What to Expect at COP-26 in Glasgow

Next week, after a few days in London, I will fly to Glasgow with my team from the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (HPCA) to participate in the 26th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-26) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  One could write a book (and some have) about the details of these annual negotiations, which will take place this year in Glasgow over the period November 1-12 (or later, as the delegates never seem to finish on time).

As long-time readers of this blog know, at the annual COPs my HPCA team and I sponsor one or more “side event” panel sessions, make presentations at the pavilions of some of the major countries, and participate in meetings with various country negotiating teams, multilateral organizations, NGOs, academics, and the press.  At the end of this essay, I provide information about what we’re doing at the COP this year, and how you can observe it via the Internet.

Big Issues in Glasgow

For now, I would like to provide a brief guide to what to expect in Glasgow.  In doing this, I have tried hard to “stay out of the weeds,” and describe just the highlights.

So, what are the big issues for this first COP in two years? (The 2020 COP – also planned to take place in Glasgow – was cancelled due to the pandemic.)  I categorize what I consider to be the big issues in four categories:  (1) potential big stories for the popular press; (2) major issues for many of the delegates; (3) issues for the policy wonks; and (4) “the elephant in the room.”

Potential Big Stories for the Popular Press

One of the big stories for the press is substantive and one is logistical.  First, on substance, this COP is particularly important because it brings with it the first implementation of a key element of the Paris Agreement – renewal and presumably ratcheting up of national emissions reduction pledges every five years.  The substantive issue which is likely to dominate most stories in the popular press during the two weeks of the COP and likely to dominate every story when the COP concludes is whether or not the newly updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) from some of the major emitters – such as the European Union, the United States, China, Canada, the UK, and Japan, – combined with the existing, but not yet updated NDCs from other major emitters – India, Russia, and Brazil – together put the world on track to achieve the Paris Agreement’s major target of limiting warming in this century to 2o C, and, even more ambitious, to just 1.5o C. The answer, according to a report just released by the United Nations, is that even with the enhanced 2030 targets, as well as the many 2050 net-zero aspirations, the world is on track for a temperature increase of about 2.7o C this century.  (And this assumes that every country puts in place effective polices that will fully achieve its targets.)

The other potential big story – which has not yet received press attention – is the possibility that COP-26 in Glasgow may turn out to be a logistical nightmare, perhaps even on the scale of the logistical meltdown at COP-15 in Copenhagen in 2009.  In that earlier COP, the organizers – the UNFCCC Secretariat and the hosts, the Danish government – approved a list of some 40,000 observers from 900 official, accredited organizations around the world, knowing that the Bella Center could accommodate at most 15,000 persons at any one time.  The result was that thousands of people – including not only NGO representatives, but also government negotiators – stood in line outside of the Bella Center in the bitter cold, waiting 8-10 hours to get inside to receive their credentials.  Thousands of others never got inside, despite their 8-hour wait.  They flew home without having participated.  These are not exaggerations.  I wrote about this in 2009 when I returned from COP-15.

[Here’s some brief but interesting follow-up on the 2009 Copenhagen logistical mess. After this essay appeared yesterday, I received a message from someone who was very much on the inside of the Copenhagen arrangements and the discussions between the UNFCCC Secretariat and the Danish government. Among other problems, this person notes that when the Secretariat tried to limit NGO registrations in advance, many countries put NGO people on their delegations instead — with one delegation ballooning to 800 members — and country delegates could not be refused entry.]

This year, as many as 20,000 credentialed participants are expected to show up at the COP site in Glasgow for entrance to the secure area, called the “blue zone,” but rumor (which the UK hosts have refused to confirm or deny) has it that due to reduced capacity because of COVID only 10,000 people will be allowed inside each day, beginning presumably with the 8,000 government delegates, leaving precious few openings and tremendous competition among the 10,000 or so credentialed observers from civil society for 2,000 available spaces each day.  In fact, UK officials have acknowledged that once 5,000 people have been admitted each day, some undefined formula will kick in, which will eventually result in a “one-out-one-in” situation.  Needless to say, I hope the logistical nightmare does not materialize – and it may not, because many observers I know have decided not to attend.  But I’m cautiously optimistic, and so my team and I are still planning to attend (with fingers crossed).

