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5 things to know about the big climate conference in Glasgow

Why the last week of the COP26 climate change negotiations is so critical.

The Glasgow Actions Team activists dressed as world leaders sit on a raft in the Forth and Clyde canal on November 09, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland
Climate activists dressed as world leaders protest on the River Clyde outside the COP26 venue in Glasgow on November 9.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

A climate conference that will help determine how hot the planet gets is approaching its final days in Glasgow, Scotland. The United Nations climate change conference, known as COP26, has already been one of the buzziest meetings of its kind.

During the first week of the two-week conference, world leaders promoted their efforts to limit greenhouse gases and expand renewable energy. India joined the world’s other largest greenhouse gas emitters — China, the United States, and the European Union — in committing to net-zero emissions targets. Countries have also made major announcements on coal, deforestation, and financial aid for slowing and adapting to climate change.

Then the heads of state departed, leaving negotiators to a second week of hammering out each country’s strategy for meeting their daunting goals. The talks happening through Friday could determine whether countries live up to their promises or fall desperately short of what’s needed to prevent runaway warming.

“We have not done nearly enough to address this crisis,” former US President Barack Obama told COP26 attendees on Monday. “We are going to have to do more. Whether that happens or not to a large degree is going to depend on you.”

The discussions are often weedy and fraught, and they must find common ground between rich countries and poor countries, between oil exporters and island nations threatened by rising seas. The most difficult issues tend to involve money — who pays, how much, and to whom. But some experts say that countries are making progress, spurred in part by pressure from activists outside the conference and the unmistakable consequences of climate change rippling throughout the world. If you’re just tuning in, here’s what you need to know to get up to speed.

What is COP26 and why does it matter?

The 26th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, as COP26 is officially called, is the latest in a series of nearly annual meetings where countries try to overcome their differences and rise to the challenge of climate change. This year’s meeting was originally scheduled for 2020 but was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Climate disasters are getting more extreme and more frequent, and the atmosphere doesn’t care where greenhouse gases come from — they trap heat and warm the world regardless of who emits them. So every country and community has a stake in the outcome and an obligation to work toward a solution.

International conferences are opportunities for major progress in limiting climate change. Of course, when nearly 200 governments get together — geopolitical rivals, fossil fuel-dependent economies, developing countries, wealthy governments — the disagreements can be fierce, and often make for a slow and frustrating process.

What’s the goal of the conference?

The overarching goal is to get the world committed to a downward slope in total greenhouse gas emissions. Negotiators want to nail down details of adhering to the Paris climate agreement, secure $100 billion in international climate financing, and come up with a framework to help countries adapt to unavoidable changes in the climate.

The Paris Agreement was signed six years ago at COP21. In theory, it is a binding treaty, but it allows member states to set their own targets for limiting emissions. Signatories agreed to limit global warming this century to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures, with a higher target of staying below 1.5°C.

When countries signed the Paris Agreement, their pledges were nowhere near enough to meet these goals. Global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise since 2015 and the planet has already warmed up by roughly 1.1°C on average. Scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in 2018 that in order to meet the 1.5°C target, the world would have to cut current greenhouse gas emissions by at least half by 2030. That’s adding to the urgency of the proceedings at COP26.

A core idea of the Paris Agreement was that countries would ramp up their goals over time, as technologies improve and countries build up political support for more aggressive action. COP26 is the first big test of this idea: Countries were supposed to come to the table with greater ambitions to fight climate change, laid out in plans known as nationally determined contributions.

There are other climate-related issues on the table at COP26 as well, though they aren’t strictly part of the Paris Agreement. Negotiators are working on ways to finance the transition to clean energy in developing countries. They are also discussing how countries bearing some of the worst consequences of climate change right now, many of which are not major greenhouse-gas emitters, should be compensated for the damages they face.

COP26 is a critical part of the global effort against climate change, especially as the window for avoiding some of the worst effects of warming starts to close.

What’s happened so far?

COP26 spurred major climate developments both before and during the meeting. The United States, after officially withdrawing from the Paris Agreement last year, was eager to come to the table in Glasgow with a strong hand. As the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, the US announced in April that it would increase its target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The new target is cutting emissions in half by 2030 relative to 2005 levels, and reaching net-zero by 2050, a target meant to be “a key milestone” on the road to COP26.

President Joe Biden was also keen to have a pair of bills in hand that would put more money behind his climate goals. Congress did pass a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal that would fund some climate mitigation and resilience work, during the first week of COP26. However, lawmakers are still negotiating the Build Back Better plan that would allocate even more money to slowing climate change.

Having the world’s largest economy committed to a more aggressive target likely spurred other countries to step up too, but without money behind it, the US is in a weaker position to press other countries to do more at the table.

Other countries have also strengthened their climate goals. India, the world’s third-largest emitter, made a surprise announcement that it is aiming for net-zero emissions by 2070. Previously, India was reluctant to declare a target at all.

So far, at least 140 countries representing nearly 60 percent of global greenhouse gas output have agreed to increase their pledges.

This could have a big impact. Before COP26, the world’s pledges tracked toward 2.7°C of warming by the end of the century, according to the Emissions Gap Report from the United Nations Environment Programme published in October. In light of the pledges made at COP26, the group revised their estimate, finding the new targets would put the world on course for 1.9°C to 2.1°C of warming. That may not sound like much, but small shifts in average temperatures lead to larger shifts in extremes. A once-per-decade heat wave becomes four times more likely at 1.5°C and 5.6 times more likely at 2°C, for example.

