What is the Cop26 climate summit all about - and will it be a success?

Boris Johnson wants to use the Cop26 climate summit to showcase 'global Britain' - but will it be a success? Credit: PA

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Cop26, the UK-hosted climate summit, which begins in Glasgow late next month.

It comes after almost every country in the world agreed in Paris, in 2015, to try to limit global warming to below 2 degrees and ideally 1.5, compared to pre-industrial times.

They then promised to track progress towards that target every five years.

Glasgow, which was delayed by one year because of Covid, is the first major chance for the planet to take stock of global climate action as we seek to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of global heating.

The UK bid to host this critical event because Boris Johnson believed it would be a chance to showcase “global Britain”.

But what will success look like?

The first thing to understand is that Glasgow – unlike Paris - is not about a treaty or unified agreement. Instead, it is a chance for countries to put forward their individual plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions -known as their nationally determined contributions or NDC’s.

Once we have those proposals, it is then a chance to take stock – and ask how far they will take us towards those Paris targets.

So, let’s start by looking at what needs to happen. This chart, made for me to present on ITV’s Peston by graphic designer Nik Mann and producer Lili Donlon-Mansbridge, looks at the number of gigatons of greenhouse gases that we pump into the atmosphere every year, starting in 2010.

The pink line shows the trajectory that the world has been on. The yellow line is what will happen if countries deliver the maximum they promised to in NDC’s submitted back in 2015, at the time of Paris.

That may have tipped down slightly down, but it is still headed towards 53 gigatons of greenhouse gases pumping out into the atmosphere in 2030.

When you consider that one gigaton is a BILLION metric tonnes (equivalent to the size of 200m elephants) you can start to visualise the scale of the challenge.

Because we are on track for 53x of those.

Now look down at the trajectories we would need to be on to be staying below 2 degrees warming (in blue) and 1.5 degrees (in green).

To drop to the 2 degrees line, we would need to emit at least 12 gigatons less in 2030 (and possibly 15 gigatons less under another realistic scenario). To get to 1.5, we are talking about a whopping reduction of 29 (or even 32).

That represents a genuinely jaw-dropping emissions-gap.

The good news is that 113 countries have already submitted updated NDC’s in preparation for Glasgow, including almost all developed countries, which tend to be big emitters.

Remember those are their plans to reduce emissions, with some pledging ambitious timeframes for a net 0 target.

The bad news is that all those national plans to tackle climate change combined (including America’s, Britain’s and the whole of the EU’s) – will take, at most, just four gigatons out of the amount emitted in 2030.

Leaving us with a huge chasm still to be filled.

Even with the rest of the plans, the chance that country promises by Glasgow will take us to a trajectory that limits heating to under 2 degrees seems almost hopeless, never mind reaching the summit’s big hope of 1.5.

Now before I (hopefully) cheer you up a bit, I have one more area of concern.

And that is the two biggest emitters in the world. Because there are reasons to specifically worry about both China and America, which together hold the key to this entire challenge.

More than one expert told me that they have opposing reputations – America to over-promise and under-deliver and China to under-promise and over-deliver.

Which is why I hear fears (including from a government minister who has been working on Cop26) that the US’s solid target – may not come with the political solution needed to make it happen.

And what the world really doesn’t need right now is for the yet to be delivered plan from China (which pumps out more greenhouse gases than all developed countries combined) to fall short of what is needed.

China and the United States are among the world's biggest CO2 emitters. Credit: AP

So how can I cheer you up?

Well, when I ran through all of this with Peter Betts, an associate fellow at the think-tank, Chatham House, who has worked as a civil servant for over three decades include as Britain’s lead climate negotiator, he gave me reasons to be hopeful.

As did a senior source involved in this year’s summit.

The source stressed that Paris was an “enduring agreement” and that the first big chance to check progress was never going to turn us towards 1.5 degrees in one go.

“It was always about keeping it alive,” they said, arguing there was plenty to be positive about.

While admitting that the NDC’s were likely to fall short, they said they did represent significant progress from countries across the world within just a few years of the Paris agreement.

That sign of willingness suggests that proposals will continue to improve through this decade, they said, pointing out that a single move by China could lead to a massive shift in direction.

And there is so much hope outside of country plans, they added, with signs that technological and market change could be fundamental.

They gave the examples of the cost of renewables falling fast, real hope in green hydrogen, and big reductions in coal production.

Betts argued the same.

Both stressed that China had reasons to act, in its own self-interest. So, when China did act this week – in pledging to stop building new coal energy plants this week – it felt like great news.

Is it a game-changer, I asked the Cop26 source. “It definitely changes the game,” they replied, but said more is needed from China, on a domestic level.

And that is the key thing to hope for ahead of Cop.