The COP26 climate summit is the most anticipated COP in years, especially as it’s the first COP since 2019 thanks to a pandemic-induced delay. Rhetoric about ‘last chances’ to save the climate – or at least the legitimacy of the 2015 Paris Agreement – is rife. The absence of political leaders in Glasgow such as Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin will add further fuel to the perception that international climate diplomacy is floundering. From both a climate diplomacy and climate science perspective, this sentiment is unwarranted.
COPs always have both a political dimension and a technical negotiations dimension, with the two only being peripherally related. Politically, the clamour to commit to more climate action may generate headlines, both positive and otherwise. However, the more backroom technical negotiations to gradually strengthen the ‘Paris process’ are really what the COP is all about.
The Paris Agreement was ratified and entered into force in record time – about a year after the Paris COP. It subsequently survived the Trump administration and the US withdrawal. The unexpected speedy ratification process meant that some parts of the ‘Paris rulebook’ were still to be settled. Now, in the run-up to Glasgow, most of these rules are agreed with the provisions on carbon markets (Article 6) being the biggest yet-to-be-agreed issue.
Ratcheting up the pressure
In particular, the ‘ratchet mechanism’ is a core part of the Paris Agreement rulebook. Every five years, countries make new climate pledges which are then collectively assessed in a ‘global stocktake’, the first being set for 2023. If there had ever been a reasonable prospect of all countries immediately agreeing to sufficient, collective climate action it would not have been necessary to create this pledge-and-review cycle, let alone to make it one of the core legal provisions of the Paris Agreement.
From the climate science side, the IPCC emphasises time and again that ‘Every bit of warming matters. Every year matters. Every choice matters.’ Today, global warming has reached 1.1C, as confirmed by the latest IPCC report. Global CO2 emissions from energy were increasing until 2018 but have stalled since. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere stands at 413 parts per million, with 450ppm being roughly considered the limit for 2C warming. The impact difference between 1.5 °C and 2 °C warming is significant, as the IPCC highlighted in 2018.
Whether or not Glasgow will be perceived as a success doesn’t therefore do away with the fact that more COPs and more ambition will be required anyway. This iterative process – which in the future may also focus on negative emissions – is what the Paris Agreement tries to institutionalise.
Simultaneously, even if the worldwide collective commitments do not (yet) lead to limiting global warming to 1.5 °C or ‘well-below 2 °C’, this doesn’t mean that the Paris Agreement is ‘inadequate’. In fact, the expected degree of global warming by 2100 has already decreased in many estimates, even if it still exceeds the Paris Agreement goals.
Pledges proliferate, action accelerates?
Over the past two years, several large, industrialised economies have adopted carbon/climate neutrality targets and increased targets for 2030. These include the EU, Japan, South Korea, Canada, the US and, notably, China.
Such ‘net-zero’ targets mean little without appropriate domestic policies. The US seems structurally unable to pass climate legislation. Australia also announced a climate neutrality pledge but Canberra then asserted that it would not legislate to reach this objective. Suffice to say, both countries have a major climate credibility problem. Nevertheless, other economies have started walking along the decarbonisation pathways necessary to reach climate neutrality.
In China, the record demand for energy following its strong pandemic recovery doesn’t augur well for its objective to peak emissions as soon as possible (and before 2030). Nevertheless, the sheer size of the Chinese economy means that once it moves further on adopting low-carbon technology, the rest of the world will also take notice.
Finally, the EU has few cards left to play in the political run-up to the COP as it has already committed to an upgraded 2030 target, put this target into law with the EU climate law, and offered detailed legislative proposals on how to reach the -55 % target with the ‘Fit-for-55’ package. All this gives the EU credibility, although other countries know that the EU’s climate action is more the result of domestic rather than international pressure.
Global outlook: Cooling down
Upgraded pledges, as well as advances on the low-carbon technology front have changed the outlook for 2100. In its annual Emissions Gap Report, UNEP now expects global warming of 2.7 °C, down from 3.4 °C in 2016. If we assume all current pledges are fully implemented, this increase drops further to 2.3 °C. Still insufficient, still dangerous warming, but closer to the Paris goals. How then could these median expectations be further upgraded so that they fulfil the ultimate objective of the Paris Agreement?
Here, the Paris Agreement’s pledge-and-review process through the ‘ratchet mechanism’ needs to be given more time. Only by 2028, the year of COP33, will two full stocktake cycles have been completed. As we have seen from the run-up to the COP26 in Glasgow, diplomatic pressure to increase pledges is now a continuous feature in international politics.
Any international summit – think the G7, G20 or even the Munich Security Conference – provides opportunities to discuss stronger climate action. We should therefore allow a few of these review cycles to be completed before making judgments on the success of the Paris Agreement. If by 2028, there has not been any ‘ratcheting’ of ambition to the extent that the Paris goals are edging closer, together with real advances towards the 2030 targets, then criticism of the Paris architecture will be more warranted.
For now, continuous upgrades by countries and companies alike, while technology costs continue to drop, are reasons for guarded optimism. Progress is being made.