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COP26: 10 reasons why it’s an important moment in the climate change fight

COP26: 10 reasons why it’s an important moment in the climate change fight

COP26 will be another crucial moment for climate change negotiations. (Photo: iStock/piyaset)

BANGKOK: At the start of November, more than 100 world leaders are expected to descend on Glasgow in Scotland for the latest round of high-level talks to help address the challenges of climate change. 

Following the Paris Agreement in 2015, signatories pledged to increase their climate ambition every five years. Despite being delayed due to the pandemic, COP26 - which stands for “Conference of the Parties - is the moment for countries to plot their path towards reduced emissions and the ultimate target of a decarbonised planet.

If the meetings go to plan, they could trigger much greater momentum towards carbon net-zero in many parts of the world. 

Here are 10 important things that you need to know about COP26.

1. COP26 could be the last chance to limit global warming

While the Paris Agreement was a transformational treaty, setting a climate pathway for the vast majority of countries in the world, the details of what each nation would actually contribute to the cause can be updated as they go along.

Their pledges - known as “Nationally Determined Contributions” - back six years ago have been criticised as being incompatible with the plan to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In fact, those commitments would have resulted in 3 degrees Celsius of warming.

For COP26, the targets need to be updated and strengthened in order to keep the hopes of the Paris Agreement alive. Deep cuts are needed and soon. Legal mechanisms within the negotiations will help countries hold each other accountable.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that grim scenarios are down the line, depending on the pathways taken by governments and major polluters.

Negotiations will centre on more ambitious targets to reach by 2030, to avoid the globe reaching a tipping point, whereby future heat - and all the consequences of that - will be locked in. 

2. The UK will be setting the agenda with four main focus areas 

As the co-host (alongside Italy), the UK will be pushing for the conference to focus on “coal, cash, cars and trees”, according to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Mr Johnson said it was “time for humanity to grow up” and act decisively to save the planet, during a major speech to the UN General Assembly in September. 

That means a push for a timeline to stop the burning of coal and to reach an agreement to stop building new coal infrastructure, in order to consign the dirty fossil fuel to history.

COP26 President-Designate Alok Sharma said he also wants every country to arrive in Scotland with a clear climate adaptation plan, a much-overlooked aspect of targets, which have tended to focus on mitigation measures.

The UK wants a faster global shift to electric vehicles, an end to deforestation with supporting finance measures, rules for global carbon markets and the mobilisation of funds for developing nations, an area that has been neglected by the world’s wealthiest countries.

3. Some countries have set ambitious targets; others have not 

There has been a flurry of activity in recent months as countries announced improved targets bringing forward the year they would decarbonise by. Many are aiming for carbon neutrality, or net zero, by 2050. Malaysia, Laos and Australia are three countries in this region to make that pledge. 

But significant polluters like China, India, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia missed the July deadline to submit their updated goals. Others like Brazil, Mexico and Russia put forward targets that were the same or weaker than previous versions, according to Climate Action Tracker.

None of these targets are compulsory and there are no sanctions should countries fail to submit or fulfill them. 

It is expected that more countries will improve their pledges at COP26 during the leaders summit in the first few days of the conference. 

4. Developing nations pushing hard for more help 

Loss and damage is a crucial goal for poorer nations that are already bearing the brunt of climate change without causing it, nor having benefited from extensive industrial development. 

“Responsibilities have to be acknowledged and promised measures delivered”, a coalition of least developed nations demanded in a report ahead of COP26, calling for a solidarity package.

In the Paris Agreement, wealthy nations pledged to contribute US$100 billion annually by 2020, up to 2024, with at least half going to adaptation and that amount to increase beyond 2025. Overwhelmingly, this finance is not being mobilised and estimates are that much more finance needs to be made available.

Countries like Indonesia will continue to push for more international assistance, making their climate progress contingent on outside help. 

Some poorer nations also want their richer counterparts to bring forward their own net zero targets even sooner, to avoid using up what is referred to as the global carbon budget. This is the amount of CO2 that can still be emitted by the whole of humanity before the 1.5 degree target of the Paris Agreement is completely out of reach.

