COP26: How climate catastrophe can be avoided if G20 countries in the world step up

Flooding Philadelphia
Flooding, like that seen in Philadelphia here, could become the norm with a warming world. Credit: AP

Many environmentalists will be questioning Rishi Sunak’s decision to announce plans to freeze fuel duty and reduce air passenger duty for some domestic flights on the eve of COP26, the major climate summit starting in Glasgow this weekend. They think that, as hosts, the UK must be a greener-than-green role model. 

But most also accept that the question of success at COP26 is not about domestic issues in Britain. Instead it is about 197 countries across the world - but especially the richest and most developed - coming together to plug an immense emissions gap.

A new analysis from the UN environment programme set it out starkly this week.

With days to go until COP26, every single updated country plan to cut emissions by 2030 (the so-called NDCs, nationally determined contributions) combined take four gigatonnes of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere in 2030.

We need 28 to keep global warming firmly on track to be below 1.5C hotter than pre-industrial times. 

It’s easy to feel despair, but there are reasons not to, and in particular I want to point to excellent analysis by the World Resources Institute, that tracks the plans of all countries.

It believes that the richest countries in the world - the G20 who will meet in Rome this weekend ahead of COP26 - can alone make all the difference. 

Current G20 climate commitments. Credit: Nik Mann

The WRI split the G20 into three groups.

Those highlighted green on the map - including the UK, EU and US - have strengthened their climate commitments by submitting improved NDCs. 

All of them have also declared a longer term net zero ambition - a date by which they say they will pump out no more greenhouse gases than they take in. Now, there is some debate about how meaningful those pledges are as they don’t usually come with detailed plans and many are not legal commitments, but for climate experts - it’s certainly good to have them.

Before I move onto the countries that are not green, a couple of issues with those that are.

For the summit in Glasgow to be a real success, it needs world leaders to go much further and faster in their commitments to cut greenhouse gases. Asia Correspondent Debi Edward reports from Beijing as China, the world's biggest polluter, submitted its updated commitments. They have barely moved since the last ones at the end of last year.

While Russia has technically updated its NDC and improved its 2030 commitments - those commitments are not really as strong as climate scientists believe they need to be given Russia’s carbon footprint. And the US has good promises but Democrats are still battling to pass the legislation needed to deliver on them, and are looking unlikely to do so by the time the conference starts. 

But beyond that, some highly developed countries are not even green, including Australia which is amber because its update plan is no better than its last one (although it did recently announce a net zero target by 2050 that needs to be updated). 

The COP26 climate conference - what you need to know

What is COP26? When and where will it be?

Each year, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meets at what is called the Conference of the Parties (abbreviated as COP) to discuss the world's progress on climate change and how to tackle it.

COP26 is the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties summit which will be held in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November.

Who is going?

Leaders of the 197 countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – a treaty that came into force in 1994 - are invited to the summit.

These are some of the world leaders that will be attending COP26:

  • US President Joe Biden, climate envoy John Kerry, climate adviser and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, and 10 other US cabinet officials.

  • Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In the days leading up to COP26, Mr Morrison committed Australia to a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Prince Charles, Prince William, the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Cambridge are also attending. The Queen has withdrawn from visiting after being advised by her doctors to rest - she will address the conference virtually instead.

China's President Xi Jinping, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil are among the leaders that have decided not to travel to Glasgow.

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What is it hoping to achieve?

1. Achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels - Countries are being encouraged to set ambitious 2030 emissions targets. They are also encouraged to accelerate the phase-out of coal, clamp down on deforestation, speed up the switch to electric vehicles and encourage investment in renewables.

2. Protect natural habitats and communities from climate change disasters

3. Finances for a greener future - In 2009, developed countries were asked to keep to their promises to contribute at least $100 billion (£72.5 billion) per year by 2020 to protect the planet. In 2015, it was agreed that the goal would be extended to 2025.

However, new analysis shows the goal is unlikely to have been met last year and is on track to fall short in 2021 and 2022.

4. Getting all countries and organisations to work together to tackle the climate crisis

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Also in amber (but that might be generous!) are Mexico and Brazil - the latter so important for the climate as the home of the Amazon rainforest.

They have both updated their plans but they now have worse targets than before. 

China is red on the map, but as I write this, it has just submitted its updated plan to the UN in time for COP26, and the initial response isn’t great. While the document does improve on China’s 2015 targets, it hasn’t improved compared to last year. The country had already declared a longer term ambition to hit net zero by 2060 with emissions peaking in 2030. Experts had hoped that 2030 peak date might be pulled earlier, but it hasn’t. So on first look, disappointing. 

That said, if China committed to any additional curbs on domestic coal production or set out more detail about its route to emissions peaking at COP26 that could be seen as progress. 

Finally is India, who could also yet submit its plans, and who has taken action on decarbonising parts of its electricity supply. Narendra Modi is known to take an interest in this, but India has also said that it won’t put in place a zero ambition. 

As things stand the UNEP report gives a bleak assessment - we are headed for climate catastrophe with heating of 2.7C that we know will be devastating for the world. 

However, included in the WRI analysis is what happens if countries the world over go beyond legal commitments in their NDCs and actually deliver on those net zero ambitions, as well as other announcements that have been made but not formally submitted.

That, they say, could get us to 2.1C - in touching distance of the upper end of the Paris agreement of 2C. 

Now we shouldn’t cheer too hard, because firstly that means a lot of delivery from countries that don’t always have the track record of delivering, and 2C is still very painful for the world and many of our poorest communities. 

However, what happens if just these 20 richest countries - all big emitters - went green and put in place improved plans and ambitions? 

What if Brazil and China and India, and Australia, actually stepped up? 

The WRI says that if the remaining G20 countries were green on this assessment, we could limit heating to 1.7C - in touching distance of 1.5C. 

As Jamal Srouji, associate at the World Resources Institute, tells me: “Action by G20 countries will largely determine whether we can avoid the most dangerous and costly impacts of climate change. While progress has been made in the lead up to COP, it is clear that our emissions trajectory is still off track from where we need to be. 

“To limit warming to 1.5C, G20 countries need to pull their weight and commit to make bolder emissions cuts in the 2020s.”

More offshore wind turbines are part of the British government's energy policy Credit: PA

He argued that COP26 presents a critical opportunity for governments to call on major emitters to come back in the next couple of years to strengthen their 2030 targets further, rather than in five. 

“It is still possible for us to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C, but that window is closing fast. G20 countries must step up to keep that window open and secure a safer future for us all.”

Jennifer Morgan, executive at Greenpeace international says, that what the G20 do is “fundamental for the survival of millions around the world who had nothing to do with causing the problem”.

She argues that it is their responsibility, “and especially the developed countries, but not only them,” to close the gap and keep 1.5C in sight. 

The gap looks on the surface to be almost insurmountable, but many climate scientists believe there is still hope.

COP26 will be tough with many of these countries grouping up to lobby hard to protect themselves, but there is also a growing realisation, sadly forced upon us by the painful reality of climate change, that time is running out.