On October 31st, representatives from across the globe will gather in Glasgow for two weeks to attend the UN climate change conference COP26. Expectations are high following last year’s canceled conference, and the IPCC report released in August. What can we expect from the meeting? Five Lund researchers give answers.
How far do countries’ climate ambitions go?
As part of the Paris Agreement in 2015, it was decided that all nations would renew their climate pledges or national climate plans, so-called NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions), every five years. It is now time for the first update, which is something of a milestone. Despite the climate plans not actually being a separate negotiating topic during the summit, the question is fundamental.
Based on the NDCs that have come in so far, it is clear that the efforts are not sufficient to reach the 1.5-degree goal – projections point to a three-degree warming by 2100, something that would have serious consequences.
“It is very clear that the current pledges are not enough. Governments and countries must move much faster to reach the Paris Agreement”, says Kimberly Nicholas, climate researcher at Lund University.
Markku Rummukainen, professor of climatology at Lund University and Sweden’s representative to the UN climate panel IPCC, also emphasizes that the situation is urgent. The latest IPCC report shows that warming is accelerating more than expected – we risk exceeding the 1.5-degree target within ten to twenty years – and action on climate goals is increasingly urgent.
“The IPCC report is very strong and clear and hopefully contributes to raising the level of ambition. Historically, it can be seen that the reports played a role in increasing the pace of climate negotiations”, he says.
Financing and a fair climate change
Another key issue during the summit is climate finance. The rich countries pledged in Paris that by 2020 they would contribute 100 billion dollars a year in aid to poorer countries, to help them handle the climate crisis. According to an OECD report, the total amount of aid was $ 79 billion in 2019.
At the summit, a decision will be made on what the financing will look like after 2025. Among other things, the US has promised to double its support, and in Sweden, one of the countries that lived up to its commitment, the government has said it wants to increase climate aid.
Rich countries delivering on their promise is crucial for the credibility of the Paris Agreement, says Kimberly Nicholas. The funding relates to the issue of fairness, which is high on the agenda at COP26.
“The countries in the world that have caused global warming also have a responsibility to drive change”, she says.
This is also a prerequisite for getting the poorer countries on board, many whom have emitted the least but still often have to pay the highest price for climate change.
How can we mitigate the effects of climate change that is already happening?
Ambitious emission reductions are of course in focus at the summit, but another important issue is climate adaptation, that is, how we can adapt our societies to the change that is already here, in the form of forest fires, prolonged droughts and severe flooding. It is also about vulnerability, who are most vulnerable in relation to such events. According to Emily Boyd, the discussions during COP26 will partly be about funding, and partly about what measures need to be taken.
“Research on climate adaptation has really progressed, but unfortunately we still do not see that much has been achieved. We are lagging behind both in reducing emissions and in adapting”, she says.
Among other things, she researches the loss and damage that occurs if we do not succeed with adaptation. The summit will discuss how such losses should be measured and included in the countries’ climate plans, but also raise the issue of financial compensation, for example to vulnerable island nations that may be hit hard by sea level rise.
“However, the issue is very political so we will see how far we get in the formal negotiations”, says Emily Boyd.
Knots need to be unraveled on trading in emission reductions
Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which deals with how states can trade in emission reductions, is still not fully negotiated. The issue was on the table in Madrid in 2019, but without resolution.
“The dilemma with Article 6 is that opinions differ. Some say it would make it easier to achieve emission reductions, while others believe that it would promote methods that are not effective in achieving a reduction. How the article is designed is therefore an important balancing act, and the negotiations tend to be time-consuming,” says Markku Rummukainen.
Global decision making: does it work?
This is not the first time that expectations are high leading up to a climate summit, and more than once there has been great disappointment when disagreements between countries put an end to important steps forward. What suggests that it will not be the same this time?
“As political scientists, we usually say that the international system is characterized by anarchy. No one has any formal decision-making power over anyone else. It is one state, one vote. That is why consensus decisions are needed in climate negotiations”, says Roger Hildingsson, a political scientist at Lund University who studies climate policy.
However, this was more important before the Paris Agreement, he emphasizes.
