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What does the success of COP26 look like?

The COP26 is experiencing its first major oscillation. This may seem like a slightly odd assessment for a summit that has seen its first president sacked and replaced unceremoniously, been subject to a pandemic-induced postponement, faced calls for a second postponement and experienced funding disputes with the Scottish government, strong criticism from developing countries of ‘vaccine apartheid’, accusations of overselling by commercial sponsors and long-standing allegations of the Prime Minister’s secondment and diplomatic naivety . Hasn’t the high-stakes trailer wavered from the start?

But most of the drama surrounding the Summit to date has been linked to logistics or domestic politics. The crucial question of what COP26 will actually achieve has remained largely unanswered, with the lack of in-person preliminary meetings meaning that the various dead ends and flashpoints that characterize every UN climate summit have largely been overwhelming. ignored.

Now, days away from the start of the Summit, attention is late turning to what could be agreed upon and what success looks like – and some people don’t like what they find.

Yesterday’s reports in The sun that COP26 President-designate Alok Sharma “rages” against Prime Minister Boris Johnson over failure to manage summit expectations exposes a fundamental challenge that every host of a climate summit has been faced with faced since the start of negotiations in the early 90s – different interests have very different definitions of what constitutes a successful COP.

Prior to COP26, there are four distinct but overlapping areas to assess the success of the Summit: logistics, practical, global and technical. What constitutes success on each of these fronts inevitably depends on interpretation, but the problem for UK hosts is that the areas where the line between success and failure is clearest are also the areas where it is the most obvious. more difficult to get a deal.

From a logistical point of view, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic, while guarding against overconfidence.

There have been complaints about skyrocketing hotel costs and shoddy sponsorship engagement, while concerns are high for everything from Covid outbreaks and rail strikes to the prospect of disruptive protests and appalling weather conditions . Organizers are painfully aware of how logistical woes have become a leitmotif of the diplomatic disaster of the Copenhagen summit. The lesson from the past of COPs is that having to queue for hours for safety reasons or being unable to easily find decent food halfway through inevitably leads to anger. But the government is quietly confident that it has learned such lessons and can orchestrate a successful meeting. Meanwhile, yesterday’s reports that India’s Narendra Modi is due to attend, mean Chinese President Xi and Russian President Putin should be the only high profile “no shows”. More than 100 world leaders are now expected to appear in the first week, along with thousands of senior ministers and diplomats, and this week’s release of the official Summit program confirmed there will be plenty of events to keep them entertained. .

The various thematic days of COP26 also show to what extent the government can be sure that it will record a significant number of concrete successes.

Part of the reason the Prime Minister has been so optimistic about the summit’s prospects is because he knows a wave of announcements is in the works that will give a boost to global decarbonization efforts. His slogan desire to see progress on “coal, money, cars and trees” is likely to be fulfilled, albeit partially.

A significant number of countries will reiterate their commitments to phase out coal-fired electricity or end funding for coal. Hopes that the totemic goal of providing $ 100 billion a year in climate finance for the poorest countries can be achieved may have been tempered by yesterday’s reports that the United States has failed. yet signed a deal that would ensure the target is met, while the UK’s decision to cut overseas development aid has failed to help build goodwill among poorer nations. But it is certain that a deal is within reach that would finally see the long-promised $ 100 billion in cash. When it comes to cars and trees, there will be no universal agreement to turn the internal combustion engine into history and expand forest cover, but there will be many eye-catching and encouraging national commitments on both fronts. All of these various announcements will be accompanied by a veritable battalion of initiatives and commitments led by businesses and investors, all of which should help catalyze a continued expansion of decarbonization efforts in the real world.

The problem for a Prime Minister who likes to claim victory at every opportunity is that as the Summit enters its dramatic climax, the emphasis on welcome national or industrial commitments will inevitably shift to the technical substance of the talks. , and this is where the hosts have limited control over the outcome.

