The latest IPCC report shows that we are dangerously close to 1.5C already. Every fraction of a degree matters
The COP26 climate conference will be a clarifying moment, poised between global co-operation and competition. As one of the key French officials tasked with delivering a deal at COP21 in Paris in 2015, I can attest to the weight of expectations placed upon this year’s hosts, Italy and the United Kingdom.
The summit in Glasgow this November is by far the most fraught meeting of governments since Paris. Paradoxically, greater global integration continues alongside emerging fault lines, including the injustices of the Covid-19 pandemic and a growing desire for inward, nationalistic policies.
While global trade is on track to increase by 8% this year, after falling by 5.3% in 2020, the rollout of medical supplies along global supply chains has exposed deep sources of antagonism and rivalry. The issue of vaccine solidarity – compounded by wealthy countries earmarking trillions for their own economic recoveries – has seriously strained multilateral ties. COP26 is approaching under a cloud of tension.
This year’s conference will test the spirit of co-operation that emerged in Paris, where – after several abortive efforts – 196 governments adopted the historic Paris accord and made “net zero” a geopolitical reality. The agreement has since provided the organising principle for all climate action – one that nation states, regions, cities, businesses, investors, civil society, and individuals all had a voice in, and can all act upon. This was people-powered multilateralism at its best.
Six years later, we ought to be seeing a positive domino effect of bold pledges from states. Instead, we are watching a nervous game of poker. As with vaccines, wealthier countries are not sharing their wealth and technology.
Tellingly, the international community still has not met the Paris agreement’s target of $100bn per year for supporting climate investments in developing countries. This figure is a threshold, not an end goal: it is essential that we clear this hurdle for all parties at COP26 to know that wealthy countries mean business and are sincere in their solidarity.
Equally concerning is the absence of specifics for how G20 countries intend to meet abstract net-zero targets. Many remain fully locked into fossil fuels. Since these economies account for almost 80% of worldwide emissions, they must start including more concrete, comprehensive decarbonisation planning as part of their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris agreement.
The European Commission’s new Fit for 55 plan shows how this can be done in a detailed, sector-specific way. Unfortunately, the European Union is the exception. Everyone else is still playing poker, even as the room fills up with water.
Just this year, climate-driven disasters have struck Brazil, Canada, Madagascar, China, Germany, Russia, the United States, and many others. There is no need to recall every cataclysmic weather event, because it is already sufficient to say that the problem has broken beyond our readiness.
As climate modelling improves, the path to remaining within 1.5C of warming is narrowing before our eyes. In early August, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showed that we are dangerously close to 1.5C already. Every fraction of a degree matters. The differences between a 1.5C world and a 2C world would be dramatic.
When we were negotiating the Paris agreement, the preceding G20 gathering was similarly fraught – some might say disastrous. Many felt the COP21 was doomed to fail as a result. But after weeks of intense work and dialogue, the Paris summit managed to exceed most expectations, mine included.
How can the UK and Italy steer the talks toward another successful outcome? If the parallels with 2015 offer any indication, the key for this final “sprint” is to emphasise that no-one, and no single country, can tackle the climate crisis alone. Because every single party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has an equal say, any single signatory can cause negotiations to stumble. Good faith dialogue, concrete plans, and serious means to finance them are the only way forward.
There are some recent positive developments to build on. Earlier this year, South Korea and Japan – respectively the world’s second- and third-largest coal financiers after China – both pledged to end their public coal investments abroad.
But there are also clear areas where governments have more work to do. According to the International Energy Agency, staying on track for net-zero emissions by 2050 requires that no new coal, oil, or gas projects be started after 2021. That means all of the world’s largest emitters must immediately end coal investments abroad and clarify how they will phase out their own use of coal.
Only a sincere spirit of multilateralism can solve the imbalance at the heart of the climate crisis, the impacts of which are profoundly unfair. Countries that are hardly responsible for the problem’s escalation are the ones facing the most severe, often existential risks. Why would small island states negotiate themselves into submersion?
The Paris agreement was only possible because of its commitment to multilateralism, and this remains the best guide to ensuring its relevance. It is telling that soon after a G20 climate meeting delivered few tangible positives this year, the world’s Least Developed Countries issued a statement calling on their wealthier counterparts to “take responsibility.”
Sovereign, competitive impulses will always strain the space for cooperation. But within that space, there are ample opportunities to achieve positive-sum outcomes – in technological innovation and adoption, for example. These instincts are rooted in the national interest, and thus should be responsive to the fearsome, increasing prospect of overshooting 1.5C.
In this spirit, some concrete steps to defuse tensions at COP26 would include a dedicated item for meaningful discussions on “loss and damage,” while this summer’s ferocious weather events still loom large in everyone’s memory. The conference also must press the issue of financing for climate adaptation efforts as part of the broader drive to meet the minimum $100bn per year target. Finally, G20 countries that have not delivered their NDCs must do so as soon as possible, demonstrating that their policies are sufficient to keep the world on a 1.5C pathway.
G20 countries anxious to promote their role as climate leaders must listen carefully to the warnings from others, particularly those on the front lines. If we see momentum on these fronts between now and November, the UK and Italy could herald COP26 as a success, keeping the 1.5C goal in our sights. — Project Syndicate
l Laurence Tubiana, a former French ambassador to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is CEO of the European Climate Foundation and a professor at Sciences Po, Paris.