On Sunday the curtains will rise on the Cop26 climate change conference in Glasgow. It is neither our last best chance to tackle climate change – as some suggest – nor just another talking shop. It will bring high-level political attention as well as media focus to the climate crisis, but will also make clear the gap between what we need to do and what we have achieved so far.
The need to take transformative action to combat the climate crisis has never been clearer. We have seen unprecedented weather extremes across the world this year, from flooding in Germany and China, to forest fires in the US Pacific northwest. For those of us living in the developed world, climate change is no longer a far-away problem in space or time. It is here and now.
But this is just a taste of what vulnerable communities on the front lines of climate change in developing countries have been experiencing for years. At the heart of the climate crisis is a deep injustice: those least responsible for causing climate change through greenhouse gas emissions are on the front lines of the impacts of the climate crisis. This tension between rich and poor countries will loom large over the Glasgow conference.
The latest scientific report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in August, presented the danger we face in the starkest terms yet. It was described as a code red for humanity by UN secretary-general António Guterres. Urgent and transformative change is required, and yet global emissions of greenhouse gases have continued to rise inexorably.
What should we expect of the Glasgow summit? This is the 26th such gathering – the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Each year, the annual UN climate gathering brings together representatives of governments, business and civil society.
In some respects, it is a talking shop. But talking matters. These annual conferences provide a forum for negotiations among representatives of the governments of the world. It provides a context within which countries can make reciprocal pledges of climate action. This is important for a collective action problem like climate change, where countries want to know that they are not going it alone.
Perhaps more importantly, the annual UN climate conferences draw the attention of world leaders, civil society, business and wider society to the climate crisis. The world’s media will descend on Glasgow for the next two weeks and will bring much-needed public attention to climate change.
Cop26 will also shine a light on the inadequacy of our action to date and the need to ramp up both ambition but also, crucially, implementation. It provides an opportunity for civil society mobilisation around the need for stronger climate action.
The UK presidency has made the goal of “keeping 1.5 degrees alive” central to its agenda for Cop26. This is a reference to the Paris Agreement’s commitment to limit warming to well below 2 degrees, and if possible below 1.5 degrees.
Under the terms of the agreement, countries agreed to publicly declare their climate commitments through what are known as “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs). They agreed that, every five years, they would review and update these climate pledges. Last year’s deadline for updating these national climate pledges was pushed into this year because of the pandemic. This five-year review is a large part of what gives the Glasgow summit added political significance.
The UN Environment Programme has assessed these new national pledges. Its 2021 Emissions Gap Report, published earlier this week, indicated that if all currently announced climate pledges are implemented effectively, global heating will reach 2.7 degrees by the end of the 21st century – far above even the higher 2 degree goal.
Worryingly, it reported that less than half of the updated NDCs submitted in advance of the Glasgow conference are genuinely more ambitious than those submitted first time around. The report identified two gaps: an ambition gap and an implementation gap. Countries are not pledging strong enough targets, but they are also not doing enough to implement the targets they have pledged.
Whatever the outcome of the conference, the real work will begin when Cop26 delegates return home
This tells us that too few countries consider climate change to be core to their self-interest. In too many countries around the world, climate change has yet to assume the centrality and urgency it warrants in national policymaking. Too often, the debate emphasises the costs of climate action, underplaying or ignoring completely the costs of inaction as well as the benefits of transitioning away from fossil fuels.
Against this backdrop, Cop26 provides an opportunity to focus the attention of world leaders on the climate crisis. It gives civil society a focal point to pressure governments to live up to their obligations under the Paris Agreement. But if we frame Cop26 as the last best chance for change, we risk dooming it to failure before it has even commenced. Instead, we should see it as the latest staging post on the journey to a cleaner, more sustainable world.
Viewing Cop26 as our last chance also misunderstands the nature of the climate challenge. There is never a last chance, a cliff edge, or a point of no return. Every fraction of a degree of warming matters. Every tonne of greenhouse gas emitted matters. Every action we take – or don’t take – matters.
Whatever the outcome of the conference, the real work will begin when Cop26 delegates return home. Lofty targets announced in the glare of the world’s media are only as good as the subsequent efforts to implement them.
Dr Diarmuid Torney is an associate professor in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University and co-director of the DCU Centre for Climate & Society.