What are the biggest Cop26 stumbling blocks?

·6-min read

Watch: Cop26: What to expect from second week of climate summit

The second week of Cop26 sees senior ministers from national governments arrive in Glasgow to nail down agreements after the splashy pledges made by world leaders in the opening days.

The deals – riddled with caveats – promised to end deforestation, cut coal-fired power and reduce emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane. Now ministers are guiding complex negotiations among 197 countries, and by Friday, close Cop26 watchers are highly optimistic that a “cover decision” will emerge.

On Sunday a draft text was published and drew immediate criticism from environmental groups. Greenpeace described the document as “exceptionally weak” for failing to mention the need to transition away from using fossil fuels.

“Usually the text starts with some ambition, which then gets watered down,” said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International. “To keep 1.5C alive, four words must be added: ‘fossil fuels phase out’, and countries must come back next year to close the gap.”

Cop26’s top-line target: Keeping average global temperature rise (above pre-industrial levels) within the bounds of the 1.5C set out by the Paris Agreement, with the inclusion of more ambitious emissions cuts this decade.

There also needs to be consensus on issues like how much money rich nations should pledge to help poorer ones adapt to escalating climate impacts, and nailing down the rules around how parts of the Paris Agreement should be put into effect.

It’s crunch time on whether enough progress can be made at Cop26 to view it as a success. What are the biggest sticking points that remain?

Timeline

The main goal is “keeping 1.5C alive”. If the world gets hotter, scientists report that there will be an even greater risk of extreme heat, powerful storms and sea-level rise. (The world has already warmed 1.1C since pre-industrial levels.)

It looks like Cop26 will not hit this target, but the question now is how close leaders can get to it. 

Going into Cop26, countries’ “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) put the planet on a trajectory for at least 2.7C global temperature rise this century – far above safe limits, a UN report found last month.

There have been calls from climate-vulnerable countries and small-island developing states to have countries come back next year to make more ambitious NDCs for 2030.

Their request was supported by former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, who oversaw the Paris Agreement.

“The most vulnerable countries have called for an annual reporting on increased ambition for all governments, especially the major emitting countries. This could be done as a new regular component of the yearly Cops, and is allowed under the Paris Agreement. [This] should be part of the agreed outcome of Cop26,” she told The Guardian.

Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Australia and Brazil, are reportedly pushing back against this request. Meanwhile the EU and the US – seen as the most progressive among developed countries on climate – are so far not putting their political weight behind the request of smaller, vulnerable countries either.

It’s been suggested that Saudi Arabia, Australia and Brazil, all major polluters, are trying to stop mentions of fossil fuel reduction in texts and are blocking efforts to close loopholes in carbon markets.

Watch: What is greenwashing?

Finance

Rich countries had promised to deliver, by 2020, an annual $100bn in climate finance for poor countries to help them adapt to climate extremes and shift to clean energy. That target now looks like it won’t be reached until 2023.

Critics also say that the finance has not flowed into adaptation projects, and that the money is being provided in problematic ways. 

“The quality of grants versus loans, especially for the most vulnerable countries already crippled by debt, is going to be important,” said Yamide Dagnet, director of climate negotiations at the World Resources Institute. 

“It’s a question of justice and fairness, as well, that needs to prevail in these negotiations.”

The demand for climate justice is being driven by climate activists, indigenous peoples and vulnerable nations at Cop26, and is crucial to building trust among nations. 

That call is intertwined with the need for financial support in parts of the world, largely the global south, where the most extreme impacts are being felt by those who have contributed far fewer emissions.

On Monday, Cop26 was all about adaptation to the climate crisis, and loss and damage (L&D). The latter focuses on dealing with impacts that are unavoidable and already happening in vulnerable countries – hurricanes, sea-level rise, extreme heat – and cannot be mitigated or adapted to. 

With each passing year, L&D creates not only a vast financial burden (estimated to reach $290bn-$580bn a year in developing countries alone by 2030) but carries an immense human toll.

The UN created the Warsaw International Mechanism in 2013 with the aim of figuring out the complexities of L&D, but so far it has focused on research over financial support – due to developed countries’ fears of financial liability. 

Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, said on Monday that while he was pleased to see former president Barack Obama at Cop26 to drum up ambition, “the US administration, including the current one, has been doing everything to block any loss and damage finance discussion”.

However, he said the conversation had now advanced beyond that. “What vulnerable countries are asking for is support without demanding compensation,” he said. 

The path forward on L&D remains unclear at Cop26 – but pressure will continue from those outside negotiating halls. “The global north has a debt to pay to the countries most impacted, especially the US: historically responsible for the climate crisis & injustices across the globe,” tweeted Filipino activist Mitzi Jonelle Tan.

Writing the rules and transparency

One of the trickiest aspects of Cop26 – and a mark of its success – will be honing rules over international carbon trading in Article 6 of the Paris “rulebook”, an issue that has been dragging on for six years. Putting a robust price on carbon will be necessary to hit emissions-reduction targets.

Highly technical policy details must be ironed out. One of these, for example, is on “Corresponding Adjustments” – meaning that, if a country transfers its emissions reductions for others to count, then it must mark their own domestic emissions tally to avoid double counting, S&P reported.

The Times reported on Tuesday that China and Saudi Arabia were also throwing up roadblocks to a Cop deal by refusing to be fully transparent about their emissions. Senior negotiators at the Glasgow summit reportedly said that both countries were against proposed reporting requirements to make countries’ emission levels more transparent.

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