Analysis. COP21 was important because members agreed on a target, while COP26 should establish in more detail how to achieve it. But the world is divided.

COP26 opens with little international unity and a climate catastrophe looming

Pope Francis’ call for global leaders to take “radical decisions” at the climate summit that opened on Sunday in Glasgow, Scotland, is likely to go unheeded. The absence of the leaders of China and Russia, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, seems to undermine the foundations of a summit that may not benefit much from the outcome of the G20, and which, despite the proclamations made before it started, is unlikely to go beyond the usual generic commitments against global warming.

With the great leaders simply moving venues from the EUR Cloud in Rome to the Scottish Exhibition Campus in Glasgow, the first days of COP26 will be decisive in the negotiations. Not only are the hosts playing a vital role, but so is the Italian government, a co-organizer of the meeting, which had been postponed due to the pandemic in 2020.

At the climate conference in Paris in 2015, countries agreed to work to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius compared to the pre-industrial era, aiming for a target of 1.5 degrees (we are currently at 1.1). While the French COP21 was important because members agreed on a target, COP26 should establish in more detail how to achieve it. By the first milestone, 2030, we must reverse the trend of the climate crisis by cutting at least 40% in greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, there is little to be optimistic about. This year, governments have been asked to make their new action plans public. The latest estimate of the UN on the basis of all those presented before the summit in Glasgow puts the world on a warming trajectory of 2.7 degrees—a catastrophe.

The bad news is that some key G20 countries, such as India, have not even submitted their updated plans. Others, such as Australia and Russia, have plans that are not in line with the Paris Agreement. And these days, China has announced that it will increase the production of coal—the most polluting of fossil fuels—to face the energy crisis. A measure that in fact means a looser commitment on the part of Beijing to the environmental crisis—it is not by accident that Xi Jinping preferred to “skip” the European trip—and which is a low blow for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who in Glasgow would like to achieve a global phase-out of coal, which is difficult to achieve at present.

What also needs to be established is how different countries should measure and report their emission reductions and how transparent they should be with each other. Without an effective mechanism, we risk sinking into outright greenwashing. Yet another legacy of the Paris conference is setting the rules for carbon markets, particularly on how companies can trade carbon credits, or pollution permits. These permits are allocated by governments or generated by projects that are supposed to absorb carbon dioxide, such as forest conservation or reforestation. These operations are often questioned in terms of their effectiveness, and they involve impacts on local populations, particularly indigenous peoples.

Carbon markets are already regulated in the European Union, China and California, but also operate on a voluntary basis in other countries and for some sectors. The creation of a single carbon market that harmonizes existing ones would still leave open questions about the ultimate effectiveness of the tool and the costs of its operation, rewarding some countries more than others. This is a reason why no agreement was reached on this item at the last 2019 COP in Madrid. Then, there is the very sensitive issue of funding. Developing countries need help with the green transition and adapting to climate change. But aid has been disbursed far too slowly.

In 2009, and again in 2015, rich countries agreed to provide $100 billion a year as climate financing to developing countries by 2020, but they still haven’t met that goal: the amount is still under $80 billion. The UK has unveiled a climate finance plan, brokered by Germany and Canada, that would establish a process to make that $100 billion fully available, but not until 2023. However, the Glasgow summit needs to think about more funds that need to be found after 2025, because, given the growing effects of the climate crisis, it is a given that much more money will be needed.

While waiting for developments from the conference center on the banks of the River Clyde, in what was once the heart of industrial Glasgow, local and international civil society will make its voice heard loud and clear.

On November 5 and 6, two events are planned: the first is the climate strike by the young people of Fridays for Future, with a march led by Greta Thunberg, while the second will coincide with the global day of action that is expected to bring at least 100,000 people to the streets of Glasgow. Extinction Rebellion has already announced that it will stage non-violent actions that will have “significant impacts” in the days of the official summit.

From November 7 to 10, a massive counter-summit will be held, with more than 200 meetings and seminars scattered over more than a dozen locations throughout the city. The COP26 Coalition People’s Summit aims to “center the voices of the most marginalized, those who are being hit hardest by climate change right now, and the people resisting and organizing for change.”

In a mix of a physical and digital presence, the focus will be placed on the struggles of indigenous peoples fighting to regain control of their native lands and ancient forests in British Colombia, Pacific Islanders resisting deep sea drilling and Sahrawis denouncing the theft of their land in Western Sahara, among others.

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