‘It’s the art of diplomacy.’ Climate summit will test nations’ ambition.

Rebecca Naden/Reuters
An installation of a "Sinking House" is partly submerged to highlight climate change ahead of COP26, in Bath, England, Oct. 26, 2021.
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Heading into a summit starting next week in Glasgow, Scotland, most of the 190-plus parties to the Paris Agreement have pledged to expand their national efforts to mitigate climate change. 

Even so, the world is on track to emit 16% more greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 compared with 2010, a United Nations analysis finds. To hold global warming in check, emissions need to be headed rapidly down instead, scientists say.

Why We Wrote This

A climate summit opens Sunday, rooted in a system of voluntary national commitments that is far from perfect. But one former climate official says, “There are moments where we can ... head towards the common good.”

The big picture behind this 26th “conference of parties,” or COP26: The world’s current system of voluntary national pledges remains far from perfect. Yet it’s a building block for progress through cajoling and diplomacy.

In Glasgow, this messy system faces its most consequential test since the 2015 Paris Agreement. Top agenda items include efforts to sharply curb methane emissions, to end financing of coal plants, and to scale up rich-nation assistance to poorer ones so that clean energy advances globally.

“We have a voluntary system because that’s what we can agree to,” says Alice Hill, a former special assistant to President Barack Obama who worked on climate resilience. “What’s the alternative?”

How do you get 197 countries to agree to a common plan of action that requires them to forsake the abundant energy sources that built the modern world? 

The inconvenient reality: You don’t, at least not quickly. Rather, for now victories come one national pledge at a time. 

A decentralized process is, in essence, both the genius and the bane of the world’s approach to humanity’s most pressing environmental issue. It keeps doors open to progress, as world leaders gather next week in Glasgow, Scotland. But modest gains, not momentous breakthroughs, are the norm. 

Why We Wrote This

A climate summit opens Sunday, rooted in a system of voluntary national commitments that is far from perfect. But one former climate official says, “There are moments where we can ... head towards the common good.”

Those gains typically come slowly and deliberately, using persuasion, cajoling, bargaining, and flexibility. All the while knowing that it may or may not be enough to bridge the gaps between nations. 

Starting on Oct. 31, this messy system faces its most consequential test since 2015, when the Paris Agreement for the first time tasked each nation to do its part in decarbonizing human society. Every five years after that, nations were expected to set new and typically more ambitious emissions targets. The Glasgow summit, known as COP26 – the 26th “conference of parties” to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – will be the first such moment of truth, due to a one-year pandemic postponement. Yet there’s no global referee to enforce performance.

“We have a voluntary system because that’s what we can agree to,” says Alice Hill, a former special assistant to President Barack Obama who worked on climate resilience. “What’s the alternative?”

The imperfection of the system is all too visible. Six years after the world agreed in Paris on the ideal of holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, only Britain and Nigeria among the 50 largest economies are on a path close to meeting that target

Heading into the summit, most of the 192 Paris signatories have pledged to expand their national efforts to mitigate climate change. Still, greenhouse gas emissions are on track to be 16% higher in 2030 compared with 2010, a recent U.N. analysis finds. 

And already, global temperatures have warmed by more than 1 degree Celsius from the preindustrial era. 

To-do list from coal to carbon markets

The stage is set in Glasgow for two weeks of hard bargaining and complex negotiations. In reality, much heavy lifting has happened in advance of the conference, say experts on climate diplomacy, so that negotiators can close the gap on what remains to thrash out. 

“The groundwork has to be established before delegates even pack their suitcases to go to a conference,” says Radoslav Dimitrov, a former European Union climate negotiator.  

Top agenda items include:

  • Countries will assess progress on emissions reductions, and the Paris treaty calls on them to boost their “nationally determined contributions.”
  • They’ll try to settle rules for international carbon trading, as one mechanism for reducing emissions. 
  • As host of COP26, the United Kingdom has been pushing other countries to join a pledge to stop investing in coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. China said last month it would stop financing coal-fired power plants overseas, though it continues to add capacity at home.
  •  The United States and EU recently unveiled an initiative to cut emissions of methane, primarily in the energy sector, that will also be discussed in Glasgow. 

