What Would a Successful COP26 Look Like for the UK?

In November 2021, the UK will host the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, in Glasgow – a major gathering of world leaders, climate experts and campaigners designed to stimulate collective action and commitments to tackle climate change.

Hosted on behalf of the United Nations, there are four official goals for the summit:

1. Secure global net-zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach

2. Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats

3. Mobilise finance

4. Work together to deliver

However, while as COP26 President the UK has provided valuable input into these objectives, a successful summit for the UK extends beyond these. Bringing together 30,000 delegates from across the world, COP26 will be the largest summit the UK has ever hosted, and an ambitious and successful COP26 summit is an opportunity for the UK to not only take a leading role in tackling climate change but also to showcase the UK’s strengths and values on the global stage. Reflecting this, here are five key components that would make a successful COP26.

1. China’s attendance and pro-active and ambitious engagement with COP26.

As the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, accounting for over a quarter of global emissions, China’s engagement with COP26 is one of the biggest determinants of the summit’s success. However, so far, the picture looks challenging. China has already missed the extended deadline to submit a National Determined Contribution (NDC), a non-binding national plan highlighting government plans to contribute to achieve the global targets set out in the Paris Agreement, and President Xi is yet to confirm his attendance at the summit.

The UK and the United States have both spent recent weeks proactively engaging with China in an attempt to improve cooperation and collaboration ahead of COP26, with United States Climate Envoy John Kerry reportedly speaking with China’s Climate Envoy Xie Zenhua 18 times since April.

However, significant rifts remain between China and the west on climate action. China maintains that wealthier countries have a greater responsibility to tackle climate change and it has sought to emphasise that cooperation between the United States and China on climate change cannot be separated from the broader relationship between the two nations, a relationship which has continued to deteriorate in recent months.

COP26 President Alok Sharma, who has now arrived in China for negotiations ahead of the summit, will therefore have significant work to do to bring the UK’s strategic rival on board and achieve the UK’s ambition to keep global warming below 1.5°C. However, given the size of China’s emissions and the symbolic impact that China’s engagement could have on the ambitions of other nations, the success of the summit is strongly contingent on his ability to do so.

2. Securing financial pledges from developed nations to mobilise at least $100 billion in climate finance per year.

One of the four stated objectives of the COP26 summit, securing significant climate-finance commitments from developed nations is also integral to the perceived success of the summit and the UK’s ability to act as a leading convening power. With developing nations facing a $40 trillion infrastructure funding gap, and over 100 developing countries condemning “the serial failure of the richest nations to live up to their pledge of leadership” ahead of the summit, it is clear that developing nations urgently want and need support from developed nations through the climate transition.

As such, COP26 President Alok Sharma has repeatedly asserted the need for developed countries to fulfil their commitment to mobilise at least $100billion in climate finance per year by 2020, as well to encourage more private and public sector financing. However, even this might not be enough, with Pakistan officials expressing their “huge disappointment” at a similar recommitment made by the G7 nations to the $100 billion climate finance target, which they argued was inadequate relative to the scale of the financial challenges faced by developing nations. Developing countries have continued to emphasise that climate financing is key to their ability and willingness to commit to ambitious climate targets, and therefore to broader ambitions of global net-zero. For the UK then, securing not only commitments to the $100 billion climate finance target but also concrete financial pledges that restore faith among developing countries, will be central to securing commitments from these nations and to showcasing and reaffirming the UK’s ability as a global convening power.

3. Consigning coal to history by ending use of coal power and international coal financing.

In the lead up to the summit, one of the most prominent and consistent messages from the UK Government has been its desire to “consign coal to history”. It was a message that was emphasised in the final G7 communiqué, in which nations committed to accelerate the transition away from coal power and to end international coal financing. However, no precise timeline for the transition away from coal power was given in the G7 communiqué, despite the UK advocating for a 2030 deadline.  Nonetheless, COP26 President Alok Sharma has continued to urge nations attending COP26 to end coal financing abroad, stop building coal plants at home and phase out the use of existing ones.

However, critics warn that despite a newly opened inquiry, plans to open a new coal mine in Cumbria could jeopardise the UK’s “moral authority” when attempting to persuade other nations to end coal power usage, and considering the challenges the UK faced in gaining support even among its allies in the G7, it may struggle to secure concrete commitments and timelines for the transition away from coal from other nations. As such, and given the prominence of the UK’s messaging around moving away from coal, the concrete nature of the commitments made around coal will be an important yardstick against which to measure the success of COP26.

4. Increasing the number of NDCs submitted and the level of ambition in them.

While many lofty global goals will be outlined at COP26, the ability of the world to meet these ambitions will ultimately be contingent upon the NDCs made by attendees. Only 110 nations made the already extended deadline of the end of July to submit their NDCs, with 80 countries missing the deadline, including both China and India, the first and third largest greenhouse gas emitters respectively. Reviewing the NDCs submitted by the end of 2020, the UN warned that the collective ambition of the NDCs submitted were “very far” from putting the world on track to limit global heating to well below 2°C, and since then only around 40 more nations have submitted NDCs.

The challenge with NDCs has always been a collective action problem, with nations quick to assign blame and responsibility on others, while claiming that they themselves absorb a disproportionate burden. For the bold and noble ambitions that will no doubt be set out at COP26 to be turned into a reality, the UK will therefore have to convince nations of their individual responsibility and capability to take action on climate change.

5. Hosting a safe, inclusive summit which brings together, and elevates, a diversity of voices

Having already been postponed by a year and with Covid-19 still raging across much of the world, managing to safely and securely bring together world leaders for the summit will itself be no small feat. In August, COP15, the UN biodiversity summit, scheduled to be held in China in October was delayed for a third time amid concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic and the need for face-to-face negotiations. However, with growing recognition that time is running out to keep global warming below 1.5°C, the UK Government has emphasised the urgency of holding the meeting face-to-face in November. The UK is “strongly encouraging” delegates to the summit to be vaccinated and has offered to provide vaccines to delegates who may otherwise struggle to access them.

Nonetheless, Climate Action Network, a global coalition of 1,500 civil society organisations, has warned that the summit could become a “rich nations stitch-up”, over concerns about expensive quarantine costs for developing countries on the red list and delays to approving delegates which has left them running out of time to provide vaccines. The UK has subsequently offered to pay the quarantine costs for countries on the UK’s red list to address some of these concerns. But as nations continue to stand at different stages in their pandemic responses, the UK will have to work hard to ensure that the summit itself is seen as safe and inclusive for delegates of all nations and for the UK as a whole, in order to reap the geopolitical and soft power rewards associated with hosting such a significant global summit.

Evie Aspinall

Evie is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group