“The climate negotiations no longer work quite the same way. With the Paris Agreement, each country has been tasked with developing goals and plans for keeping global warming below 2 degrees, or as low as 1.5 degrees. The countries of the world agree on the long-term goal, and it has become something of a benchmark for climate work”, he says.
The idea behind the Paris Agreement has been to build a process that gradually increases the pace of change, and the agreement’s legitimacy hinges on the fact that it succeeds in maintaining confidence that the process really increases ambitions and truly leads to change.
Does the process work?
“Yes, I would like to say it does. The reaction from the rest of the world when Donald Trump dropped out of the Paris Agreement was a sign of that”, says Roger Hildingsson.
Fredrik N G Andersson, associate professor of economics at Lund University, has lower hopes for the summit. He believes more in “climate clubs” where groups of countries – such as the EU – take the lead and show the way forward. As positive examples, he mentions both the EU’s new taxonomy and the discussions on carbon dioxide tariffs.
“I think it is more doable than the bigger agreements, where the smallest common denominator always means too little”, he says.
But it is still crucial that politicians set the framework and are clear with the focus of their politics, at least if you want the business community to follow, he says.
“The private sector is willing to do a lot, but acts within the legal and financial framework that exists. As long as the framework does not change, it is difficult for companies, and households, to change their behavior”, says Fredrik N G Andersson.
Blah blah blah – why not more?
“30 years of blah blah blah”. This is how climate activist Greta Thunberg recently summarized how world leaders have handled the climate crisis so far. It is easy to feel resignation among failed promises. What suggests that it will be different now?
Markku Rummukainen highlights what he calls an “implementation gap” that exists between the countries’ climate plans and actual developments. Goals and visions are important, such as Sweden becoming the world’s first fossil-free welfare state, or the goals of the Paris Agreement, he says.
“But then you have to find the way to get there as well, and it takes time”.
Rummukainen is part of the Climate Policy Council, which on behalf of the government reviews Sweden’s climate policy. The Riksdag has decided on the climate policy framework which states that Sweden will reach net zero emissions by 2045.
“So far, emissions are decreasing much more slowly than the targets state. There is a need for more climate policy, but also for climate policy to have a greater impact in other areas, such as infrastructure, forestry and finance”, he says.
The implementation gap can in turn lead to a confidence gap, says Markku Rummukainen.
“Things have started to happen, for example the share of renewable energy is increasing, and petrol and diesel cars have started to face competition, and consumption patterns are also being discussed more. Things have shifted. But because it starts from a low level, it takes time before you see the effect”, he says.
Roger Hildingsson and Fredrik N G Andersson agree. A lot has started to happen, for example in the EU, but the speed needs to pick up. New policy tools must be developed and tested. The same applies to new technology.
Researchers would also like to see a clearer vision for the future.
“A positive story of the future, about a sustainable welfare society of the future. A socially, economically and environmentally sustainable society. For me, such a societal narrative is an important tool. It can gather people and make them work towards a common goal”, says Fredrik N G Andersson.
Do all the words lead to something? Yes, says Roger Hildingsson.
“I both agree and disagree with Greta. She’s right that not enough has been done, and that science has not been listened to enough. But it is wrong to say that nothing is happening, after all, everything is not just “blah blah blah”.
The Paris Agreement:
The Paris Agreement is an international agreement reached at the UN Climate Change Conference in 2015. Through the agreement, which is seen as a historic milestone in global climate work, countries committed to working towards keeping global warming well below 2 degrees, with the ambition that it stops at 1.5 degrees. The agreement, which consists of 29 articles, also addresses issues such as climate adaptation, climate finance and the responsibilities of rich countries in relation to poorer countries.
The latest IPCC report:
The UN’s climate panel IPCC released its latest climate report on 9 August this year. The report states that there is an unequivocal link between human emissions of greenhouse gases and global warming. The report further states that the earth is heating up quickly and that the 1.5-degree target risks being overshot within ten to twenty years, as well as that the warming is expected to have very serious consequences. It is already noticeable that climate change is here, which is reflected in extreme weather such as heat waves and torrential rain. The report emphasizes that every tonne of emissions plays a role, and emissions need to decrease rapidly if heating is to be limited to 1.5 or 2 degrees.