Almost every country in the world signed the 2015 Paris climate agreement, a monumental accord that aimed to limit global warming. But it was forged on a contradiction: Every signatory agreed that everyone must do something to address the urgent threat of climate change, but no one at the time pledged to do enough.
In the years since the agreement, the emissions that trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere have continued to rise. Concentrations of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas emitted by humans, reached a record high of 419 parts per million in the atmosphere this year.
The Paris agreement aimed to limit global warming this century to less than 2 degrees Celsius, compared to temperatures before the Industrial Revolution, with a more optimistic goal of staying below 1.5°C. Both of these goals would require rapid and radical shifts away from fossil fuels — and eventually, zeroing out emissions of greenhouse gases entirely.
Signatories did agree that they would set more ambitious targets for themselves over time and eventually get on track to meet global climate goals. Whether they will actually do so is about to be tested over the next two weeks at COP26, the most important international climate conference in years.
“This is definitely the biggest [climate meeting] since Paris, and it has to be a turning point if we’re going to be successful,” said Helen Mountford, vice president for climate and economics at the World Resources Institute.
The COP26 meeting will take place in Glasgow, Scotland, between October 31 and November 12. More than 100 world leaders, including US President Joe Biden, are expected to attend a portion of the conference.
The world has already failed to meet many earlier targets, drawing the ire of climate activists. “Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah, blah, blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah,” Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg said in September. “Words that sound great but so far have not led to action.”
Some thorny issues that derailed past meetings, such as payments for developing countries that are living through climate disasters, remain unresolved. Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic, which delayed COP26 from its original dates in November 2020, is still claiming thousands of lives per day, leading to national lockdowns and disrupting trade. Even after a year of devastating hurricanes, heat waves, and wildfires, climate change may not be every country’s top priority.
But there’s no time to lose: The window for meeting the goals of the Paris agreement is closing. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2018 that staying below 1.5°C of warming required the world to roughly halve emissions from current levels by 2030. This year, the IPCC reported that the world is poised to miss this target even in the most optimistic scenarios they studied.
“Scientists tell us that this is the decisive decade,” Biden said in April. “This is the decade we must make decisions that will avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis.”
Some countries, seeing the brightening spotlight of COP26, have begun to announce more aggressive climate goals in the runup to the meeting. This week, the UK put out its road map for achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century. But the most scrutiny will fall on the world’s largest emitters — China, the US, and India — and whether they will take tangible steps to curb their pollution. Biden and the US delegation are now counting on Congress to pass a suite of climate policies to strengthen their hand at the negotiating table.
What’s on the agenda for COP26?
The Paris climate agreement aims to solve a global crisis, but its bureaucratic constraints have frustrated the process.
Joining the accord is voluntary, which means any signatory can leave if they want to, as the US did briefly last year. And even the countries that stay in have the freedom to set their own goals for cutting greenhouse gases. If they miss their targets, there is no penalty.
It may seem odd that an agreement to save the world from itself would have so few firm rules. However, the Paris agreement was the culmination of two decades of stalled diplomacy, and many countries shot down stronger language around binding greenhouse emissions targets, oversight, and punishments.
The Paris agreement is thus a delicate balancing act, accomplishing its goals mainly with nudges and incentives. It aims to steer everyone — developing countries, oil economies, regional rivals, island states threatened by sea level rise — toward a common objective, and that’s a very tall order.
Here are some of the key items on the agenda for COP26 (officially known as the 26th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change).
Getting countries to do more: Under the Paris agreement, every country is required to publish a climate change target and a route for getting there, or what’s called a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). The first round of NDCs put forward in 2015 were clearly inadequate, putting the world on course for roughly 2.7°C of warming by the end of the century.
Climate leaders hoped that in the runup to COP26, countries would roll out new commitments for the coming decade, as well as long-term strategies for eliminating emissions by the middle of the century. As of October 21, 114 countries and the European Union have submitted new NDCs. Some major emitters like the US, United Kingdom, and China have proposed or submitted stronger targets. But others, like Russia, Brazil, and Australia, did not meaningfully ramp up their goals. Still others like India have yet to submit a new NDC.
The leaders at COP26 will try to create carrots and sticks to motivate the laggards and holdouts to take more aggressive action. Many countries are now adamant that the limit for warming this century should be 1.5°C, now that many countries have already suffered the tolls of disasters worsened by climate change — a sign that 2°C of warming would be far worse.
According to the IPCC, the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C includes 2 extra inches of sea level rise, putting an extra 10 million people at risk of coastal flooding and related problems. Two degrees of warming would double the number of people exposed to extreme heat at least once every five years. This extra warming would also lead to greater declines in fisheries, crop production, and habitats for vital species like insect pollinators.
“Because of that new science, I think certainly in the climate community, 1.5°C de facto is now what everyone is talking about,” Mountford said.
Technology for cutting carbon out of the economy, like renewable energy, has also improved since the Paris agreement was signed. Some countries and many activists argue that a tougher target is essential to taking advantage of these improvements and that mitigation needs to begin right away.
