By Darcy Bond, Bea Heard, Vincent Hultsch, Emily Morris and Ava Motamedi
The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, is bringing the international community together to discuss an action plan for tackling global warming under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the body in the UN dedicated to combating the global climate crisis.
Discussions from Oct. 31 to Nov. 16 will build on the goals set forth in the 2015 Paris Agreement established during COP21, the first instance in which every country agreed to adapt national policies to limit carbon emissions. The Paris Agreement was a massive step forward in climate change policy and international collaboration, and this year’s negotiations in Glasgow aim to build on the framework established five years ago.
The 2015 Paris Agreement sought to hold signatories to a specific set of targets to avoid the worst of climate change. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and minimizing climate pollution were the primary objectives, along with various social and financial directives, such as climate education and sustainable development in developing countries.
In 2015, each country submitted an individual plan of action — nationally determined contributions, or NDCs — structured around one specific aim: to keep the rising global temperature “well below” an increase of 2.0°C (35.6°F) above pre-industrial temperature, while striving for an increase below 1.5°C (34.7°F).
Under these non-binding NDCs, countries developed a framework for climate action uniquely suited to their individual needs. This directive particularly benefited developing countries, which lack the resources needed to match the contributions of more economically developed countries. Articles 9, 10 and 11 of the agreement placed specific emphasis on continued voluntary financial support from developed countries to developing ones as they strive to build “clean, climate-resilient futures.” The national emission-reduction targets designed by the countries involved are subject to five-year reviews by the UNFCCC secretariat to ensure compliance and legitimacy, with their first review occurring at the COP26 conference.
Despite extensive criticism, the Paris Climate Accord succeeded in some of its primary objectives. Most notably, both private markets and national political approaches to climate action have advanced in the wake of the agreement. From a private perspective, renewable energy has become more financially viable and grown as a result. In 2020, 90% of new energy generation capacities around the world were renewable. Additionally, the Paris agreement normalized net-zero emissions commitments, a practice that has since spread to all facets of the economy. According to the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), nearly 1/5, or 1,100, of the largest companies in the world are now committed to some variation of a net-zero plan.
The public approach to climate issues has also advanced due to innovative approaches in the Paris Agreement. The Paris structure uniquely combined aspects of both a bottom-up and top-down approach to reach emission reduction targets. Moreover, the agreement has normalized the sub-1.5°C goal, a target that previously seemed infeasible. After the Paris Agreement, global emissions forecasts for 2100 have lowered from 3.5°C to 2.9°C, a remarkable improvement, but one that is still insufficient to avoid the worst of climate change.
Despite advances in global climate action, the challenges facing the international community have grown monumentally since 2015. Emissions have continually grown, from 50 billion tons annually in 2015 to 55 billion in 2019. Global temperatures have remained on the rise, as has the rate of fossil fuel production. Many of the strengths of the Paris Climate Agreement, particularly its bottom-up structure of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and reliance on self-reporting and review, have also proven to be weaknesses.
The NDC Synthesis Report, released in September 2021, predicts all 192 parties of NDCs will produce a 16% increase in global GHG emissions by 2030 at current production levels, a figure in stark contrast with the IPCC estimate of a 45% reduction to avoid a 1.5C increase. National failures to follow through on emission pledges spell out unprecedented challenges for upcoming climate negotiations.
Not only have national mitigation tactics fallen short of NDC expectations, but the highest emitters have continually faltered in their commitments. The United States, the second largest greenhouse gas emitter, briefly withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement in fall 2020. President Joe Biden’s recommitment to the Paris Agreement lays the foundation for climate negotiations in Glasgow, but U.S. commitment seems inconsistent, unreliable and ultimately insufficient without commitment from other top emitters, such as China and Russia. As climate conditions worsen, the Paris Agreement has fallen short — many countries have failed to fulfill their pledges and countries that once led climate negotiations have faltered since 2015.
While the Paris Agreement has been effective in igniting conversations within the international community, whether or not the countries involved will stay true to the agreement is what will determine the efficacy of global action. The future of climate change is contingent on the international community faithfully and urgently committing to pledges made in Paris five years ago and in Glasgow this month.