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COP26: half-time reflections

PLOS Climate Executive Editor Jamie Males attended the first week of COP26 in Glasgow. Here he shares some reflections on the conference and outcomes so far.

As the second week of COP26 gets underway, I’m now back in Cambridge and able to follow events through the conference’s virtual platform without having to wait in the long queues outside the venue that were a feature of every morning last week. Although I did have to spend many hours in those queues, I did so in the knowledge that I would eventually get in. Throughout my time in Glasgow, I was acutely aware of the debate taking place about who was, and who was not, getting in. The UK COP26 Presidency has been careful to proactively feature young people, as well as members of indigenous communities and other underrepresented groups in plenary sessions. However, there has been sustained criticism from campaigners that there has not been equitable global representation at the negotiation tables and in the meetings that will shape the conference outcomes. These tensions have only been exacerbated by travel and logistical complications imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. All this, not to mention the gravity of the global climate situation that has led to COP26 being labelled our ‘last best chance’ to avoid catastrophe, made for a highly charged atmosphere.

The World Leaders Summit at the start of each COP tends to grab the headlines, with media and public interest then fading away when the presidents and prime ministers have departed. Although the glitz and glamour of those first two days was very much in evidence, there is a real sense of ongoing scrutiny of proceedings at COP26 from the outside world, reflecting both the urgency with which the global public now views the issues at stake and the heightened attention on equitable participation. But whilst everybody involved and watching on understands the importance of what is happening and what is being decided (though not, besides those behind closed doors, how), there are inevitably divergent expectations about outcomes and mechanisms.

With a similar inevitability, as a first-time COP attendee, I was rather overwhelmed by the vast programme of events taking place across the enormous venue. Alongside the headline plenary and presidency-led sessions, there are also- among many others- UNFCCC SBSTA and SBI meetings, side events organised by observer parties and national delegations, and meetings of regional groups, as well as a continuous cycle of press conferences on procedural, political and scientific matters. And all this is just in the ‘Blue Zone’, where the negotiations and other meetings take place and delegates, observers and press mingle around pavilions and exhibits. Across the River Clyde, in the Glasgow Science Centre, is the ‘Green Zone’, which is open to the public and where exhibits from universities and research organisations, NGOs and industry can all be found, each with their own programme of talks and events. Meanwhile, outside the Blue and Green venues themselves, the streets of Glasgow have provided an unofficial third arena for debate. Activists- many of them members of youth movements- have striven to make their voices heard, with a steady stream of protesters gathering around the perimeter of the venue and major demonstrations taking place in the city centre over the weekend.

A raft of high-level announcements punctuated the first week of COP26 (and we may perhaps expect more to come), on topics ranging from reduction of methane emissions to ending deforestation, and from support for just energy transitions to sustainable agriculture. Some have seen these as very positive signals of political intent and international co-operation, while others have questioned the practical feasibility of these proposals or indeed whether some represent anything more than rehashed versions of pre-existing declarations, or even ‘greenwashing’. Indeed, whilst the world of climate change politics is no stranger to controversy, COP26 has been the scene of particularly fierce debate around the substantive issues, the representation of global communities, and the very language used to describe climate change phenomena and policies and the validity of concepts such as ‘net zero’. The question of finance for climate change adaptation in less economically developed countries has been (and remains) a particularly thorny issue, with many voices calling for governments in the Global North to commit to a scheme of ‘loss and damage’ payments to the developing countries already experiencing the deadly impacts of climate change.

Amidst all the drama and disagreement, one message is clear: the science. I sat in on several sessions convened to report the latest scientific evidence to COP26, including a summary of the recent IPCC AR6 Working Group I report on the Physical Basis of Climate Change (see also this Latitude blog post). The report provides a powerful evidence base that demonstrates not just the immense magnitude of the challenge we face, but also that it is still possible for concerted positive action to steer us onto a safer course. Scientific evidence arising from research that addresses the causes, consequences and means to combat climate change, such as we aim to publish in PLOS Climate, is a vital input to COP processes and informs their scope and ambition. In recognition of its importance, ‘Science and Innovation’ has been designated as a presidency theme for the second Tuesday of COP26.

So how are the negotiations measuring up so far? On mitigation and emissions, during a plenary session towards the end of last week, the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, Dr Fatih Birol, announced that IEA analysts have calculated that updated nationally-determined contributions (country-by-country commitments to emissions reductions) could put us on a path for a 1.8 degree C increase in global mean temperature. This would be a significant improvement on previously envisaged trajectories, but (a) still falls short of the 1.5 degree C goal laid out by the Paris Agreement, and (b) depends on concrete action being taken in support of statements. On adaptation and financial mobilisation, while some progress does seem to have been made, it is clear that there are major sticking points. There was, particularly towards the end of the first week, a faint sense of cautious optimism in the air inside the Blue Zone, tempered by the understanding that COP26 cannot- and was not designed to- solve everything. The backbone of a tentative agreement seems to be falling into place, but negotiators will clearly need the remainder of the second week to complete their ‘arduous task’ of hammering out differences and converging on a multilateral consensus.

If and when a deal emerges, it will only be the next step in the long process of confronting climate change, but it will inform and shape the climate policy, action and scientific research that takes place over the coming years. Like many around the world, we will be following developments closely over this second week of COP26 and exploring the ramifications of its outcomes for researchers, institutions and funders. Watch this space!

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