For all the pressure of scientists’ dire warnings alongside youth-led climate activism, the risk of failure hangs over Glasgow, experts warn.  


Russell Cheyne/Reuters
Police officers patrol on a boat at the River Clyde, opposite the Scottish Event Campus, where the COP26 global climate summit will take place, in Glasgow, Scotland, Oct. 27, 2021.

One reason for caution is geopolitics: Relations between the U.S. and China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, have unraveled since 2015, when bilateral summits between President Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, paved the way for a deal in Paris. This time, the two countries are at loggerheads on trade and security, and climate diplomacy has stalled. 

Goal of fairness and inclusion

The other geopolitical fault line is a pandemic that has widened the divisions between rich and poor nations.

Developing countries argue that industrialized nations that have emitted the lion’s share of greenhouse gases must do more to help them adapt to a hotter planet. This question of climate justice – what rich polluting nations owe to the rest – is likely to prove contentious in Glasgow.

At the same time, countries in Europe and North America are facing their own domestic needs – a cascade of heat, flooding, wildfires, and storms that scientists say are harbingers for a future of severely impaired ecosystems. Making these communities more resilient will require more public investment.

Still, geopolitical tensions can be bridged, says Ms. Hill, who is a senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

“It’s the art of diplomacy,” she says. “There are moments where we can overcome our differences and head towards the common good. That’s what happened in Paris.” 

And the U.N. process, however cumbersome it may seem, offers a level of transparency and inclusion that can’t be easily replicated, says Nathan Cogswell, a research associate at the World Resources Institute in Washington. 

Smaller countries that are excluded from economic groupings like the G-7 or G-20 will have a seat at the table in Glasgow, which in turn builds trust that their concerns are being heard when it comes to collective climate action. “I think it’s important to have faith in a process that brings all of the different countries together,” he says. 

Yves Herman/Reuters
People take part in a climate march in Brussels ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, Oct. 10, 2021.
The risk of a single-nation veto

In a consensus-based process, dissent can be obstruction. A single country can hold up an agreement by raising an objection, as Nicaragua did in Paris in 2015 when it argued for mandatory targets for major emitters and refused to sign the negotiated agreement. 

To win over Nicaragua’s delegation, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon promised to visit after the summit and explain in person why Nicaragua’s leaders should sign onto the agreement, says Janos Pasztor, a former senior aide to Mr. Ban. (Nicaragua dropped its objection and signed the Paris accord in 2017.)  

In 2010, Bolivia vetoed a joint agreement at COP talks in Mexico. Three years earlier, the U.S. threatened to do the same in Bali, Indonesia. However, such objections are usually overcome because countries, even the largest and most powerful, don’t want to be singled out as spoilers, says Professor Dimitrov, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. 

“There are always delegations in the room who essentially swallow their displeasure because they can’t afford politically to stick out and take responsibility for the collapse of the negotiations,” he says, pointing to how the U.S. delegation relented in 2007 after consulting with Washington. “They knew they would be blamed for a failure.” 

Mr. Pasztor, who served as U.N. assistant secretary-general on climate change, says a skillful chair can avoid open dissent at meetings by persuading delegations to abstain. “It’s possible to have one or two countries that don’t agree. But they don’t make a formal objection,” he says. 

Keeping the faith

President Joe Biden is attending the COP26 opening in Glasgow, nine months after the U.S. rejoined the Paris Agreement that President Donald Trump had rejected as a bad deal. That shows that the Biden administration is committed to climate action, says Ms. Hill, though other countries are still skeptical of U.S. credibility on this and other global issues after the Trump presidency. The question she hears most from foreign counterparts, she says, is “How can we trust you?” 

Anxiety about trust is baked into the Paris Agreement. Unlike the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which it effectively supersedes, it imposes no binding emissions targets on countries, only voluntary commitments that must be updated every five years.

And the scope of current climate negotiations is daunting, says Professor Dimitrov, since the emissions are everywhere, from agriculture to industry to transportation. By contrast, the 1987 Montreal Protocol that phased out the use of chemicals that depleted the ozone layer only affected a few industries. 

But the fact that the Montreal accord was negotiated at all should be a source of inspiration. “We need [a past] success in order to have faith that we can negotiate strong treaties,” Professor Dimitrov says.

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