The show is now on for Conference of Parties 26 (COP 26), where countries show each other how they will achieve the Paris Agreement climate goals. How will we do?
Set in Glasgow, it will bring together negotiators from nearly every country on earth to assess progress, and to determine the scale of sacrifice we’re all prepared to make. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is hosting, United States President Joe Biden is attending, as is Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Other big economy leaders such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Russian President Vladimir Putin, aren’t. We’re not even sending someone inside Cabinet; we’re sending James Shaw from the Greens – but he of all people knows our policy commitments and promises better than any.
There’s lots of fun NGO scorching going on, as there should be.
But don’t be fooled: there is no bla bla bla here. There is a set of binding agreements in play with substantial moral, commercial, political and monetary force behind them.
The personalities are good for the news coverage, whereas the actual work is in commitments about how each will individually reduce damaging emissions by a certain year. They communicate these targets to the UNFCCC in the form of ‘nationally determined contributions’, or NDC’s.
COP26 is a critical summit for global climate action. To have a chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, global emissions must halve by 2030 and reach ‘net-zero’ by 2050, and it’s going to take all those NDC’s together to make it.
The 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report underscores it is still possible to achieve the 1.5-degree-target but only if unprecedented action is taken now.
The NDCs submitted in 2015 were collectively not ambitious enough to limit global warming to ‘well below’ 2 degrees, never mind 1.5 degrees. The signatories of the Paris Agreement are, however, expected to submit new – and more ambitious – NDCs every five years, known as the ‘ratchet mechanism’.
COP26 is the first test of this ambition-raising function. One of the main ‘benchmarks for success’ in Glasgow is that as many governments as possible submit new NDCs and, when put together, these are ambitious enough to put the world on track for ‘well below’ 2 degrees, preferably 1.5.
The difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees is substantial: every increment of a degree translates into increased risks for people, communities, and ecosystems. The UK’s overarching aim for the Glasgow summit is to ‘keep 1.5 degrees alive’.
A successful outcome in Glasgow also requires developed countries to honour a promise they made back in 2009 of mobilizing $100 billion per year by 2020 to support climate action in developing countries. The official figures for 2020 will not be available until 2022, but it is clear the goal was not met last year.
Recent announcements, including President Joe Biden’s pledge to double US climate finance, have brought developed countries closer to honouring the pledge, and New Zealand has to really pony up as well. It’s not currently a high-trust environment between any of the major emitters at the moment. The guilt economy has its limits even when expertly saved and spent.
Strengthening the ability to adapt to climate change impacts is another important element of COP26, as is the question of how to deal with economic and non-economic harms caused by climate change impacts which cannot be avoided through adaptation or mitigation, known as ‘loss and damage’. Hopefully we will get to see a united Pacific Islands position make some good and pointed noise on this, since they are our most vulnerable friends and relatives to this damage.
Discussions on these issues often focus on mobilizing finance but it is also important that parties make progress on other issues such as further operationalizing the Paris Agreement’s ‘global goal on adaptation’ which, at present, is vaguely formulated.
At COP26, parties also need to try and finalize the Paris Agreement’s ‘implementation guide’ – the Paris Rulebook. Agreeing on what rules should govern international carbon markets – the ‘Article 6 negotiations’ – is expected to be particularly difficult. Small states such as ourselves live and die on whether big countries assent to such globally binding rules – and the Pacific countries are watching this part of the conference very closely indeed with huge amounts of pre-meetings and preparation gone in.
As of September 2021, 86 countries and the EU27 have submitted new or updated NDCs to the UNFCCC.
A few governments, like China and Japan, have pledged new 2030 targets but are yet to submit them officially.
Around 70 countries are yet to communicate new or updates targets. And several – Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, Singapore, Switzerland and Vietnam – have submitted without raising ambition.
Yesterday New Zealand raised its ambition by reducing net greenhouse emissions by 50% by 2030. The provisional emissions budget for New Zealand’s new NDC is 571 Mt, down from the 2016 NDC budget of 623 Mt. The agreement was reached at Cabinet on Monday in preparation for positioning ourselves well at the conference opening. We’ll do it mostly by paying others to keep trees in the ground.
Our own emissions have peaked in 2006 and haven’t fallen significantly for over a decade and indeed are about the same now as they were in 2005.
Which isn’t bad going given the increase in population, increase in dairy herds, and increase in kilometres travelled per year.
It’s not of course down to one Minister: the carbon reduction budget action plan is a full and near-unprecedented whole-of-government effort, outlined here by the Ministry for the Environment. You can deep-dive into the functioning of carbon markets and agriculture and carbon finance and all such deep policy stuff.
It’s been helpful that the G20 summit held a few days previously generated useful results including a global corporate tax floor. We can actually still agree on important stuff.
But we’re needing all the positive signals we can get right now.