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COP26: All you need to know about the climate change summit

The climate conference, which begins today in Glasgow, has been billed as a ‘make-or-break’ summit. Here’s your guide to what’s at stake

A climate activist at Glasgow.
A climate activist at Glasgow. (AFP)

Delayed by a year due to covid-19, the crucial international climate summit, the COP26, gets underway today at Glasgow, Scotland. Billed as a make-or-break summit, what’s at stake here is the global effort to halt climate change by formulating a pathway to halt planet-heating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Held under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the COP26 (COP stands for Conference of Parties, member nations of the UNFCCC) is going to be the most important meeting of nations since the landmark Paris 2015 climate summit (COP21).

These summits are held every year, and the Glasgow conference was slated for 2020, but had to be postponed by a year due to the pandemic. Deliberations at the Glasgow summit, which will last till 12 November, have taken on great importance due to two main reasons. The UN’s climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has come out with a series of reports stating clearly that there needs to be drastic action this decade to cut emissions if the world for the world to stand any chance of limiting climate change to manageable levels. For this to happen, nations need to show greater ambition to cut domestic emissions, and COP26 is being seen as a final chance for countries, especially big polluters like the US, UK, China and the EU, to show that genuine progress is being made, beyond just rhetoric. The Paris Agreement contained a ‘ratchet’ mechanism, by way of which, every 5 years, nations would have to increase the ambitions of their voluntary nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to cut emissions. This aspect of the agreement will be sorely tested this year.

Also Read: Which countries, blocs are major players at the COP26 summit?

Another important goal of the summit is for rich, developed nations to begin delivering on climate finance. According to an agreement reached at the Copenhagen COP in 2009, developed nations have to pay $100 billion a year, starting 2020, to developing countries in order for the latter to deal with climate-related challenges. These include adapting to temperature and weather extremes, making the transition away from fossil fuels such as coal and oil to renewable energy (RE), and providing a boost to new clean energy technologies. 

The UNFCCC is predicated on the concept that nations have a common, but differentiated responsibility (CDR) when it comes to cutting emissions. This depends on historical emissions. For example, India is currently the third major emitter of GHGs after the US and China. However, historically, India has contributed only about 4% to total planetary emissions since the 1850s. So while India needs to cut emissions at a steady rate, developed nations need to do so at an even more drastically.   

Also Read: Can this small carbon capture innovation make a big difference?

The 1.5 degree goal    

According to a UN report on the state of current national NDCs, published on 16 September, the world is on course to heat up by 2.7 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100. This would be calamitous, as the Paris Agreement seeks to limit temperature rise to at least 2 degree Celsius by 2100, and preferably 1.5 degree Celsius. The world has already heated up by 1.1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial times, and the results of this on the planet are already quite scary. Each year, these days, global average temperatures are higher than the previous year, and the number and intensity of extreme floods, droughts, storms and wildfires are increasing around the world. The planet’s ice and snow cover, whether in the Arctic Circle or in the Himalaya, is melting at an alarming rate. 

According to the IPCC, a warming of 1.5 degree Celsius is barely in the safe zone. A warming of 2 degrees will see global hunger, water stress and poverty skyrocket as the planet’s biodiversity collapses. Heat related deaths will rise twice as much with 2 degrees of warming, while 420 million more people, compared to the present, will be exposed to extreme heatwaves more frequently. Rainforests like the Amazon, already ravaged annually by wildfires, may not survive, nor would Himalayan glaciers or coral reefs. 8% of vertebrates, 16% of plants and 16% of insect species would lose their habitats, while sea levels around the world rise at alarming levels. Cities like Mumbai and Kolkata could be submerged for large parts of the year by 2050.

Also Read: Greenhouse gas concentrations hit a new record in 2020

A 2.7 degree Celsius warming would be even more catastrophic, and at such heated levels, other planetary tipping points would be crossed. This would result in runaway climate change, and the science models for those scenarios are apocalyptic in scale. Current NDCs, therefore, are simply not good enough. For the world to reach the 1.5 degree Celsius target, global emissions need to come down by 45% by 2030, and cease altogether by 2050. At current levels, according to the UN, emissions will actually rise by 16% by 2030. Time is of the essence, and decisions made at COP26 will go a long way to determining the planet’s trajectory.

The politics of climate negotiations

Many developed nations including the US, UK, the EU countries, Australia and others have recently come out with net zero targets: setting a year when those nations’ carbon emissions would be so low so as to not matter. For most of these nations, the net zero target year is around 2050. For China, this is around 2060. So far, India has refrained from setting a net zero target for itself, and has criticised pressure to announce such a date. 