But of course, what countries say they will do and what they actually do can be very different. “I think that a pledge is a good start, However, we are more looking closely at implementation,” said Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner, climate envoy for the Marshall Islands, during a panel discussion on Monday. “That’s where we will really be holding the larger states accountable for how they will deliver on these commitments.”

Other major announcements at COP26 include:

Methane cuts — More than 100 countries, including the US, Japan, and members of the European Union, signed on to the Global Methane Pledge and promised to cut their methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. These countries account for half of global methane emissions.

Methane is the dominant component of natural gas and a byproduct of landfills and agriculture. Over 100 years, it’s about 30 times as powerful as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, so reducing methane emissions has huge and immediate benefits for the climate.

Ending deforestation — Leaders of more than 100 countries, whose lands include 85 percent of the world’s forests, pledged to end deforestation by 2030 as well as provide close to $20 billion in public and private support for the endeavor. The list of signatories includes Russia, Brazil, the US, and the United Kingdom.

Vegetation in forests absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it grows, while also regulating regional climates.

Halting coal financing Burning coal to make electricity spews out about one-third of humanity’s global greenhouse gas emissions. Some of the largest growth in coal power consumption is occurring in developing countries, often backed by banks in wealthier countries. Japan, South Korea, China, and 22 other countries agreed to end their financing of coal power in other countries.

Ending coal consumption At least 40 countries have now committed to ending their use of coal power. This includes five of the top 20 coal users in the world.

“Today, I think we can say that the end of coal is in sight,” said Alok Sharma, president of COP26, on November 4. But the list notably does not include China and India, which account for two-thirds of global coal consumption. The US and Australia, both major coal producers, did not sign on.

Again, these are all just pledges, and it remains to be seen how they will be put into action.

What’s on the table this week?

COP26 officials put out a list of “possible elements” that could end up in a final agreement at the end of the meeting. One of the most significant points is the “Urgency of action to keep 1.5 alive.”

While the Paris Agreement aimed to limit warming to 2°C , its secondary target of 1.5°C has now become the de facto target for some countries at COP26, particularly those that are most vulnerable to climate change. Remember: Small changes in averages lead to big changes in extremes. At 1.5°C, major ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica will likely stay intact, while at 2°C they will likely collapse. At 1.5°C, 70 percent of the world’s coral reefs may be lost, but at 2°C of warming, the losses surge to 99 percent.

The more warming there is, the worse the human and economic consequences for the world, warn reports from numerous scientific agencies like the IPCC. Conversely, that means the more that’s done to avoid warming, the greater the benefits for everyone.

The problem is that heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide can linger in the atmosphere for centuries, and getting on course for 1.5°C requires aggressive cuts in emissions right away. While 137 countries have set net-zero emissions targets by the middle of the century, negotiators are debating their goals for 2025. These near-term goals could make or break their longer-term targets.

One tension at the conference is transparency. Some countries are reluctant to disclose details about their emissions and open themselves up to scrutiny and blame for their part in climate change.

Negotiators are also working on finalizing rules for how countries can trade emissions credits across borders to meet their climate targets. The rules around international carbon markets, which were hotly debated in past meetings, may finally get nailed down at COP26. Still, it’s poised to be a slog. “I’m not going to say it’s going to be an easy win,” Jennifer Tollmann, a senior policy adviser at E3G, a think tank, told reporters on Tuesday.

There is also the ever-present issue of money. Many countries facing the impacts of climate change right now say the wealthier countries that produced the most historical emissions should help pay for losses and damages. They want an agreement in writing that they’ll get support, but wealthy countries are resistant to any wording that hints at any obligation or liability on their part.

As for the impacts of climate change that lie ahead, countries continue to fall short. Twelve years ago at COP15 in Copenhagen, countries agreed to pool $100 billion per year by 2020 to help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. That funding target was missed and may not be reached until 2023.

It’s still not clear whether all these issues will be resolved by the end of the meeting on Friday, and the summit may go long. Negotiators may punt yet again on some of the more contentious issues, arguing that no deal is better than a bad deal.

What happens if COP26 doesn’t meet its goals?

There’s a lot riding on this meeting, but it wouldn’t be the first international gathering built on high hopes that dragged on without delivering conclusive results. Some discussion items may get shifted to the agenda for the next COP, likely to be held in Egypt next year.

The good news is COP meetings aren’t the only kind of global climate action, as was evident in the past four years. When the US began withdrawing from the Paris Agreement under former President Donald Trump, cities and local governments set their own climate goals. Many companies have also committed to zeroing out their contributions to climate change.

Even after Trump left office, some of that momentum has strengthened. Nearly 20 percent of the world’s largest publicly traded companies have set net-zero emissions targets, for example.

Countries have also set up bilateral and multilateral climate agreements to curb emissions, with pairs or small groups of countries teaming up to share resources, finance clean energy, and trade carbon credits. Cities and countries are also pursuing climate change tactics on their own, for example by phasing out gasoline-powered vehicles. Renewable energy sources like wind and solar power are getting even cheaper, giving them an advantage to fossil fuels in many markets. And some governments have concluded that the costs of leaving climate change unchecked far exceed the costs of reducing emissions.

But COP26 is a unique moment to get governments in the same room, and it holds the potential for major changes in how the world addresses climate change. A meeting like this may be ill-suited to the task of tackling an urgent global crisis, yet it’s an important opportunity to commit governments to a better course.

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