This conference has to signal a “shift from making commitments to actually taking action,” said Marcene Mitchell, senior vice president of climate change at the World Wildlife Fund. Countries not only need to make bigger promises, Mitchell added, they need to match them with actual policies.
International carbon markets: One of the ways countries are aiming to meet their climate change goals is by pricing carbon dioxide emissions and creating accounting mechanisms for reducing them. That can take the form of credits or offsets that are traded with other countries. Under Article 6 of the Paris agreement, wealthier countries can compensate for their higher emissions by financing clean energy in developing countries or helping restore carbon-absorbing ecosystems like rainforests.
The trouble is that if these markets are not designed well, they may simply end up as a way for wealthier countries to buy their way out of reducing their own emissions. Without proper verification, the credits may not deliver the carbon reductions they promised. In past climate meetings, countries like the US, Australia, and Brazil pushed for language in these rules that would grant them more flexibility. However, most other countries found these provisions unacceptable because they would weaken the program. This issue forced several previous meetings to go over their allotted times. It remains unresolved and may not be settled at COP26.
Loss and damage: The core injustice of climate change is that the people who contributed least to the problem stand to suffer the most. Though not strictly part of the Paris agreement, a key part of the discussion at COP26 will be around how to compensate countries facing the impacts of climate change today, from rising sea levels eroding shores to more devastating extreme weather.
Securing this funding is a huge priority for many countries, particularly island countries and those with small economies. However, wealthier countries that have historically emitted the most greenhouse gases have resisted language that would force them to chip in and instead advocated softer language that would make these wealth transfers voluntary. And so far, countries have not made much progress in closing the gap. “It’s a contentious issue, it’s a big issue, it’s a complicated issue,” said Mitchell. “This is my own personal view: I don’t think that will get resolved here at this COP.”
Climate finance: It’s expensive to build resilience to climate change and shift from fossil fuels toward clean energy, particularly for developing countries. The UNFCCC created the Green Climate Fund in 2010 to finance these projects around the world with grants and loans. It includes programs like developing sustainable agriculture in Thailand and building cooling facilities for residents in countries like Bangladesh facing extreme heat.
Governments meeting at COP26 set a target of deploying $100 billion a year in international climate financing through programs like the Green Climate Fund by 2020. But so far, countries haven’t contributed enough to meet the target, falling short by $20 billion in 2018, the most recent estimate available.
More international climate financing would help drive down greenhouse gas emissions from developing countries and motivate them to set more ambitious goals. However, some countries now say that even $100 billion isn’t enough. A negotiator representing African countries, for example, told Reuters that international climate financing should be scaled up to $1.3 trillion by 2030.
All eyes are on the United States
The US has the dubious distinction of being the only country to complete a 360-degree turn on the Paris agreement. It helped convene the accord in 2015, yet former President Trump withdrew the US in 2020. President Biden signed an executive order in January to rejoin and the US was formally back in the Paris accord in February.
Since the US is the wealthiest country in the world and the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, it plays a prominent role in climate negotiations and has an even greater obligation to act on the crisis. At COP26, the US not only has to make up for lost time, it also has to rebuild trust with other countries and show that it’s willing to be more ambitious.
“There is this sense of exhaustion about how long is it going to take for one of the biggest emitters in the world to do its fair share,” Rachel Cleetus, the clean energy policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Vox’s Rebecca Leber earlier this month.
In April, Biden announced that the US was adopting a new climate goal: cutting emissions within the decade by 50 to 52 percent, compared to the US emissions peak in 2005. That’s a big step up from the previous target, which aimed for 26 to 28 percent reductions by 2025. US emissions have been declining since 2005, with a precipitous drop in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, greenhouse gases are already starting to rebound.
President Biden has already used some of his executive power to drive actions on climate change, like setting targets for electric vehicle production, limiting new oil and gas production on public lands, and pushing financial institutions to incorporate climate risk into their assessments.
But the fate of the largest parts of Biden’s climate agenda is in the hands of Congress, not the White House.
Democrats in Congress have been hurrying to put these plans into action with the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act. These bills, as originally written, could reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent over the next decade. With midterm elections looming next year, Democrats may not get another chance for years to advance major climate change legislation.
But the US delegation is arriving in Glasgow with a weaker hand than they had hoped for because the legislation is already being whittled down as Democrats are forced to compromise in the Senate.
The latest version of the budget resolution has been eroded from the $3.5 trillion initial scope to $1.75 trillion. It includes $555 billion in measures to address climate change, like tax breaks for clean energy and electric vehicles. However, it was stripped of programs like a fee on emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The Clean Electricity Payment Program, which would have paid power providers to meet clean energy standards, was removed as well.
The negotiations are still ongoing, so even these climate change measures are not guaranteed to go through. So while the US has enhanced its commitment to curb emissions, it has yet to match it with enough concrete action.
“For [the US] to have credibility and leadership, we need to not just come with a statement and commitment, but actually the money to pay for it,” Mitchell said.
What happens now, first in Congress and then in Glasgow, will help shape the ambitions of countries around the world as they meet the challenge of climate change. It’s not a stretch to say that the future of our planet as we know it is at stake.
Update October 29, 11 am: Updated to include the latest figures on measures addressing climate change in Democrats’ budget bill.