Also Read: Health problems due to global warming to intensify in future

For many developing nations, there’s a degree of cynicism about the net zero targets of developed economies. This is primarily because such pledges haven’t been backed up by policy decisions. US President Joe Biden, who is keen to re-assert American leadership on climate action, hasn’t yet managed to get the US Senate to ratify many of his ambitious climate plans, some of which face opposition from members of his own party. The US is also going ahead with several controversial domestic oil pipelines, and is also set to auction 80m acres of the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling. Meanwhile, during the UK’s recent annual budget, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak cut taxes on fuel and flying, encouraging more people to take short-haul flights. The EU voted last month to prolong subsidies for natural gas pipelines till 2027. Such actions do not inspire confidence.

India’s Finance Minister Bhupender Yadav has questioned net zero pledges, calling them insufficient in themselves to halt climate change. Speaking to Hindustan Times on 29 October, he said, “Climate crisis mitigation is a common goal for all countries but every country’s social, economic, and geographic circumstances are different. We are not on the same level playing field. I think our mitigation targets can be similar only when technological innovation and finance is made available to all. Vulnerable countries need to be supported on priority.”  

Also Read: UN says world fossil fuel plans will overshoot climate goals

With regards to climate finance, a recent estimate by the intergovernmental group Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) put the funds currently available from rich countries to just $80 billion. According to the OECD, developing countries can expect about $97 billion in climate finance in 2022 and $106 billion in 2023. Expect this to be a major sticking point at the COP.

What experts say

Speaking to Lounge, Arunabha Ghosh, CEO of climate policy group Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), points out that for this decade is to be a decisive one for climate change mitigation, three things need to happen. These are a large scale deployment of RE, bringing the energy transition closer to people for political sustainability, and deployment of resources for developing new technologies. “Unless a lot more investment starts flowing to the emerging economies, we will not be able to accelerate the deployment of technologies that are available but are not getting deployed in the very places where energy demand and electricity demand is growing,” he says.

Also Read: How India can achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2070

Ghosh’s biggest fear is that a deal on finance will not work out at COP26. “I know there’s the 100 billion announcement to come, but if our biggest victory is getting a statement around getting a 100 billion dollars, for me that’s a very low bar. That is the floor, not the ceiling (of climate finance investments),” he says. Ghosh also feels that developing economies may not accept 2050 as a net zero target year for themselves. And that’s because they have seen industrialised nations not do much to rein in their own fossil fuel-based economies. A CEEW report released earlier in October analysed various timeframes for India to reach net zero emissions. The most likely year, depending on current technologies and discounting yet-to-be-developed carbon capture technologies, was stated to be 2070. 

Ghosh says that only so much can be predicted fifty years into the future, but that “this is our best estimate, based on best available technologies today. And that is still just 10 years after what China has committed. Although China’s economy is five times India’s size.” He says that even if developing nations like India fully decarbonise later than 2050, for them, the gap between peak emissions and zero emissions will be much shorter than for developed countries. 

Also Read: Why Greta Thunberg is right to be angry

He says that he hopes that COP26 at least sets out a clear pathway through the coming decade. “Even if we don’t get answers on each of these elements, on de-risking, on driving livelihoods, on driving new research and development, at least can we have a clear acknowledgement that that is what it will take,” he says. He adds that the current narratives of greater ambition versus greater resources for developing nations need to change. “One narrative is that the only way to save the planet is to raise ambition for the long term. And another narrative is that the only way to save the planet is to deliver resources for existing commitments. Neither is sufficient. We have to bridge the two.”

For Ulka Kelkar, Director, Climate Program, WRI India, the main fear is that in the absence of big banner announcements, belief in international solidarity may waver. “The biggest fear I have is that there will be so much cynicism and despair at the lack of rapid progress that the entire process collapses. That the multilateral process that we have under the UN framework, which is very important for a problem like climate change, people feel that it has stopped working,” she says. 

Also Read: Amitav Ghosh explores the hidden history of climate change

Kelkar says she firmly believes that mitigation is a process, and that no COP can be seen as a ‘make-or-break’ summit. “But certainly the ‘ongoing process’ school of thought can give you a false sense of comfort, as if you have all the time in the world. And we don’t. Recent events, recent studies have shown that we’re running out of time. So we don’t have the luxury of saying that this is an ongoing process and the rules will get made and countries will follow what they pledged,” she says. 

Kelkar is looking forward to carbon trading rules getting finalised at the COP26, one of pending agendas from previous summits. “It’s helpful for these rules to be finalised. You have to have common rules across the world. I am definitely interested in that because for a country like India it will be very useful to have those rules finalised,” she says. 

Also Read: How do you measure your carbon footprint?

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