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How should we measure success at COP26?

With the goodwill and flexibility of Parties, COP26 in Glasgow has the potential to put in place a strong foundation to accelerate climate action to deliver on the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement. It could be an important moment of transition from a focus on negotiations, toward collaboration and meeting the shared challenges of implementation. In that regard, whether COP26 is a success may not be known until a few years beyond 2021.

COP26 was always going to be difficult. Coming at a critical moment of the Paris Agreement ambition cycle, and in light of IPCC reports published since COP21 in Paris, there are high expectations for a significant outcome.

At the same time, these high expectations coincide with a formal negotiating agenda for COP26 that is not capable of delivering against those expectations. Glasgow was never going to be a Paris moment. COP26 is a far more complicated scenario, making defining what success means difficult.

COVID-19 has compounded this challenge by an order of magnitude. The delay by a year means that COP26 has to a large extent become temporally disconnected from arguably one of its two main deliverables – countries coming forward with enhanced climate targets (NDCs). These were due in 2020, and instead of being delivered en masse before or at the COP, they have trickled in over several months – making it hard to package them as a successful out of COP26. Some major economies have still not come forward with enhanced NDCs, and it is not clear they will do so by the end of Glasgow.

The other main deliverable associated with COP26 is developed countries making good on their promise of $100 billion/year in climate finance for developing countries. We now know that this will not be met in Glasgow.

The delay also means that COP26 will have to deal with a massive backlog of technical agenda items, which would have been challenging in normal circumstances – but now more so; the lack of face-to-face negotiations means draft decisions have not been prepared in advance.

All this comes against a backdrop where the IPCC has told us in the starkest terms that we remain far off track from taking the action needed to stay within the 1.5-degree C limit of the Paris agreement.

Given these challenges, what would success at Glasgow look like and how could it be achieved?

The COP26 presidency has helpfully set out four overarching goals for Glasgow. Paraphrasing, they are:

  • Secure global net zero emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) by mid-century, and get the world on track to stay within the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit of the Paris Agreement.
  • Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats.
  • Mobilize climate finance.
  • Work together to:
    • Finalize the Paris Agreement implementing guidelines
    • Accelerate action to tackle the climate crisis through collaboration between governments, businesses and civil society.

On staying with the 1.5-degree C limit of the Paris Agreement, it will be important that Glasgow offers a credible and unequivocal response to the urgency of the latest science. There are many components that could give such a signal, including what leaders say at the G20 and at the start of COP26, any further NDCs delivered before or in Glasgow, and announcements in the action agenda.

In addition to these political signals, to be credible, the COP will also need to address the deficiency in climate ambition in the overarching formal decision that comes out of Glasgow. Components of such a decision could include:

  • acknowledgement of the latest science of the IPCC, as well as the more frequent and severe climate impacts around the world
  • acknowledgement of the mitigation gap and a strong signal of commitment to working towards staying within 1.5°C
  • welcoming those NDCs that have been submitted that are consistent with a 1.5°C trajectory, and an invitation for other countries that have not yet come forward with 1.5 compatible NDCs to do so
  • a clear call for leadership from the major economies
  • clearer expectations on future submissions of long-term, low emission development strategies (LTS), including:
    • inviting those that have not yet done so to come forward with a LTS (particularly since the invitation in Paris was time limited and one-off)
    • asking for LTSs to be consistent with net zero emissions by mid-century, and requesting countries that have committed to net zero emissions to do so in a submitted LTS
    • communication of NDCs consistent with submitted LTSs
    • highlighting the beneficial nature of developing a LTS and sharing best practices and lessons learned with others
    • a call for LTSs to be regularly updated, in line with the five year ambition cycle
  • emphasizing the importance of implementation of climate action, and a clear call for Parties to clear set out implementation policies in response to the requirement in Article 4.2 of the Paris Agreement
  • a call for a ministerial roundtable on 2030 ambition, informed by IPCC science and the UNFCCC NDC synthesis report, and with a focus on implementation as a way of bringing Parties together to address a common challenge
  • welcoming of key announcements in the action agenda
  • a clear signal of commitment to ensuring an effective global stocktake process in order to deliver on the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement.

COP26 will not close the gap to 1.5 degrees C but could be a significant milestone toward that outcome, continuing the acceleration of ambition that has been seen with each successive COP. The Paris Agreement is working. It was never expected to work in one step, which is why it contains a mechanism to progressively raise ambition over time.

