Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series on COP 26. Click this link to read the second part.
On Sunday October 31st, the 26th annual United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) began in Glasgow, Scotland. COP 26 is seeing delegations from nearly every country on Earth meeting to debate how to address the changing climate, with world leaders (and their attendant hordes of negotiators) tasked with hammering out the details of a global approach. Glasgow is not just the ordinary yearly COP, either; representatives from the 197 separate member states who’ve signed on to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will be updating their emissions targets, the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) laid out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, for the first time since that landmark convention was signed at COP 15.
So far, so good with steady institutional progress on the climate crisis – but there are a few significant problems surrounding the summit which Canadians (and anybody else interested in a livable world) must keep in mind. First, those much-lauded NDCs produced at Paris which are being updated are the same goals that the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) recently assessed would cause a catastrophic 2.7 degree Celsius increase in warming worldwide, even if they were followed to the letter. This is a far cry from the 1.5 to 2 degree Celsius limits which Paris proposed as necessary to stopping catastrophic warming. For context, a report by NASA’s climate change researchers indicates that 2 degrees of warming rather than 1.5 would see fully half the global population experiencing climate change-induced water scarcity. Rather than a simple quantitative increase (though hundreds of millions of additional people worldwide would experience climate-induced flooding, drought, heat waves and disease), 2.7 degrees of warming begins to shift the conversation from academic to apocalyptic. According to a recent report from the Australian Academy of Sciences, anything near 3 degrees of warming raises the possibility of “tipping points”, meaning “an increasing risk that planetary systems will fail, irreversibly pushing Earth towards a much hotter state with an increasing risk of rapid and effectively irreversible changes”.
Needless to say, Canada should be quite invested in preventing such warming, and in guiding the outcome of COP 26 accordingly.
With our economic heft and prodigious output of pollution, the wealthy world must take this challenge seriously.
Past performance on the part of Canada and other wealthy countries should indicate how COP 26 is likely to go. Unfortunately, the results do not inspire great confidence, even in terms of implementing any plans the summit might produce. One illustrative example is lagging progress in helping the world’s least-developed states adapt to a changing world; part of COP 15 in Copenhagen was an agreement by 23 of the world’s most developed economies (and the European Union as a whole) to commit increasing sums towards climate adaptation in the developing world. Eventually, the goal was for this yearly commitment to reach $100 billion USD by 2020. In the week leading up to the summit, the governments of Canada and Germany published a report detailing how the world’s wealthiest countries had fared in their self-imposed fundraising goals. According to that report, the world’s wealthiest states have fallen significantly short to the tune of a $20 billion gap in 2019, and won’t hit $100 billion until 2023 at the earliest. This funding would have not only contributed to helping the countries least-equipped to face the climate challenges of the future, but would have proven that rich countries are willing to actually put their money where their mouth is. Instead, the world’s seven largest emitters are sinking over double the funding into border militarization as they are into climate mitigation for the developing world—not the most hopeful demonstration of priorities.
With this clear lack of drive, is it any surprise that the leaders of major emitters China and Russia (who collectively produce about a third of greenhouse gas emissions) have declined attending COP 26 altogether? Perhaps Xi and Putin simply glanced at the dismal record of actually carrying out climate goals which has haunted global summitry since Kyoto and decided they weren’t likely to miss much.
Despite dire predictions and a string of failed climate initiatives in the rear view mirror, the world would be wrong to give up on COP 26. Maybe instead, the politicians and policymakers in attendance have actually begun to comprehend what a warming world might look like for themselves and their children. On the Canadian side there were even some signs of hope in the week preceding the conference, such as Canada’s new environment minister being named as former Greenpeace campaigner Stephen Guilbeault, a move which has already reportedly struck fear in the heart of Canada’s oil and gas sector. With a robust enough showing at COP 26, maybe Canada can make pledges strong enough to steer other middle powers towards a future under 1.5 degrees Celsius. More importantly, maybe it can even stick to whatever ambitious new targets emerge as the post-Paris NDC refresh. COP 26 could be remembered as the moment when, through compromise and goodwill, the world began to change for the better.
Of course, we could just see more of the same.
Mischa Longman is an Associate Editor at iAffairs Canada. He is a current MA candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where he specializes in security and defence policy. He completed his undergraduate degree in Political Science at the University of Calgary, where he researched interstate competition in the Arctic in both the military and economic fields. His research focus is Canada’s relationships with larger powers, especially as they relate to security concerns. He is also a public servant, working as an analyst for the Government of Canada.