‘Coal, cars, cash and trees’: What to expect at COP26

The Glasgow climate talks, which begin in just over a month, will seek new commitments to cut methane emissions, dump coal power and finalise rules on global emissions trading. Here’s what you need to know.

COP26 president Alok Sharma has made intensive diplomatic efforts ahead of the Glasgow climate talks. Photograph: China News Service / Getty Images

Is 1.5°C warming within reach?

Hopes are that the combined pledges made to reduce emissions ahead of and during the conference will be enough to fend off the worst ravages of climate change. The Glasgow talks are critical as, under the Paris Agreement, every country signatory should update their emissions reduction targets (known as nationally determined contributions or NDCs) every five years. This cycle was due to complete in 2020, but the pandemic intervened and led to COP26 being pushed back a year.

The UK is calling on all countries to align their NDCs with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C warming goal and take concerted action to ensure their delivery.

As of last week, 113 of the 191 parties to the agreement have submitted new or updated NDCs, covering about half of global emissions. For this group, greenhouse gas emissions are expected to fall by 12% in 2030 compared to 2010 – “an important step towards the reductions identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which estimated that limiting global average temperature increases to 1.5C requires a reduction of CO2 emissions of 45% in 2030 or a 25% reduction by 2030 to limit warming to 2C,” said a statement from the UNFCCC, the United Nations’ climate secretariat.

Pressure to meet $100bn climate finance target

The statement added that a “sizeable number” of NDCs submitted from the developing world are conditional on receiving significant financial resources from rich countries.

Last week, prime minister Boris Johnson said that he was “increasingly frustrated” by how much has been raised to fund mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

Financial flows are supposed to hit a $100bn a year target five years ago, though it remains uncertain if this will be met. The current amount, put at $80bn by the OECD, “is nowhere near enough” he told the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate last Friday, convened by US president Joe Biden.

“$100bn is by lots of measures a lot of money, but as for what is needed for adaptation and mitigation, it’s a fraction” of the amount needed, which is in the trillions, said Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit communications and engagement lead Gareth Redmond-King.

The US’s attitude to climate aid has been a stumbling block towards raising more. At the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Biden announced that the US would provide over $11bn each year by the end of his term in 2024 – double a previous commitment to provide $5.7bn and quadruple Obama-era levels. However, achieving this requires congressional approval, expected to be tough to secure.

More on methane

At the forum, Johnson was one of the first world leaders to agree to sign up to the Global Methane Pledge, a promise to slash emissions of the potent greenhouse gas by 30% by the end of the decade. Led by the US and EU, it will be formally launched at COP26. Argentina, Indonesia, Italy and Mexico said they intended to make the pledge.

A statement from the European Commission said that reducing its release is “the single most effective strategy” to mitigate climate change. Delivering it globally should reduce global warming by around 0.2°C.

Measures to address methane emissions were among the first environmental policies put in place by Biden, including ordering the Environmental Protection Agency to draw up regulations to curtail methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. His administration is also setting new standards for landfills and incentivising emissions reduction efforts in agriculture.

Expect further such measures to be announced in the run up and during the conference.

Finalising the ‘Paris Rulebook’

The Paris Rulebook is a term that embraces all the aspects of the Paris Agreement beyond its headline climate target. This includes how countries account for emissions, trade emissions and the different expectations from rich and poor states.

Much of these have been signed off already, though there are some critical outstanding elements. These include accounting rules for trading between countries and between countries and businesses and whether NDCs should be revised every five or ten years. “The shorter the timeframe, the greater the chance that you are holding countries to their greatest ambition,” said Redmond-King.

Other elements include how poor countries should be compensated from loss and damage wrought by climate change, such as through droughts and wildfires. This is in addition to the $100bn for adaptation and mitigation.

An end to coal power put within sight

A combination of growing diplomatic pressure and the tumbling cost of renewables is making continued reliance on coal power – and especially building new power stations – an expensive bet.  

Expect more countries, regions and businesses to join the Powering Past Coal Alliance, founded by the UK and Canada. Twelve did so in June, among them Spain, Croatia and engineering consultancy Mott MacDonald, bringing the number of national governments planning to phase out coal power by 2030 within the EU and OECD, or by 2050 elsewhere.

