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'This COP cannot save the world': Will this year's UN climate summit have a dramatic outcome?

Any deals or agreements reached at COP26 will be very technical and require a lot of scrutiny, experts say.

COP26 HAS BEEN hyped as a last-chance meeting to take real action on climate change – but despite all the focus on the Glasgow summit, its outcome may not have dramatic real-world impacts. 

If a deal is agreed at the end of the UN climate summit on Friday, there will be smiles all around, handshakes (or elbow bumps) and optimistic speeches. 

But there is still a long way to go on the journey to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Dr Tara Shine, environmental scientist and co-facilitator for the UN on a dialogue between scientists and policymakers at COP26, said that the narrative around this summit being a “last chance” to take action on climate is inaccurate. 

“This COP cannot save the world – there will be a COP27, and having a COP27 is not a failure,” Dr Shine told The Journal.

“It’s part of this international multi-lateral process. So this is all about step-change, and will it be a big enough step? That’s what this COP has to be – a big enough step to allow countries to rally do more.

The action takes place on a country level. All this international process does is set a common framework that every country signs up to, but the implementation happens in every single country on the ground. 

Countries are currently negotiating and trying to find consensus on a number of key different issues. 

Some of the major sticking points experts believe are needed for this COP to be considered a success are finalising the details of how to implement the Paris Agreement reached in 2015, and to hit a $100 billion (€86 billion) target for a fund to help developing countries adapt to the impacts of climate change.

There is also the issue of providing funding for climate change loss and damage, which activists and developing countries say is needed to deal with the impacts of climate change they are already facing such as more frequent extreme weather events. 

Other discussions are centred around ensuring a level-playing field for countries to engage in carbon trading on a worldwide basis and forming an agreement around transparency in emissions reporting. 

Dr Shine said: “A deal is a complicated thing. It’s going to be a trade-off of lots of separate agenda items. Judging whether it’s a success at the end is going to be really difficult because you won’t be judging it on if there’s an outcome or not, it’s going to be a whole lot more subtle than that.

“Will we have made enough progress on climate finance balanced with enough progress on mitigation? But what are we doing about adaptation? How do the least developed countries feel that their issues have been addressed, their concerns about loss and damage?”

This COP will not have a treaty outcome, not one piece of paper or one book, it’s going to have a myriad of different agreements – decisions we call them – that together will add up to the rulebook being completed for implementing Paris [Agreement].

The current situation

In terms of a successful outcome to this summit, professor in the geography department at Maynooth University John Sweeney said he remains hopeful for “fairly significant progress in the next few days”.

“What I’ve found so far is that despite the enormous number of people here, there’s no real evidence yet emerging of a will to make the radical changes necessary to actually achieve the steps necessary to avoid that 1.5 degrees of warming which we’re all desperately keen to avoid,” Sweeney told The Journal.

He added that the build-up to this year’s summit has some similarities with the 2009 conference in Copenhagen “in that they were both billed as the last chance to save the world”.

The Copenhagen conference was hugely hyped up in advance, but ultimately ended with no agreed treaty although many experts say it set the stage for the eventual Paris Agreement in 2015.

This COP is not trying to reach a treaty agreement, but rather deal with a number of issues including finalising the details of the 2015 deal. 

“I hope it’s a really big outcome,” Sweeney said. “I hope that when they all assemble on the platform on Friday night [on schedule] and start hugging and kissing each other that it’s something substantive they’re talking about. 

“I fear that there will still be some recalcitrant countries that will simply hold that progress and that we will be going to COP27 as we did to COP26 looking for still the really radical changes.”

However, Sweeney said there is benefit to having the international treaty from Paris to “put the onus on countries to actually deliver on their commitments”, along with the most up-to-date science released earlier this year from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

“The IPCC sixth assessment report gave a very clear signal as to where we’re headed if we don’t actually achieve some of those radical reductions,” he said. 

“I think the tide is turning. It’s not turning fast enough, but it is turning in a way where I think to be on the wrong side of history will be very detrimental to some countries in the future if we don’t make the compromises necessary and grasp the opportunities of a world where climate change is tackled.

“Where hazards and disasters are minimised a bit more, where we have cleaner air, less pollution, more efficient energy systems and transport systems. 

Somebody once told me that the Stone Age didn’t end when we ran out of stones. The fossil fuel age has to end before we run out of fossil fuels.

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Undramatic ending

Dr Diarmuid Torney, associate professor in the school of law and government in DCU, said the outcome this year is “unlikely to be dramatic”. 

“There’s expected to be a COP decision, so a piece of text, but it’s likely to be technical in places and it might be hard for society and for the wider public to get their heads around. We don’t really know the shape of that yet,” he said. 

Dr Torney said it would be a “misunderstanding of the process” at COP to expect something akin to the deal reached in 2015. 

I think that people who are following the process reasonably closely know that it’s not going to be a big bang moment like the Paris Agreement.

He said the expected outcome was “much clearer” in 2015 as countries were seeking a big, ambitious agreement on climate action and targets. 

“But now, six years on, we haven’t bent the emissions curve in any meaningful way since then and so the task has become that much harder,” he said. 

“I think this COP is sending important signals to markets, and to the financial system, and to society about a direction of travel. But really we’re leaving it very late, and the later we leave it the harder the task becomes.” 

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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