The climate meeting in London wasn’t the only recent example of underlying problems. Just two days earlier, an all-night meeting of Group of 20 ministers in Naples, Italy, had failed to produce an agreement on phasing out coal power, the most polluting source of energy. India—the world’s third-largest emitter, which depends heavily on coal—had been a key holdout.
When asked why they didn’t attend, Indian officials said they were needed at home and had technical problems which meant they couldn’t login online. But they also said they had already made their views clear in Naples.
Getting India’s support will be key to the success of the United Nations-backed COP26 climate talks scheduled to occur in Glasgow, Scotland in November. Alok Sharma, president of COP26 and a minister in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, has set an ambitious goal to “consign coal to history” at the summit. That will keep alive the hope of limiting global warming to 1.5º Celsius from pre-industrial levels. But temperatures have already shot up by 1.2ºC, with impacts being felt in extreme weather events sweeping the globe from Canada to China.
Current pledges put the world on track for 2.4ºC warming by 2100, according to the nonprofit Climate Action Tracker. The UN’s 2018 special report on global warming says that even 1.5ºC of temperature rise would have enormous consequences for the planet, including a “multi-meter rise in sea levels” over hundreds to thousands of years and a mass extinction of plants and animals.
Halting planetary warming there would require coal’s share of power generation to be cut to less than 2% by 2050 — but the G-20 can’t agree on how to do it. An earlier Group of Seven leaders meeting failed to agree the need to phase out domestic coal use, promising only to stop financing it overseas. These are relatively small gatherings of nations. The diplomats at COP26 will represent virtually every nation in the world, making the push for consensus all the more daunting.
“Unless we get all countries to sign up to a coal phase out, keeping 1.5ºC within reach will be really difficult,” Sharma said after the London meeting.
Much of the work to make a successful COP26 must be done before the summit even begins. That’s because of two key deadlines: countries need to submit more ambitious climate plans, known as “nationally determined contributions,” and rich countries are supposed to deliver on a pledge to spend a combined $100 billion each year to help poor countries adapt. Even after a year’s extension to the deadline to take account of the pandemic, the goal for climate spending hasn’t yet been reached and some key countries haven’t set climate plans.
The fractures in the discussions go well beyond Modi’s government. While 197 countries signed on to the 2015 Paris international climate agreement, deep divisions remain on how to reach its goals — and on who bears the brunt of responsibility. “The outlook for COP26 isn’t very promising,” said Li Shuo, a climate analyst at Greenpeace Asia. “Many key issues need to be addressed before the meeting starts, such as climate finance and coal use.”
The climate finance question has been another source of tension in the events leading up to COP, including the international climate summit hosted by the U.S. in April. The world’s poorest countries have contributed the least to global climate change but are the most vulnerable to its effects and can’t afford the high cost of adaptation. Based on the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility,” the world’s richest countries agreed in conjunction with the Paris Agreement to pay a combined $100 billion a year to help, but they’ve consistently fallen short of that goal.
As the summit has gotten closer, debate has focused on a handful of countries in the middle of that scale with emerging economies, which argue that they have the same right to industrialize as their peers have enjoyed over the last two centuries. That means burning fossil fuels. Like India, China, the world’s largest emitter, is also under pressure to announce plans for how it will make deep emissions cuts over the next decade. Neither country has yet submitted an updated NDC.
G-20 countries that haven’t submitted a more ambitious NDC represent 47% of global emissions, according to the World Resources Institute. That list also includes Saudi Arabia and Australia. But in Naples, they promised they would do so by COP26.
Even if China, India, South Africa and Saudi Arabia all announce tough new 2030 plans this year, it won’t to close the gap between where emissions are and where they should be, said Alden Meyer, senior associate at climate advocacy group E3G . For that reason, he said, the Glasgow deal will need to contain a new mandate that countries revise and enhance their NDCs on a continual basis, as opposed to the five year cycle set out in the Paris Agreement.
“Some of these discussions are frozen—like they were in the 1990s—in this zero-sum finger-pointing dynamic,” said Meyer. “The reality is we’re all in a lifeboat together, and the lifeboat is in danger of sinking. The politics have not yet shifted to reflect that reality.”
China’s coal consumption, meanwhile, is poised to hit a record this year, according to the International Energy Agency. Shuo said China needs to announce plans to limit coal use either domestically or overseas. The next opportunity for China’s President Xi Jinping to announce a new goal on the world stage could be the United Nations General Assembly in September. If they don’t announce it by COP26, the 1.5ºC goal may move out of reach.
Once in Glasgow, all eyes will be on the U.S. to put up its share of the financing for developing nations. Partly as a result of former President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris accord, the country has fallen well behind its commitments. The $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill making its painstaking way through Congress contains only $600 billion in new spending. Meyer worried that the legislation may not be on President Joe Biden’s desk for sign off in time for COP26. In that case, the U.S. again won’t be able to deliver on its promise.
That’s a problem because many developing countries, such as Bangladesh and Vietnam, say they can’t come up with more ambitious targets until rich countries deliver on their promised funding. With the $100 billion goal missed for 2020, rich countries are now coming up with a plan to show how they will catch up, delivering on agreed financing over the years 2002 to 2024 on average. Sharma has appointed ministers from Canada and Germany to pull together a delivery plan for that in response to a demand this month from those vulnerable countries.
Many of the issues under discussion at November’s summit haven’t been touched since the last COP in 2019. That includes completing the Paris Rulebook on carbon trading, which comes under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. The 2019 talks failed to reach an agreement on that key issue because the European Union and Brazil couldn’t agree on accounting rules around the trading of emissions permits.
Sharma and the other U.K. hosts are hoping for a compromise agreement that could allow at least something to come out of this year’s meeting. But some climate campaigners warn that too many concessions would be worse than no deal at all, said Eddy Perez, International Climate Diplomacy Manager at Climate Action Network Canada.
“There’s a risk that too much compromise leads to an Article 6 proposal that could impact the environmental integrity of the Paris Agreement,” he said.