5. All eyes will be on China 

Coal is still overwhelmingly China’s biggest energy source. But President Xi Jinping is driving an energy transformation on the back of a massive planned rollout of different types of renewable energy infrastructure. 

The country is responsible for more than a quarter of global emissions and there is external pressure for its 2060 target for carbon neutrality to be brought forward. It also only plans to reach peak emissions at the end of this decade.

Domestic energy supply is an issue, however, and power shortages in recent months in strategic regions have caused contagion across the global economy. It could place pressure on the speed and scale of the clean energy transition.

Mr Xi is not expected to attend COP26 having not left his home country since the onset of the pandemic, but last month he announced that China would stop building new coal-fired projects overseas. 

6. Is this really the end of the line for coal?

China’s decision could result in other countries and companies doing the same. Experts say that coal is already on its last legs. International finance is drying up fast around the world for new projects, while those in the pipeline already risk being stranded in the future.

Japan and South Korea - who with China have accounted for 95 per cent of overseas coal financing since 2013 - have also pulled their support for international dirty energy generation, which include projects in Southeast Asia.

Globally, funding for new projects dropped in 2019 to the lowest levels seen in a decade. Yet still, Southeast Asia remains a holdout on the trend, contributing to the growth of a commodity fast reaching its expiry date.

Coal barons like Australia, Russia and Indonesia - and big consumers like India and China - are likely to still depend on the resource and many developing countries will continue to operate their plants for decades to come.

7. Methane will also be on the agenda 

The latest IPCC report gave more urgency to a push to limit methane emissions, which is the second biggest contributor to global warming behind carbon dioxide. Methane is much more intense when it comes to warming, however, causing 80 times more short-term impact compared to CO2.

The biggest sources are the agriculture industry, especially cattle, and the fossil fuel sector, where natural gas leaks can be common in countries like Russia and throughout Central Asia.

There’s no global commitment to cut back methane but advocates want action on it this decade, something likely to be raised at COP26. It is expected that dozens of countries will sign onto a US-EU led pact to cut methane emissions at the conference.

8. What is on Singapore’s agenda?

Singapore is likely to push for strengthened climate change consensus and cooperation at COP26.

Singapore only contributes about 0.1 per cent to global emissions. Currently, the government is aiming to halve its 2030 peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and to achieve net zero emissions as soon as viable in the second half of the century. 

The city state has limited alternative energy options and faces serious constraints compared to better-endowed countries on this front. 

The country might advocate for a decarbonisation agenda and look to promote solutions around renewable energy, carbon markets and new technology.

Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu, is expected to be involved in high-level talks to operationalise Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which covers cooperation among countries to meet their emissions reduction targets, including through international carbon markets.

9. Some big names will be attending 

Mr Xi will be a notable absentee after he decided to remain in China, where he has remained throughout the COVID-19 crisis. 

But some 120 national leaders are slated to appear, including Mr Johnson, Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo, Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, American president Joe Biden, French president Emmanuel Macron, South Korean president Moon Jae-in and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison.

But many leaders of heavily polluting nations are not attending in person, a potential blow to the negotiating aspirations of COP26. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro are not going and Japan’s Fumio Kishida has not been confirmed.

Other notable attendees include broadcaster and natural historian Sir David Attenborough, who has been named the COP26 People’s Advocate and will address world leaders. Queen Elizabeth, Prince William and Leonardo DiCaprio should also be there.

10. Still, lots of people want COP26 to be delayed 

This conference is being labelled one of the most inequitable in memory. Some attendees from the developing world, where climate change impacts are forecast to hit hardest, have criticised the decision to go ahead with it, given logistical difficulties, visa problems and economic pressures.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated problems of access to travel due to the uneven rollout of vaccines. Inflated prices for accommodation in Glasgow have made it even more financially challenging for some of the participants, despite some generous locals opening their homes to attendees.

Protests are expected throughout the conference too. But it will go ahead, with various social distancing and security measures in place, having been already delayed since last year.

Source: CNA/jb(aw)

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