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Glasgow thoughts

Why is COP26 a big deal but not much may happen? A blogpost by David Reiner, Associate Professor in Technology Policy at Cambridge Judge Business School, lays out the background and his opinions going into the event in Scotland.

Satellite view of a hurricane storm tornado.
David Reiner.
Dr David Reiner

This is the first of several blogposts by Associate Professor David Reiner on the COP26 climate-change conference in Glasgow, which he will be attending for some of the proceedings. David has done extensive research and writing on many elements related to climate change and energy, including carbon capture, biofuels and electric vehicles, and he is Assistant Director of the Energy Policy Research Group based at Cambridge Judge.

To understand what is at stake at the upcoming COP26 climate change negotiations in Glasgow requires a quick history lesson. 

The international conference is but one step on the long road from the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and the first Conference of the Parties (COP1) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change held in Berlin in 1995. Glasgow has attracted more attention than any event since the Paris talks in 2015 but it may not turn out to be a particularly eventful waystation in the annals of climate negotiations. 

After a contentious negotiations and the last-minute arrival of US Vice President Al Gore, COP3 in Japan in 1997 saw agreement on the Kyoto Protocol, which was a first effort at international co-operation largely restricted to ‘legally-binding’ commitments on major emitters in the developed world. Given that climate change is a global problem there is a sound intuition that it should not matter where you reduce your emissions, and so apart from national targets much of the negotiations was focused on creating multiple mechanisms to try to reduce emissions at the least cost. Unfortunately, though cheaper than domestic efforts, these approaches proved to be unwieldy and produced few genuine emissions reductions

In the years that followed, progress was, to be generous, uneven. Some countries like Russia and Australia agreed to targets that were not binding. The European Union did develop a large-scale emissions trading scheme to try to reduce emissions, but President George W Bush withdrew the United States from the Kyoto Protocol, while others such as Canada stayed inside the agreement for a decade taking little action as their emissions continued to rise before withdrawing in 2011. Developed country emissions have, however, remained largely flat, but global emissions, driven by the rapid economic growth in China, rose over 25% in the decade following Kyoto.

The next major bump in the road was COP15 at Copenhagen in 2009, which was designed to replace the Kyoto regime. The biggest change was that developing countries played a more important role in the negotiations largely because of their booming economies (and emissions). The most dramatic moment came near the end of the negotiations when President Obama burst into a meeting with the Chinese premier, Indian prime minister and the South African and Brazilian presidents to try to reach a final agreement. Though widely seen as a failure, leaders at Copenhagen did secure a commitment to provide $100bn annual in climate finance by 2020. 

Unlike Copenhagen, COP21 in Paris in 2015 is widely viewed as a success because of the greater willingness of participating countries to make more substantial commitments and, importantly, provide for a system for review and redoubling of the so-called nationally determined contributions every five years. China, in particular, was seen as playing a more constructive role following negotiations between Presidents Xi and Obama over many months and then intensive French diplomacy leading to the final agreement. Indeed, there is even evidence that firms and markets reacted to the success at Paris.  

COP26 was, of course, meant to have been held in 2020 and the reason for Glasgow’s importance, therefore, can be found in the Paris Agreement’s five-year review and re-submission and in the longstanding climate finance deadline. Many of the ‘big picture’ issues related to climate change are not actually on the detailed agenda at Glasgow other than in a tangential way. Aside from climate finance and national commitments, one big question will be how ‘nature-based solutions’ or more broadly, carbon dioxide removal options will be treated. There are a raft of other issues to be negotiated including how to rejuvenate any sort of international arrangements for awarding credits for emissions reductions in developing countries. 

Progress on most issues will take time – the fact that the world leaders are appearing at the start rather than towards the end of the conference may indicate that the high-level portion of the meeting will be little more than a glorified photo op. However, perhaps that is less of a problem than it appears since the Paris Agreement lays out the structure for action and now the real focus of attention for climate action can be found at the domestic level. Perhaps the biggest benefit of a focusing event like COP26 is that countries (from the US to Australia to the Middle East) feel some competitive pressure to secure additional domestic action before arriving.