The climate summit that could save the planet — or doom it

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COP26.
COP26. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

World leaders are calling the upcoming COP26 summit a make-or-break moment in the fight against climate change. Why is this gathering so critical?

What is COP26?

It is a looming summit slated for the end of October in Glasgow, Scotland, at which the United Nations hopes world leaders will make big commitments to reining in climate change and keeping global temperatures in check. COP stands for "Conference of the Parties," and refers to the 197 nations that agreed to the U.N. framework on climate change at a 1992 meeting. The United States and other nations followed up by ratifying that treaty, aiming to collectively fight "dangerous human interference with the climate system." The work has continued with annual COP summits. The first was held in Berlin in 1995; COP3 in 1997 produced the Kyoto Protocol, which set national emissions targets; and the upcoming meeting is the 26th, which is why it's called COP26. Many leaders, including U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, say this summit could be a turning point in the effort to prevent catastrophic damage from climate change.

Why is this meeting such a big deal?

The Paris Agreement, a product of COP21 in 2015, called for keeping global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably no more than 1.5 degrees (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), above the pre-industrial, 1850-1900 average. Scientists say it's critical to hit the low end of that range. A U.N. report released this month found that global temperatures are rising faster than previously thought, and warned that cutting greenhouse emissions in half this decade is necessary to avert a climate catastrophe. But the Paris deal lacked the detailed, deep commitments necessary to achieve its goal of reaching a peak in greenhouse gas emissions, which cause temperatures to rise. Environmentalists and scientists warn that without bolder action to cut emissions it will soon be too late to hit the Paris targets, so they are hoping that COP26 will produce significant new pledges. Kerry and other leaders have called COP26 the "last, best chance" to pull the world back from a climate change tipping point.

Is the difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees really that important?

A half-degree of additional warming above 1.5 degrees would result in more frequent heat waves, flooding, and water shortages for tens of millions of people, a recent United Nations report says. As The New York Times notes: "Half a degree may mean the difference between a world with coral reefs and Arctic summer sea ice and a world without them." If temperatures are allowed to rise by 2 degrees Celsius, crop yields will fall around the world, with sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America being hit particularly hard.

Can the worst still be avoided?

While it's wishful thinking to expect miracles from COP26, Alok Sharma, the British lawmaker who is president of COP26, has said the summit will be successful if it can keep "1.5 alive." But governments all over the world have to act fast. An International Energy Agency report released this month found that the ultimate goal of bringing emissions down to "net zero," where all greenhouse gas emissions are absorbed naturally or artificially, by 2050 will require more than tripling investment in clean energy projects and infrastructure. Earlier this week, the British government released a study warning the country could face devastating floods from increased river flows and sea-level rise caused by climate change if Britain doesn't do more to counter rising temperatures. "It's adapt or die," said Emma Howard Boyd, head of England's Environment Agency. But exceeding the Paris goal is still avoidable if the world's biggest polluters slash emissions now.

What other goals do organizers have for COP26?

Sharma wants the conference to lead to a host of firm agreements. One of those is establishing a target date for ending "unabated" coal, a term that refers to coal burned without the capturing of its greenhouse-gas emissions before they reach the atmosphere. The COP26 president also wants a deal calling for wealthy nations to provide $100 billion to help developing countries adapt to the transition to cleaner energy. Other targets include transforming the auto industry so all new cars sold will be zero-emission vehicles within 19 years, ending deforestation by 2030, and reducing emissions from methane, which has 80 times the warming effect as carbon dioxide. But those are lofty goals, and not everyone believes they are attainable.

Why not?

The fight against climate change has lost momentum in recent years. COP26 was delayed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic. And before that, former President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the landmark climate agreement. President Biden has rejoined the deal, and promised to show up in Glasgow "with bells on." But there will be 20,000 heads of state, diplomats, and activists at the conference, and getting that many people to agree on anything will be no easy task. Companies that have contributed millions to sponsor the summit and pay such things as an anticipated $345 million policing bill have complained that the summit has been "mismanaged" and "very last minute," with "very inexperienced" civil servants delaying important decisions and flubbing communication with stakeholders. And while Biden, Queen Elizabeth, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and other leaders plan to be there, President Xi Jinping of China, the world's No. 1 polluter, has not committed to going.

So is there any hope COP26 will do any good?

Many countries have already made new pledges to cut emissions, so there's a strong chance others will step up, too. Seventeen countries, including Japan and the United States, and the European Union have announced new commitments. Biden has said that America will cut emissions 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels in the next decade. Congress will have to pass significant legislation to help make Biden's promise a reality, though. And more nations will have to agree to cut their emissions at COP26 and in coming years to keep the 1.5-degree goal within reach. So far, leading polluter China has yet to commit to specific actions to reduce its emissions ahead of COP26. Nor has Russia. And several countries, including Saudi Arabia, Japan, and Australia already are lobbying to downplay the need to shift away from fossil fuels. "By the time Glasgow's over, we're going to know who is doing their fair share, and who isn't," Kerry said.

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