pandemic levels. Though emissions from oil, which saw the biggest drop in the pandemic, have not fully bounced back, emissions from coal and gas are both now above their pre-pandemic levels, as are emissions from China and India.

The report notes that 15 countries can now point to a decade-long stretch in which their economies have grown but the carbon-dioxide emissions associated with them have fallen. Those countries, which include America, Britain, France, Germany and Japan, account for about a quarter of global emissions.

Following the rainbow | Day 4, November 3rd

South Africa may provide a blueprint for how countries can be encouraged to move away from coal. It has signed a “Just Energy Transition Partnership” with America, Britain and the European Union under which it will receive $8.5bn in concessional funding and grants in return for phasing out coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. South Africa generates more than 90% of its electricity from coal, and is the 12th-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world. Other countries are seeking similar deals. Indonesia’s finance minister told Reuters on November 3rd that her country is prepared to close coal-fired power plants by 2040 (its previous target was 2056) if it receives sufficient financial help. Along with the Philippines (and perhaps Vietnam), Indonesia is also part of a new pilot scheme launched by the Asian Development Bank that is meant to encourage international investors to provide cash to allow the three countries to retire up to half of their coal-fired power plants in the next ten to 15 years. But observers have criticised the plan for lacking realistic detail.

Greenbacks | Day 4, November 3rd

Rishi Sunak, Britain’s chancellor, kicked off “finance day” with the announcement that the country will become the first “net-zero aligned financial centre”. That means that the government will “strengthen requirements” from 2023—but not yet make it mandatory—for all British financial institutions and all companies listed on the British stockmarket to publish plans explaining how they will decarbonise their operations, lending and investment, in line with Britain’s pledge to have a net-zero economy by 2050. Mr Sunak also announced that Britain would support a new capital-markets mechanism for green bonds, and put £100m ($136m) towards easing access for developing countries to climate financing.

Meanwhile, ​​the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, a coalition of financial firms, co-chaired by Mark Carney, a former governor of the Bank of England, published a progress report today. Their members, including banks, insurers and asset managers, hold assets worth roughly $130trn. They have committed themselves to lowering the emissions associated with their portfolios and loan books to net zero by mid-century. But green groups say this is too weak, and some observers worry that the targets will encourage financial firms simply to sell polluting assets rather than to try actually to reduce emissions in the companies they back.

The methane-too movement | Day 3, November 2nd

America and the European Union announced a global methane pledge which aims to cut anthropogenic emissions of the greenhouse gas responsible for more warming than any other save carbon dioxide. The cuts envisioned are of 30% by 2030, measured against 2020 levels. John Kerry, America’s climate envoy, said that more than 100 countries have now signed up to the long advertised and non-binding agreement. America and Canada said that they would introduce new regulations to cut the amount of methane emitted by their oil and gas industries. But China—the world’s largest emitter of methane—was not among them and nor were India or Russia; Russia’s gas industry leaks a lot of methane into the air. Other sources of methane include agriculture, particularly of cattle and rice, with more than 300m tonnes currently emitted each year as a result of human activities.

In recent years reducing emissions of methane and other so-called “short-term climate forcers” has been recognised as an increasingly important part of the fight against climate change. Though methane has a fairly brief life in the atmosphere, while it is up there it is an extremely potent greenhouse gas: a tonne of it causes 86 times more warming than the equivalent amount of CO2 in the 20 years after its emission. Cutting methane will have a rapid effect on temperatures.

The woods for the trees | Day 3, November 2nd

More than 100 world leaders also pledged to end deforestation by 2030 on November 2nd. Tree-laden countries signing up included Brazil, Canada and Russia. Some 85% of the world’s forests will be covered by the agreement. In return countries will receive $19bn-worth of funding (from both public and private sources). Deforestation is thought to account for around a quarter of greenhouse-gas emissions. The announcement was broadly celebrated, though several observers were wary, warning that similar pledges in the past failed to slow deforestation at all. The New York Declaration on Forests in 2014 saw many of the same countries pledge to reduce tropical deforestation by 50% by 2020: yet, by 2019, a review of the initiative found that the 2020 goal was probably impossible. Approximately 12.2m hectares of tropical forest were lost last year, a 12% increase from 2019, according to the University of Maryland. Forests play a crucial role in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere: during the 2000s tropical forests are estimated to have absorbed carbon equivalent to around a quarter of the carbon-dioxide emissions generated by human activity.

Late, but better than never | Day 2, November 1st

On Monday November 1st Narendra Modi, the prime minister, laid out India’s new climate pledges to COP26. After a long, philosophical preamble, Mr Modi suddenly shifted quite abruptly to a commitment-filled conclusion. He pledged that India would reach net-zero emissions by 2070; that by 2030 half the country’s electricity would be renewable (with low-emission capacity raised to 500GW, from 450GW); and that it would cut its carbon-dioxide emissions by 1bn tonnes by the same date. A commitment to reach net zero in 50 years puts India one decade behind China (which is aiming for 2060) and two behind the 2050 target committed to by many western countries and often spoken of by Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general. The IPCC—the UN body that collates scientific opinion on climate change—states that global emissions must reach net zero by around 2050 for it to remain even remotely possible for warming to be contained to no more than 1.5°C. But Indian officials believe it unfair to expect the country, which is heavily dependent on coal, to meet the 2050 goal given that its economy is still developing. Even the 2070 target will require vast amounts of investment: Mr Modi closed his speech with a demand for developed countries to provide $1trn to developing countries “as soon as possible”.

Bad beginnings | Day 1, October 31st

The UN climate summit got off to an inauspicious start on Sunday October 31st. The first tranche of 30,000 delegates gathered in the vast conference centre in Glasgow for COP26’s opening plenaries. At about the same time, some 2,500km to the south-east, leaders from the G20 club of mostly rich countries—which are collectively responsible for around 80% of current greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide—were wrapping up their own meeting in Rome. That summit was meant to galvanise international political leadership ahead of . It failed to do so. But G20 leaders promised to end overseas financing for coal projects, though it has already largely been curtailed after China, South Korea and Japan, which provide 95% of such funding, pledged to stop. They also promised to slash leaks of methane and recognised the “key relevance” of getting global net emissions to zero by mid-century but skirted round making 2050 the actual target for doing so. Last, they also promised to strengthen national plans to cut emissions “where necessary”.

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This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.