Last reviewed 19 April 2021

The world is on course to cut carbon emissions by less than 1% before 2030. Keeping temperature rises down to a “safe” 1.5°C needs a 45% fall, a February 2021 UN Climate Change report warns. Jon Herbert asks if November’s global COP26 climate summit in Scotland can close the gap.

It took nearly three decades for 197 nations to broker December 2015’s landmark UN Paris climate change agreement. Known as COP21, it began to set out mitigation, adaption and financial steps needed to avoid global overheating.

Warm words followed. But the flow of meaningful carbon-cutting commitments promised by individual nations as their specific economic and environmental circumstances allow has been slow — in some cases very slow.

However, with a new urgency bordering on panic, there is now growing pressure to turn words into actions around this year’s COP26 November global summit in Glasgow (ukcop26.org/).

Must do better

With only eight months to find a workable solution, a new February 2021 UN Climate Change “synthesis report” has looked at how effective 48 new and updated national greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions plans will be (unfccc.int).

Its conclusion is that emissions by 2030 will be just some 3% lower than promised in 2015. An order of magnitude lower than the 45%, world scientists calculate, is needed to keep warming below 1.5°C.

Only 29% of global emissions were accounted for at the end of 2020; only 75 countries out of 197 met the New Year 2021 deadline. The US and China, both major emitters, have still to submit plans.

To highlight the danger, a UN Environment Programme “Emissions Gap Report” in December 2020, which reviewed the difference between what is happening and what is needed, estimated that if countries simply meet their existing commitments the world could be 3°C warmer this century.

Remotely online or eye-to-eye in the flesh?

All eyes are on the UK as co-host of COP26 for a solution. From 1 to 12 November, governments, politicians, environmentalists, business leaders, NGOs, and possibly the Pope, are due to meet physically to put updated flesh on strategies designed five years ago.

Covid-19 delayed the gathering originally scheduled for 2020; contingency arrangements have been made for this year’s event to be virtual too.

But further delays could throw into disarray carefully-choreographed political decision-making, talks to press reluctant nations into making larger commitments, and perhaps the whole UN climate process.

UK leadership

Therefore, the onus will be in the UK, as an internationally respected environmental leader, to orchestrate the world’s climatic salvation from itself. Not an easy task.

One suggestion is that the Prime Minister should urge all countries to adopt a multilateral climate solution rather than the unilateral approach agreed in Paris — NDS process described in a moment.

He is also under pressure to use COP26 and his presidency of June’s G7 meeting in Cornwall to press for reforms in “green global finance”.

However, another concern is that with many key discussions taking place virtually during the rest of this year, the physical summit in Scotland could be a pre-empted rubberstamping exercise.

A closer look at the evolution of the Paris process since 2015, advances in climate science, and how well the COP structure works, underlines why solutions are elusive.

Better late than never

The Paris Agreement, negotiated at COP21 in 2015, falls within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). UNFCCC was created by 154 states at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) — the Second Earth Summit — in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Conference of the Parties (COP) is the UNFCCC decision-making body.

The agreement’s long-term goal is to keep global temperature rises well below 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels and try to limit them to 1.5°C (2.7°F) by reducing emissions as soon as possible.

To achieve this, countries must deliver individually-tailored greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction plans known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). They must also create resilience to temperature rises, and report and upgrade their plans in a “ratchet mechanism” every five years.

Looking further into the future, states were also invited in 2015 to formulate and submit long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies (LT-LEDS) by the original date of 2020.

Not strong enough

But Paris has weaknesses. One is that its “bottom-up” structure is largely voluntary and unenforceable. Admonishment is by “naming and shaming” — or “naming and encouraging”.

Another is that because it did not go far enough more cuts are needed now to go beyond 2°C to 1.5°C by reducing emissions to 40 gigatonnes — a key COP26 challenge.

This is a tough call for stressed states that have let difficult measures drift — and despite regular annual COP meetings since 2015 that have been a mixture of success and failure — continue to drift.

New momentum

But times are changing. Public perceptions based on first-hand evidence of erratic storms, extreme floods, heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, cyclones and sea level rises around the world have convinced more people that climate change is real.

Radical action on the streets has made its mark too. Business leaders, singly and jointly, recognise the threat, but also the need and opportunities for innovative low-carbon technologies.

Changing science

Practical climate science has been better understood and interpreted since 2016 and shows that more needs to be done to secure a cooler world than was foreseen five years ago.

The IPCC now says all carbon-emissions — transport, industry and heating — must end by 2050, with important 2030 staging posts. If emissions from cement, aviation and shipping sectors cannot comply, they must be offset naturally or by carbon technologies still to be developed.

In other words, net-zero emissions, a concept an increasing number of businesses are now adopting that was not part of the original Paris Agreement.

What will happen at COP26 with the UK as co-host?

A primary goal of this year’s summit is for countries to jointly accelerate climate action in their first formal chance since 2015 to meet, discuss and upgrade individual NDCs.

As the first nation to legally adopt net-zero legislation, the UK is keen to promote its post-Brexit environmental credentials.

In particular, in its Ten Point Plan the Government is rolling out a comprehensive low-carbon strategy — from electric vehicles to nuclear power stations and more home insulation — to reset society’s relationship with energy and sustainability.

Full-time COP26 president Alok Sharma announced five priorities last year which the Government hopes it can use now to bring the low-carbon agenda back on course. Specially, these are:

  • to adapt and prepare for climate change impacts

  • to protect natural habitats and keeping CO2 out of the atmosphere with nature-based solutions

  • and huge opportunities of cheap renewables and energy storage

  • and zero-carbon vehicles

  • with a $100 billion annual target

The outcome is not yet clear. Success will depend on many pieces of the kaleidoscope coming together in unusual times.

Carbon cycle feedback systems

Scientific consensus aims for accuracy. However, complex feedback loops can introduce uncertainty. An example is the powerful GHG methane created when microbes break down organic matter from aquatic fresh water plants. These are expected to grow more vigorously in a warmer world.

White polar ice reflects solar rays back to space. Darker water and land exposed by melting ice absorb the sun's heat. More ice melts. This negative circle known as ice-albedo feedback.

Permafrost covers circa 20% of the planet. Microbes in defrosted soil turn frozen carbon into carbon dioxide and methane. Soils hold 70% of Earth’s land-based carbon; surface ocean layers are also major carbon sinks.

Self-reinforcing feedbacks might increase warming by 25% above IPCC projections. Probabilities and average effects might be small. But outcomes could be extreme.

As one observer notes, the Earth has never been “quasi-stable” when 2°C warmer than pre-industrial times; the system itself could continue warming even when human emissions stop.