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Cop26 officials are seeking an agreement for new climate change targets from global leaders as soon as next year, as concerns grow that the Glasgow summit will fall short of its aims.
The summit, in a week’s time, is highly unlikely to secure commitments that will keep global warming below 1.5C, officials and observers say.
It came as leaked documents revealed that major emitters had lobbied the United Nations to tone down a UN scientific report on the impact of climate change.
Current global pledges put the world on track for 2.9C of warming, according to the organisation Climate Action Tracker.
China, the world’s biggest emitter, is yet to present its own plans and hopes are vanishing that they will be ambitious enough to declare the summit an outright success.
Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, is unlikely to attend the event, having not left China since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Russia, a major fossil fuel producer, has also failed to commit to more ambitious emissions cuts. Vladimir Putin, its president, has said he will not attend the event.
‘Everything is gearing up for a pretty nasty fight’
Perceived failure at the summit would undermine the British Government’s attempt to present itself as a global climate leader in its first big, post-Brexit diplomatic role.
Smaller developing states most vulnerable to climate change are now leading a push for countries to return as soon as next year to provide new targets to cut emissions before 2030, as well as new financing.
Under the Paris Agreement, governments would not have to present new plans until 2025, for new 2035 targets.
“There will be a huge amount of pressure for some commitment to return to the table sooner than 2025,” said Peter Betts, a former lead climate negotiator for the UK.
A combination of global and domestic politics, as well as restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, have undermined the UK’s efforts to secure a clear win.
“Everything is gearing up for a pretty nasty fight,” said Li Shuo, a veteran observer of the talks and expert at Greenpeace China.
Mr Li said Cop26 could be the most difficult event of its kind since Copenhagen in 2009, when countries left without an agreement.
PM’s ‘unreasonable’ expectations
There is also frustration among the British Cop26 team that Boris Johnson and other ministers have raised unreasonable expectations for the event.
Officials said it had always been clear that achieving the 1.5C aim would not be possible in one event, and that current pledges are more ambitious than would have been thought possible in recent years.
“Tackling climate change is one of the greatest challenges the world faces. There is no easy single solution,” a source on the Cop26 team said.
Mr Johnson has rowed back his rhetoric on the event in recent days, telling Bloomberg this week that “Cop26 was always going to be extremely tough", in contrast to earlier comments.
One observer said: “The problem is when you say you’re going to win the Premier League and success is actually defined by finishing 10th."
The Queen is among those to have expressed frustration at the pace of global climate action in the run-up to the summit, after she was overheard saying it was “very irritating when they talk, but they don’t do”.
Domestic politics in the US is holding back President Joe Biden’s own climate agenda, and the energy crisis is putting pressure on China’s ability to cut its emissions. “Politics was always going to make this really difficult,” said Mr Betts.
Difficulties caused by coronavirus pandemic
Meanwhile, Covid-19 is also complicating arrangements and exacerbating tensions between some of the countries.
Social distancing rules mean some delegations fear they will not be able to access some of the negotiating rooms. Travel and quarantine rules are also creating frustration within some governments, particularly from developing countries.
“I think it’s been underestimated just how hard it is to organise a meeting with Covid everywhere,” one observer said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if half of us get ill.”