On adaptation, it will be vital that COP26 agrees a process to define the global goal on adaptation, which is not yet fully operational in its current format. More focus needs to be given to the good work of the Adaptation Committee in this area.

The IPCC should be asked to do a special report on adaptation.

It will be critical for Glasgow to deliver increased finance for adaptation – whether by more donor countries and institutions committing to 50/50 support for adaptation, as compared to mitigation, or through the extension of share of proceeds in Article 6.

There should also be a clear call for all countries that have not yet done so to come forward with National Adaptation Plans and Adaptation Communications. These are vital as the basis of action on the ground and as input into the GST process.

In addition to adaptation, there are also high expectations regarding Loss & Damage (L&D) at COP26. Demands for progress in this area are driven by the latest science and increasingly frequent and severe climate impacts, which are disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable people around the world.  At the same time, there is a significant mismatch between expectations on L&D at COP26 and what is on the agenda.

As a minimum, Glasgow needs to fully operationalize the Santiago Network, transforming it from what is largely a passive website into something that actively assists vulnerable countries.

An increased focus on climate impacts and finance for resilience, with a reference to Article 2.1.c of the Paris Agreement, could be a constructive way to move forward on L&D, which is politically less sensitive than issues of compensation and liability.

There also needs to be a better understanding of, and coordination with, institutions outside the UNFCCC responsible for aspects of L&D (e.g. the Sendai Framework) to make sure issues don’t fall between stools and remain unaddressed.

Regarding the mobilization of climate finance, failure to deliver on the $100 billion represents a major risk to success in Glasgow. But aside from this, COP26 needs to set out a process to agree the post 2025 climate finance goal. As well as revisiting and raising the $100 billion goal, it will be vital to operationalize Article 2.1.c – recalling that this refers not only to mitigation but also “climate resilient development”. Not enough is made of this critical aspect of ‘shifting the trillions’.

In each of these three areas, 1.5 degrees C, adaptation and finance, COP26 can send an important signal of accelerated action and a forward-looking vision, and as such could mark the transition from zero sum negotiations to win-win collaboration. From that perspective, success may not be known for years afterwards. The COP26 presidency could do well to convene ministerial discussions to set the terms of reference and vision to take forward each of these three areas beyond Glasgow.

In terms of the formal negotiations, key on the agenda for COP26 will be to finalize the guidance to fully operationalize the Paris Agreement. While agreeing these would not by themselves deliver success in Glasgow, failure to do so could cause a ‘failure’. Because the culture of the UNFCCC over some three decades has been built around the negotiation of treaties, there is a risk that the success of COP26 could be judged solely on the drama of whether or not Article 6 implementing guidance is agreed in the final plenary. This would not reflect the reality of the increasing significance of the action agenda in the COP, and would hugely overplay the relative importance of one issue. While we should strive for a good and ambitious outcome on Article 6, it would not be a disaster not to reach agreement in Glasgow. It would be far more consequential to fail to reach agreement on transparency rules, which would have potentially serious knock-on consequences for the operation and rhythm of the Paris Agreement.

To agree the remaining implementing guidance at COP26, including on Article 6, all Parties will need to be flexible. But at the same time any guidance that contains loopholes and is weak on ensuring environmental integrity will be heavily criticized outside the negotiating rooms. Political guidance will be critical to reach a credible conclusion. But this means that technical matters of substance will need to be closed in the first week, sending only a relatively small number of clear options on open issues to be decided by ministers in the second week.

The sheer volume of mandates to be delivered at COP26 due to the backlog caused by COVID 19 means that Parties need to be ready to hit the ground running and start work on day one in Glasgow. The pre-sessional period will be vital to agree on common starting points for negotiations, especially given that formal draft decisions were not prepared in the Subsidiary Bodies meeting earlier this year. Parties should also avoid extended procedural discussions and agenda fights that waste time and cause a bad atmosphere. They will also need to quickly agree which issues should be elevated to the political level and which can be left to subsequent COPs. Finally, it will be important to make effective use of existing agenda items rather than creating new ones, unless there is a real and imperative gap that must be filled at COP26.

While it will be difficult to measure success at a truly unprecedented COP, the important thing to look for in Glasgow will be the putting in place of a solid foundation and vision for the transition from a focus on negotiations, toward collaboration and meeting the shared challenges of implementation, while showing solidarity for the most vulnerable countries and peoples. Whether that is achieved may not be known for some time after Glasgow.