If things had been different, we would be in Glasgow this year, engaged in the annual UN climate talks. While this delay became inevitable once the pandemic took hold, it is one that we can ill afford as we face the climate crisis. But it does give us the time and opportunity to re-evaluate what success at COP26 looks like and to ensure we have the processes and political will needed to deliver that success.
The COP26 presidency, held by the UK government, is working hard to ensure momentum and political will builds towards the COP, now scheduled for 1–12 November 2021. Some of the world’s biggest producers of CO2 emissions have made announcements which, together with the US President-Elect Joe Biden’s pledge to rejoin the Paris Agreement, have the potential to break the political climate log-jam.
Glasgow could be the new Paris
COP26 promises to be a landmark meeting for two main reasons. First, because the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted economies, societies and people’s lives around the world. The social and economic disruptions, and measures to respond to these and restart struggling economies and sectors, have the potential to fundamentally reshape the future in ways we are only beginning to understand. COP26 will bring parties together to reboot and refocus global efforts to confront the climate crisis in a radically different environment.
Second, because signatories to the Paris Agreement are due to submit the next iterations of their national emissions goals. These Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) were first drawn up in 2015 and should now be revised with more ambitious targets for 2030, and long-term strategies that set out how and when countries expect to achieve net-zero emissions. These plans are vital. Their individual and collective ambition will be a major test of the Paris Agreement as a viable framework for galvanizing global action. The UK government must use its diplomatic network and global influence to maximize this effort over the coming year. A key moment will be the Climate Ambition Summit on 12 December, the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, and announcements by many governments are expected. Whatever the outcome of this round of enhancing national targets and actions, COP26 will have the task of assessing and responding to the collective outcome and the state of global climate efforts.
2020 has brought up some game-changing developments. One of them is the potential impact of the US returning to the Paris Agreement. Biden has set out domestic and international actions to accelerate decarbonization efforts. Game-changing commitments for emissions reduction targets have been recently announced by the EU and China, who, among others, have committed to peak carbon emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions before 2050 (and 2060 in China’s case). We are hopeful that the announcement by President Xi Jinping presages a new, and more ambitious NDC from China before the year-end. The EU has also been taking steps towards strengthening their current 2030 targets, there is high anticipation for an announcement on 10–11 December when the EU Council meets next. The COP 26 Presidency must harness these to renew trust and hope in the climate regime and to generate further ambition.
In addition, the UK, France and the UK are hosting a Climate Ambition Summit on 12 December, the fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Paris Agreement. Again, we hope that the event will provide a platform for governments — including that of the UK — to unveil ambitious new NDCs, long-term strategies and net-zero targets.
With stronger pledges by China, the EU and the UK, and the imminent return of the US to the regime, some serious momentum could be building among the major emitting countries and G20 members, which has until recently been sorely lacking. There is the potential for similar momentum from the private sector and sub-national actors. The UN-convened Net-Zero Asset Owners Alliance, the Science Based Targets initiative and the Race to Zero, among others, are helping to lay the foundations for a successful year of climate action in 2021.
What should we look forward to in 2021?
First, the COP process needs to recover from the slump and lost momentum of the past few years. Part of the answer lies in defining a larger agenda for the talks. Since Paris, the COPs have been a series of uninspiring gatherings, with a laundry list of tasks and agenda items, and little sense of the big picture, of the urgency of the challenge at hand, of a vision that rises to the level of the threat, and the opportunity, we face.
COP26 can set out an inspiring vision and rekindle hope and enthusiasm for the coming few years up to the next round of NDCs to be submitted by 2025, providing a much-needed roadmap to guide the global climate agenda.
Six pillars for climate action for COP26
What might that roadmap cover? We have set out six pillars where action is needed, and where COP26 needs to deliver. These are:
Solving outstanding issues
These include resolving disputes around international carbon trading in Article 6 of the Paris Agreement; agreeing that all countries will set targets for the same periods in future rounds of NDCs (issue referred to as timeframes in the negotiations); a breakthrough on financing for on loss and damage from climate change; and ensuring that the target of $100 billion/year of climate finance is achieved. We also need a COP decision that defines the process moving forward, perhaps a ‘Glasgow Platform to Accelerate Implementation’.
Strengthening ‘non-state actors’ agenda
The active participation of business, cities, regions, investors and civil society has been crucial to post-Paris momentum. Their role should be formalised, expanded and scaled up, with, for example, industry sectors encouraged to set global emissions targets aligned with climate science.
Enhancing NDCs and Long Term Strategies
Enhanced NDCs are essential to the success of the Paris Agreement, and all countries must come forward with their plans as soon as possible. In addition, the UN Climate Change Secretariat needs to analyse and report on the aggregate effect of these new NDCs. We need to know if they put us on a 1.5°C trajectory. We also need to see long-term net-zero strategies being submitted to the UN.
Climate — nature nexus
The natural world is both at grave risk from climate change and also offers potential to deliver significant mitigation — perhaps one third of the emission reductions we need to achieve by 2030, as well as to help societies and nature adapt to a changing climate. Nature-based Solutions to climate change can often deliver co-benefits to people and biodiversity and can contribute to meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Nature-based Solutions must be a key area of collaboration where we can strengthen the linkages between the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) target-setting COP15 (likely to be held in October 2021) and the UNFCCC COP26. The Leader’s Pledge for Nature is already an indication of the political appetite for something like this.
The pandemic threatens to postpone or even derail action on climate. Instead, countries must ensure that post-COVID-19 recovery plans also address the dual challenges of climate and nature, leveraging the potential of green jobs and fostering the energy transition.
We hope to have alignment of the financial sector with global climate goals, ensuring that investment portfolios are positioned to deliver the 1.5°C target, based on mandatory disclosure of climate risk, promotion of science-based targets for companies and investors alike, and commitments on deforestation and fossil fuel lending. Countries should also meet and enhance their public finance commitments.
These objectives represent a bare minimum for a successful COP, and for the reinvigoration of the international climate process. We are hopeful that, as we emerge from the global COVID-19 pandemic, and as citizens around the world increasingly demand action on the climate crisis, 2021 can make up for lost time and deliver a convincing response to the climate emergency.
Manuel Pulgar-Vidal is WWF International’s global climate and energy lead, COP20 President, and former Minister of Environment for Peru.