“Without decisive action, we are gambling away our last chance to – literally – turn the tide”, UN secretary-general António Guterres has said ahead of the meeting. But why is he proclaiming this as our last chance?
At pat COPs various extensions to the UNFCCC treaty have been negotiated to establish legally binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries, and to define an enforcement mechanism. These include the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which defined emission limits for developed nations to be achieved by 2012; and the Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, in which all countries of the world agreed to step up efforts to try and limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures, and boost climate action financing.
So, here’s where COP26 gets interesting: during the conference, among other issues, delegates will be aiming to finalise the ‘Paris Rulebook’, or the rules needed to implement the Agreement. This time they will need to agree on common timeframes for the frequency of revision and monitoring of their climate commitments. Basically, Paris set the destination, limiting warming well below two degrees, (ideally 1.5) but Glasgow, is the last chance to make it a reality.
Which all brings us back to the initial question: why is it the last chance? It is the simple fact that climate change has gone from being an uncomfortable low-level issue, to a life-threatening global emergency, in the past three decades. Although there have been new and updated commitments made by countries ahead of COP26, the world remains on track for a dangerous global temperature rise of at least 2.7°C this century even if Paris goals are met.
The science is clear: a rise of temperatures of that magnitude by the end of the century could mean, among other things, a 62 per cent increase in areas scorched by wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere during summer, the loss of habitat of a third of the mammals in the world, and more frequent four to ten month-long droughts.
Guterres bluntly calls it “climate catastrophe”, one that is already being felt to a deadly degree in the most vulnerable parts of the world like sub-Saharan Africa and Small Island States, lashed by rising sea levels. Millions of people are already being displaced and killed by disasters exacerbated by climate change.
For Guterres, and the hundreds of scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC), a scenario of 1.5°C warming, is the “only liveable future for humanity”. The clock is ticking, and to have a chance of limiting the rise, the world needs to halve greenhouse gas emissions in the next eight years.
This is a gigantic task that we only will be able to do if leaders attending COP26 come up with bold, time-bound, and front-loaded plans to phase out coal and transform their economies to reach so-called net-zero emissions.