China is the elephant in the room

There is still a big question over whether Chinese premier Xi Jinping will attend the conference, amid rising tensions caused by Beijing’s belligerent posture over Taiwan and the formation of the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) defence pact in response.

Nevertheless, COP26 president Alok Sharma reported “constructive discussions” with Chinese climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, at their first face-to-face meeting earlier this month. The country has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, reach peak emissions within this decade and reduce coal consumption. More detailed plans are anticipated before the conference opens, in line with the G20’s commitment to publish enhanced NDCs.

“The commitments president Xi has made over the last year are welcome and China’s pledge to tackle climate change as a shared mission for humanity is encouraging. The choices that China makes, on their energy mix, and on coal specifically, will shape our shared future. The question that remains is how fast they put these into action, along with other major emitters. I look forward to more detailed plans being published setting out how China’s targets will be met,” said Sharma.

Only this week, China pledged to end financial backing for their construction abroad, which experts have said buys the world around three months to meet the Paris Agreement’s climate target, though what it will do domestically remains uncertain.

Nevertheless, the announcement has left negotiators with more hope for success at the summit.

Phasing out petrol and diesel cars

The COP26 presidency wants the world to phase out the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2035, five years ahead of the UK. It is one aspect of the government’s mantra for the climate talks: “coal, cars, cash and trees”.

Biodiversity action is climate action

Curtailing deforestation and promoting ecological recovery is one of the central objectives of the UK’s COP26 presidency. Aligned with the goals of the forthcoming UN biodiversity talks in Kunming, China, there will be further calls to protecting and restoring ecosystems.

Expect further support for the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, which is seeking to protect 30% of the world’s lands, freshwater and oceans by 2030.

Further pressure to end fossil fuel projects

The government has called in the Cumbrian coal mine project and the Cambo oil field in the North Sea remains on the table. If either of them do go ahead, there will no doubt be diplomatic blowback: supporting further fossil fuel extraction while promoting emissions reduction could be dismissed as hypocritical.

Last week, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon called on Johnson to reconsider the new oilfield and others that have not yet gone into production. It is thought to host 170m barrels of oil – about 54m tonnes of CO2 when burned – at depths of around a kilometre west of the Shetland Islands.

“Such licences, some of them issued many years ago, should be reassessed in light of the severity of the climate emergency we now face, and against a compatibility checkpoint that is fully aligned with our climate change targets and obligations,” she wrote. But she stopped short of outright opposition, leading to Greenpeace UK branding her letter as no more than a “PR exercise”.

Themed days

The negotiations will be themed, focusing on a different topic each day. After kicking off with a high-level element, the World Leaders Summit on 1-2 November, the topics will be finance, energy, youth and public empowerment, nature, adaptation, gender/science and innovation, transport and finally, cities, regions and the built environment.

Scrutiny from civil society

Thousands of campaigners from around the world are expected to participate in COP26, heaping further pressure on the presidency team for success.

Joe Tetlow, senior political adviser at Green Alliance, set out four tests for its outcome: “delivering real progress towards the 1.5 degrees set out in the Paris Agreement, an enhanced domestic climate plan to get the UK on track for net zero carbon emissions by 2050, making good on the promises made to those at the frontline of the climate crisis and finally, connecting the nature and the climate crises together."

Plenty of action on the fringe

In all, around 30,000 formal delegates and official negotiators are expected to attend, making it the largest event the UK has hosted since the 2012 London Olympics.

But, like the party conferences and the Edinburgh Festival, what happens on the fringe can be just as important as what happens within the conference chamber itself.

There will undoubtedly be major decarbonisation announcements from businesses around the world, commitments by the finance industry not to fund fossil fuel extraction, and further donations for nature protection from the ultra-rich, as seen on the fringe of the UN General Assembly this week. A single Swiss billionaire donated $500m towards conservation projects on Tuesday, part of a record $5bn philanthropic pledge.

Scottish-focused conferences are being held on a green recovery, decarbonisation, renewables and the circular economy, with broader ones held in the second week. Meanwhile, a ‘People’s Summit for Climate Justice’ will be convened over 7-10th November 2021, preceded by a ‘Global Day of Action for Climate Justice