In the past few months, we have discussed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) dire warnings and the importance of rapid action on climate change. Now, climate is taking global center stage at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. This Conference of Parties (COP) is the 26th in a series of annual climate summits. COP26 was originally set for 2020, but was postponed due to COVID-19. Between Nov. 1 and Nov. 12, global leaders will work to accelerate action on the goals set by previous COP agreements.
This piece is the first in a two-part series detailing the road to COP26 and the outcomes that follow. In this article, we discuss the history of U.N. Climate Change Conferences, agreements that have shaped global action, and what we might expect from this 26th summit.
U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change
Though many have only recently realized the magnitude of climate change, scientists have sounded the alarm for decades. 1992 saw the first global climate treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), signed at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. The UNFCCC is the foundational platform for all of the COPs and their subsequent agreements. The original framework intended to "stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." It committed all parties to develop emissions inventories and to create adaptation programs and policies that reduce emissions and mitigate climate change. Targets and expectations varied based on parties' "differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities," with the most developed countries taking the lead and providing financing and technology to less-developed regions.
The Kyoto Protocol emerged through 1997's COP3. This agreement extended the UNFCCC and established legally binding emissions targets for the wealthiest and largest historical emitters. Though countries must meet targets primarily through national measures, Kyoto also created three financial mechanisms and called for a carbon market. The "Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)" sources financing to assist less-wealthy regions. It allows developed countries to earn emissions offset credits in exchange for funding emissions-reduction projects in developing nations. Similarly, the "Joint Implementation" mechanism allows countries with Kyoto commitments to earn "emission reduction units (ERUs)" that count toward their target. Rather than assisting less-developed areas, ERUs are earned by enacting emissions reduction/removal projects in other developed party regions. These ERUs, the certified emissions reduction credits from CDMs, and "removal units" from land-use restoration projects may be traded and sold among countries falling above or below their emissions allocation.
COP21's Paris Agreement is the most recent U.N. climate accord and is a landmark in global climate progress. While Kyoto created legally binding targets and penalties for developed nations, the Paris Agreement legally requires all countries - of all developmental and economic status - to commit to emissions reduction. Its language doesn't include set targets or penalties, but instead instructs countries to create nationally determined contributions (NDCs) for climate action. NDCs must be rigorously monitored, reported, and reassessed every five years, and "ratchet up" ambition with each iteration.
The Paris Agreement also provides a framework for countries to support each other's NDC achievement. Echoing Kyoto, the accord instructs developed countries to financially assist vulnerable countries. It also emphasizes international capacity building and establishes a technology framework to accelerate technology development and transfer between countries. In 2024, countries will begin to transparently report on their actions and progress. This "Enhanced Transparency Framework" will support global "stocktaking" of collective climate progress.
Paris' goal is to limit global temperature rise to "well below" two degrees Celsius (above pre-industrial levels), with strong efforts to stay below 1.5 degrees of warming. This aspiration has become the foundation of climate and clean energy targets across the world.
Though Paris aims for 1.5 degrees, even that amount of warming will increase heat waves and other detrimental climate impacts. At 2 degrees, parts of the planet may become unlivable. The IPCC's most recent projections predicted almost certainly reaching or exceeding 1.5 degrees in the next decade or two. What's more, countries' current NDCs are nowhere near stringent enough to stay below 2 degrees. If we want to maintain a healthy planet for all, we must do more. That is why COP26 is so important.
In 2019, many left COP25 disappointed. One of the COP's primary goals was to finish setting the rules for Paris Agreement Article 6, which would finalize the structure of an international carbon market. This didn't happen, echoing a similar failure at COP24 in Poland. Is the third time the charm? Officials at COP26 are intensely focused on finishing the "Paris Rulebook," which not only will set up the carbon market, but also create better transparency and keep the 1.5 degree target within reach. Countries must create ambitious 2030 targets and develop action items (e.g., phasing out coal, investing in renewables) that will reach net-zero emissions by mid-century.
COP26 also will focus on:
This conference represents one more chance for the global community to avert climate disaster. And as one of the world's largest emitters, the United States has a key role in the negotiations. The United States re-entered the Paris Agreement earlier this year, and President Joe Biden, accompanied by 13 cabinet members and administration officials, will attend COP26. The Biden Administration had hoped to pass the U.S. infrastructure bill and its related climate plan prior to COP26.
We are excited to see what our country brings to the table and what may be accomplished in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for more COP26 updates in Leyline's November newsletter.