GLASGOW, Scotland: The president of the UN climate talks said on Tuesday (Nov 9) there was still a mountain to climb towards a goal of capping the global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius, as a research group said existing pledges would allow the Earth to warm far beyond that.
Britain's Alok Sharma told reporters that COP26 officials would soon publish the first draft of the so-called cover decision, which summarises the commitments of more than 190 countries, in a bid to focus minds in the three days remaining.
Climate activists and experts will pore over the document looking for items such as timelines to phase out public subsidies of fossil fuels, or provide long-promised funds to help poor countries tackle climate change.
These and a raft of other complex issues to be hammered out will determine whether the two-week Glasgow summit can succeed in keeping within reach the 1.5 degrees Celsius ceiling considered vital to avoid catastrophic climate consequences.
"We are making progress at COP26 but we still have a mountain to climb over the next few days," said Sharma.
The European Union's climate policy chief, Frans Timmermans, delivered a similarly blunt message, telling reporters, "the honest truth is we're not where we want to be, not even close".
The Climate Action Tracker (CAT) research group put a sobering number on the size of the task at hand, saying that all the national pledges submitted so far to cut greenhouse gases by 2030 would allow the Earth's temperature to rise 2.4 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels by 2100.
Scientists say 1.5 degrees Celsius - the aspirational goal set down in the 2015 Paris Agreement - is the most the Earth can afford to avoid an acceleration of the intense heat waves, droughts, storms, floods and crop failures it is already experiencing.
Underscoring the stakes for vulnerable nations, the tiny Pacific island of Tuvalu said it was looking at legal ways to keep ownership of its maritime zones and recognition as a state even if it is engulfed by rising seas.
"We're actually imagining a worst-case scenario where we are forced to relocate or our lands are submerged," its foreign minister, Simon Kofe, told Reuters.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who opened the COP26 eight days ago and attended the first two days, will return to the conference on Wednesday, his spokesperson said.
To meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal, the United Nations wants to achieve "net zero" - where no more greenhouse gases are emitted than can simultaneously be absorbed - by 2050.And it says that will be impossible unless emissions - mostly of carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil and gas - are cut 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030.
"Even with all new Glasgow pledges for 2030, we will emit roughly twice as much in 2030 as required for 1.5 degrees Celsius," CAT said.
China, the world's largest emitter, says it will achieve net zero only in 2060, the same year as major oil and gas producer Russia. India, another large-scale polluter, has a target date ten years later.
Moreover, CAT explicitly warned against assuming that longer-term "net zero" pledges would even be met, since most countries have not yet implemented the short-term policies or legislation needed.
"It's all very well for leaders to claim they have a net zero target, but if they have no plans as to how to get there, and their 2030 targets are as low as so many of them are, then frankly, these 'net zero' targets are just lip service to real climate action," said Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics, one of the organisations behind the CAT.
Sharma acknowledged as much, saying: "The world needs confidence that we will shift immediately into implementation, that the pledges made here will be delivered, and that the policies and investment will swiftly follow."
WEAK DEAL OR NO DEAL?
A key pillar of climate action is carbon pricing and trading - mechanisms that force polluters to pay a market price for their emissions, or pay others to offset them, by planting trees that bind carbon or investing in cleaner power.
COP26 is supposed to create a global framework for carbon pricing, but the problem has defeated the last two climate summits, and is in danger of proving insurmountable in Glasgow too.
"There's a higher chance of getting a deal this time, but it could be very weak," said Gilles Dufrasne, a policy officer with Carbon Market Watch. "Having no deal might hence be an acceptable outcome."
Many campaigners including Greenpeace oppose the use of carbon offsets under any circumstances, saying they lessen the incentives for polluters to change their habits, and risk paying for changes elsewhere that would have happened anyway.
"Net zero does not mean zero," warned Teresa Anderson, climate policy coordinator for ActionAid International. "In the majority of cases, these corporations ... are planning to carry on business as usual" for long periods, she added.
But some say things could be worse, noting how US President Joe Biden had promptly returned the world's second-biggest greenhouse gas emitter to the Paris Agreement, from which his predecessor Donald Trump had withdrawn, and pushed a US$555 billion climate package through Congress.
Democratic US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez underlined the more constructive US approach at the Glasgow conference on Tuesday.
"We're just here to say that we're not just back. We're different and we're more just. And we are more open-minded to questioning prior assumptions of what is politically possible," she said.