What does success at COP26 look like?

All eyes turn to Glasgow this weekend as world leaders, political delegates, media, and the climate action industrial complex come together to hash out a path to preventing catastrophic global warming. The COP26 Summit, which is led by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change with the UK as its President, is the most substantial climate conference since nations met in Paris in 2015. That conference gave rise to a common agreement that was subsequently disrupted by the decision of former President Trump to withdraw the United States’ commitments, and the broader domestic crises and geopolitical tensions that have imbued an element of inertia into the Western alliance.

The 2021 conference is not seeking to forge a new collective agreement, but is rather about the roadmap to actualise the promises made six years ago. Perhaps the most central task is to keep the 1.5C global warming prediction within reach – a target that is currently well beyond scope even on the back of recent accelerated commitments. Many countries have begun setting new parameters for emissions reductions by 2050, but the situation requires more concerted action in the next ten years.

One area the UK is looking to drive pledges is the phasing out of coal, which is one of the most polluting fossil fuels. The UK wants wealthier nations to strip coal from their energy production mix and for developing nations to agree to no longer seek to establish new coal plants to underpin their economic growth. There is also a push to reduce high-emitting vehicles from national car markets and increase incentives for both manufacturers and consumers to transition to cleaner vehicles. In line with the increasing role that biodiversity is playing in the climate action conversation, the UK will also lead a call for nations to reduce deforestation, make agriculture more sustainable, and seek to conserve up to a third of global oceans and land by the end of the decade.

Another major area of focus at COP26 will be the willingness of wealthier nations to deliver climate financing for smaller and less affluent nations, to support their transition to net-zero and also address the myriad environmental and economic impacts of extreme weather events. Resolving this financing question is central to developing a productive framework around climate action that establishes conventions of burden-sharing, and will be an essential foundation on which G7 nations and other powers convey their legitimacy to smaller countries on the frontline of climate impacts.

These four areas come together under the slogan: ‘Coal, Cars, Cash and Trees’. Yet the work to be done in Glasgow is as much about procedures as it is about policies, as some practical aspects of the Paris Agreement still need to be hammered out. For example, it is currently unclear how the reporting and assessments around climate action plans (called ‘NDCs’) are to be captured and reviewed by the United Nations, and shared timeframes and standards are needed to ensure this process is effective. There is also much to be determined to support Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which addresses the issue of carbon markets in which nations could purchase carbon credits to fund ‘green’ initiatives.

As world leaders begin to jet into the UK, the absence of some high-profile participants is dampening expectations about what can be realistically achieved. China, a leading global emitter determined to forge its own path on climate action unshackled by what it regards as Western-led cooperation frameworks, will only be sending a muted presence to Glasgow, with President Xi absent from the negotiating table. Russia’s President Putin has also indicated that he will not be in attendance. Both of these strategic rivals of the West recognise that climate action is perhaps the single most urgent area of truly global cooperation at the moment, which can only be advanced through the common participation of all nations, and therefore are keen to maintain and extend their leverage to serve their domestic audiences.

Nonetheless, the UK has done well to secure the presence of many other developing nations, as well as bringing Prime Minister Modi of India to Glasgow – particularly in light of the ongoing situation of the pandemic and its uneven impacts in different parts of the world. The COP26 Summit shares many similarities with the G7 Summit the UK also hosted in June, with the emphasis on the outcomes of the conference matched by the urgency to shore up the legitimacy of the forum itself. Also in the spotlight is the Global Britain project, brought to life in the UK’s capacity to lead, persuade and corral others behind its vision for collective action.

One of the most important tools the UK has in the fight to achieve tangible outcomes at COP26 is the Government’s new Net Zero Strategy – its domestic roadmap to guide the ‘green’ transition, which has been rightly recognised as both ambitious and practical. This document shows the UK Government is capable of joining the dots between vision and application, and is serious about its narrative, framing net-zero as an economic opportunity. Perhaps most importantly, the Strategy recognises the social dimensions to the transition and shows the Government is putting serious thought into how these can be managed in a way that supports governance and a cohesive democracy.

Our foreign policy capabilities and our influence are built on domestic foundations, and while certainly the task of securing global commitments has not been without its challenges, it is the process of translating these into domestic economic and political realities that will consume the next decade. One key question will be the nature and composition of the machinery of Government tasked with taking forward this enormous project – which, like the ‘whole-of-society’ resilience agenda prompted in the Integrated Review, will have many cross-departmental touchpoints, and require fresh procedural thinking to service. The COP26 Summit has been led by a team in the Cabinet Office, but the substance of its ambitions will fall under the remit of many individual units and portfolios.

The stakes of the COP26 Summit are significant, and the UK once again finds itself leading a conversation in which many of our partners and competitors alike share a vested interest. Leaders must agree on some tangible new commitments, as well as reaffirming the future of this forum as a constructive platform for negotiation. However, it is important that scrutiny does not end with the Summit itself, as many of the most critical decisions determining climate outcomes will be made as leaders travel home and sell their transition roadmaps to their own citizens.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.