COP26: “Moment of truth” or business as usual?

The United Nations 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) kicked off yesterday in Glasgow, Scotland, bringing together 197 countries for the most eagerly anticipated climate talks in five years. 

COP26 is being attended by the signatory countries to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, a landmark agreement signed in Rio de Janeiro in 1994. Nearly three decades since then, COP26 has been billed as a “make or break moment” for the climate. Understanding the significance of the negotiations happening in Glasgow for the next two weeks relies on first understanding past COP agreements and what’s at stake this year. 

Much of the fanfare around this year’s conference has to do with the fact that negotiations in Glasgow are coming five years after COP21 in Paris, which resulted in the 2015 Paris Agreement. A rare victory in the fight against climate change, the Paris agreement bound signatory countries to reduce the use of fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy, keep global warming “well below” 2C and ideally below 1.5C and, importantly, review progress made by world governments every five years. As world leaders and environmental policy makers convene in Glasgow, attention will fall on progress reports from industrial governments and new commitments made.

Climate scientists have become increasingly clear about the danger posed by human-induced global warming. After a year of devastating floods in Europe, a deadly heat wave in the Pacific Northwest and huge wildfires north of the Arctic circle in Siberia, the effects of climate disruption are being keenly felt by millions of people around the world. With extreme weather events becoming more common and rising sea levels threatening coastal areas, the need for climate action has never been more pressing. Environmental activists have placed their hope in COP26 as a round of negotiations that will deliver tangible, positive results. 

In the leadup to COP26, leaders of countries in the G20 (Group of 20), an intergovernmental forum comprising 19 countries and the European Union, met in Rome to kick off climate talks, but this meeting was overshadowed by some high-profile absences, among them Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladamir Putin. Such snubs hampered U.S. President Joe Biden’s ability to engage the two leaders who have become increasingly estranged from Washington as a result of the Chinese trade war and accusations of Russian hacking. As leaders travel to Glasgow to start the conference, Chinese and Russian engagement, or lack thereof, will be scrutinized, especially after updated targets from Beijing showed reluctance to set more ambitious goals when it comes to phasing out China’s use of coal. 

Meeting the 1.5C goal set in the Paris Agreement will take world leaders coming together as never before to acknowledge and respond to the urgent threats posed by climate change and ensuring disasters. As COP26 negotiations proceed, issues of health, gender, migration, economics and other global issue areas will all need to be agreed upon if any progress is to be made. 

What happens in Scotland these next two weeks will set the stage for the next two decades of climate policy. If Glasgow is to be the decisive moment needed in climate governance, world leaders will need to stop dragging their feet and grasp the urgency of the moment. 

The USC Global Policy Institute’s COP26 series will run throughout the duration of the conference. Follow along as fellows explore issues related to climate change governance and the impact of global warming on international relations and global stability.

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