COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow: What to Expect

In Brief

COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow: What to Expect

Experts have warned that time is running out to avoid climate catastrophe. Will the global climate conference spark action?

Representatives from countries around the world will gather in Glasgow, Scotland, for the latest round of climate talks—the twenty-sixth Conference of the Parties (COP26)—during the first two weeks of November.

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The conference comes as alarm over the earth’s climate reaches a new high. With greenhouse gas emissions and global temperatures continuing to rise, fueling unprecedented disasters worldwide, all eyes are on whether negotiators can make progress on issues such as climate finance, coal use, and methane emissions.

What’s at stake?

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Scientists and UN officials have warned that if governments don’t take drastic action to reduce emissions immediately, much of the world will suffer climate catastrophes, such as devastating sea-level rise, longer and more intense heat waves, and widespread species loss, among other consequences.

Six years ago, nearly every country signed the Paris Agreement, which committed them to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, earth-warming emissions have continued to rise faster than expected. This year, emissions reached historic levels, despite a brief decline last year at the start of the pandemic. 

The Paris accord aims to keep the global average temperature from rising by 1.5°C (2.7°F) above preindustrial levels and, failing that, prevent it from reaching 2°C (3.6°F) above. But the world has already warmed 1.1°C, and a UN assessment [PDF] released in August predicted that warming will exceed 1.5°C within the next two decades.

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COP26 is the first time since the Paris Agreement that countries are revisiting their voluntary commitments under the accord. More than one hundred countries have already submitted new targets, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). However, experts say that even these new NDCs are not enough to prevent devastating temperature rise.

What are the aims of COP26?

Debate will likely focus on the following issues: 

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Climate finance. Experts say climate finance will likely emerge as one of the most challenging issues of COP26. Developing countries, which have contributed the least to emissions levels, are demanding that developed countries follow through on a pledge to mobilize $100 billion per year to help them reduce emissions and adapt to the worsening effects of climate change. Another issue expected to come up is how to assist nations already experiencing loss and damage due to climate change. 

Carbon markets. All components of the Paris Agreement’s so-called rulebook—the guidelines for how to implement the accord—have already been agreed upon, except for Article 6. That section deals with how to develop and implement so-called international carbon markets, which allow for the trading of emissions-reduction credits. 

A person paints a mural that reads, "Our Climate Is Changing."
An artist completes a mural near the center where COP26 will be held in Glasgow. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Coal. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is hosting COP26, has called on developed countries to stop using coal—a major source of emissions—by 2030 and for other countries to phase it out by 2040. However, discussions on coal have already been contentious. Earlier this year, the Group of Seven (G7) failed to agree on a date to stop using coal. China and India, which in recent weeks have suffered energy crises partly due to coal shortages, have also resisted committing to eliminating coal.

Methane. Leaders will formally pledge to cut methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030, a goal that was unveiled by the United States and the European Union in September. More than a dozen countries have already signed the pact. The world’s top methane emitter, China, has not yet joined.

Who’s coming?

Some twenty thousand diplomats, business executives, and activists are expected to converge on Glasgow. Dozens of world leaders are also planning to attend, including U.S. President Joe Biden. 

It will be the first COP since the United States reentered the Paris Agreement this year, and the Biden administration will likely take a significant role in the negotiations. However, at home, the administration has struggled to pass its sweeping climate bill in Congress. There are serious concerns that any passable climate legislation would not go far enough, which could damage U.S. credibility on the international stage. “The question that is on everyone’s minds is: Can the United States fulfill its commitments under the Paris accord?” says Robert N. Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard University. 

Meanwhile, the leaders of some of the highest-emitting countries will be absent, including Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Russian President Vladimir Putin, although they are expected to send negotiators. Chinese President Xi Jinping has not yet said whether he will attend in person; China’s climate envoy and other officials are planning to be there.

Will negotiators make progress in Glasgow?

The commitments that governments make during COP26 are unlikely to be ambitious enough to prevent temperatures from rising 1.5°C or even 2°C, although a few countries could make surprise announcements. 

Nonetheless, COP26 will set the stage for negotiations that will continue both within the COP process and outside of it. Climate change will likely be a central topic at future multilateral summits, such as those of the G7 and Group of Twenty (G20), as well as within national governments. 

A successful COP would be one that instills “a sense that we’re still in it together as a world,” says Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Center, “and a sense of a commonly owned agenda where we will continue to raise ambition over the coming years.”

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