The two main criteria for the Summit’s success are whether it begins to align emissions trajectories with global targets – that is, whether, in Alok Sharma’s words, “maintains the 1 , 5 ° C alive – and if it finalizes the Paris Agreement regulations.

Faced with this first metric, there is reason to be slightly optimistic. Sharma may have been the subject of criticism from an anonymous Cabinet colleague who argued that the public had no idea what it means to “keep 1.5 ° C alive”, but all those in the talks know exactly what the goal is and there is a strong coalition supporting it.

The recent wave of net zero commitments from major economies represents remarkable progress since the signing of the Paris Agreement and suggests that the global emissions curve may start to curve downward over the next decade. If President Biden convinces people that he can still come up with credible decarbonization plans in defiance of Sen. Joe Manchin’s blocking tactics, if India steps up its national climate action plan, if China comes to Scotland with information on how it intends to reach net zero by 2060, then it is possible to envision the Glasgow Summit closing with new projections showing temperature increases could be kept around 2 ° C this century. Whether such a plan keeps 1.5C alive then becomes a judgment based on your optimism about emissions trajectories for the coming decade, the prospect of countries further stepping up decarbonization plans in five years and the plausibility of emissions. negative emissions projects.

Hosts will want to put an optimistic twist on the surge in national net zero commitments, rightly highlighting how the ratchet mechanism contained in the Paris Agreement works and how climate action is accelerating globally. Activists and many of those countries facing the worst climate impacts will respond that global emissions continue to rise, that there is still no credible plan to limit warming to 1.5 ° C, and that as such, the Summit has singularly failed to achieve its goals.

The context in which this argument unfolds will be provided by the clearest mechanism for assessing the success of the talks: whether or not an agreement is reached on the technical rulebook for the Paris Agreement. As Ed King expertly explained earlier this week, talks have been deadlocked for years on three crucial topics: transparency mechanisms to assess whether countries are implementing their national action plans; common timetables for updating and evaluating national plans; and Article 6 of the Treaty covering the rules of the carbon market.

The tense round-the-clock negotiations on these issues will be informed by continuing disagreements over the extent to which poorer and richer nations should be treated differently – a still controversial topic that aired earlier this week when the group ” like-minded “large emerging economies have launched broadband to UK hosts arguing that they should not call on poorer countries to adopt net zero targets by 2050 which are the same as those adopted by industrialized economies.

“Major developed countries are now pushing to move the Paris Agreement targets away from what has already been agreed by calling on all countries to adopt net zero targets by 2050,” they wrote. “This new ‘goal’ that is being put forward goes against the Paris Agreement and is anti-fairness and against climate justice.”

This is why some people involved in the talks are so concerned about managing expectations. The last COP in Madrid lasted more than 40 hours and still failed to reach an agreement on the finalization of the settlement. Preliminary discussions for COP26 which aim to determine where a compromise might be possible and where “landing zones” might emerge have been greatly disrupted by covid. Many key players rightly believe that developing economies are victims of appalling injustice. Meanwhile, as Unearthed revealed today, some of the world’s biggest polluters are very happy to engage in bad tactics as they work to protect their narrow short-term interests and dilute any agreement. With each passing year, the manner in which the Paris Agreement has succeeded in gaining universal support looks like one of the most astonishing diplomatic achievements in modern history. It is a difficult act to follow.

A historic breakthrough remains possible. The summit will take huge steps forward in efforts to decarbonise the real economy. Standardization of net zero strategies will ensure that the viability of the temperature targets contained in the Paris Agreement remains a matter of legitimate debate. The overall signal for businesses and investors will be that the net zero transition is irreversible and is gaining momentum. The scam, backstage deals and rigged compromises could still secure a technical deal. But equally, deadlocked negotiations could easily overshadow progress made on other fronts and fuel the perception that the whole exercise failed to meet its core goals.

That’s why sky-high expectations and an inability to properly explain what the talks are trying to achieve could prove so damaging. This is why COP26 is faltering. And that’s why we can expect a lot more raging drama before the final hammer falls. Success remains within reach, but what that success looks like remains to be achieved.

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