There’s one other issue that may get substantial press attention — whether or not a post-COP statement from the Parties to the Paris Agreement will commit to a global phase-out of the extraction and burning of coal. This is unlikely to happen. Leaders from the Group of 20 major economies at their meeting in Rome failed to include such a statement their post-G20 communique. Opposition came from Australia, China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Without a positive signal from the G-20 leaders, agreement on this in Glasgow will be very difficult. What might be possible, however, would be a general statement from the Glasgow conference about “phasing down” rather than “phasing out” coal.

Major Issues for Many of the Delegates

About 80% of the national delegations to the climate negotiations are from developing countries (on the order of 157 out of 197), and so the issues that are of greatest significance to those delegations are particularly important.  Two stand out.

One is climate finance, which refers to the commitment made in Copenhagen in 2009 that by 2020, developed countries would begin to contribute $100 billion per year to developing countries to help finance their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions mitigation and their adaption to climate change.  We’re about to enter the year 2022, but the $100/billion has not materialized, with some estimates pegging the combined pledges to be about $80 billion per year over the next few years.  So that is a huge issue for developing countries.  A closely related issue is whether and when the developed countries will make up for what will be the historic shortfall, even if the $100 billion/year is eventually achieved.

The other issue that is a major one for some developing countries, in particular those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, is characterized in the negotiations as “Loss and Damage,” which has been an important source of controversy in the annual talks for the past ten years or so.  This phrase refers to the range of damages associated with climate change, since even if emissions are reduced to zero tomorrow morning, damages will continue due to the long lag time of GHGs in the atmosphere, particularly CO2 with its atmospheric half-life of more than 100 years.  The controversy has been with regard to who should pay for such loss and damage, with the focus on those most responsible for climate change, namely the countries with the greatest contributions to the accumulated stock of GHGs in the atmosphere – the United States and other large, wealthy countries, plus China. 

This has been controversial because, on the one hand, it is absolutely (and understandably) viewed as essential from countries such as the small island states, whereas countries such as the USA, China, and the EU member states worry that talk of “loss and damage” raises the specter of unlimited legal liability.  Indeed, at some climate talks before the Paris Agreement (2015), debates on this issue nearly caused the talks to collapse.  But the issue was finessed in the Paris Agreement’s Article 8, which recognizes the importance of loss and damage, but then eliminated the most contentious aspects in Decision 52 (the Decision document accompanies the Agreement), where the Parties agreed that loss and damage “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.”  As one can understand, some countries are not happy with this apparent resolution, and so the issue will be raised again Glasgow.

Issues for Policy Wonks

There are two issues that policy wonks – both from the government delegations and the observer organizations from civil society (like me) – will be thinking about and working on.  One is the question of whether China and the United States can return to the spirit and reality of cooperation that characterized their relationship during the Obama years, when their joint initiatives were absolutely essential to the successful completion of the Paris Agreement.  This was before such cooperation evolved into confrontation during the Trump years, which sadly has continued during the Biden year.  Sometimes it seems that “America First” has evolved into “American Manufacturing First.”

The other issue that is receiving a great deal of attention is the one part of the Paris Agreement for which the accompanying “rulebook” has not been finalized – Article 6.  A little background may help.  The Paris Agreement provided a promising, fresh approach by instituting a bottom-up strategy in which all participating countries specify their own targets, consistent with their national circumstances and domestic political realities.  This convinced many nations to sign up. Countries that joined the Paris Agreement represent 97% of global GHG emissions, compared with 14% under the second commitment period of the top-down Kyoto Protocol.  But it also gave every country an incentive to minimize its own actions while benefiting from other nations’ emission reductions.

So, are there ways to persuade nations to increase their commitments over time? One key strategy is linking national policies, so that emitters can buy and sell carbon emissions allowances or credits across borders.  Such linking need not be restricted to pairs of cap-and-trade systems. Rather, heterogeneous linkage among cap-and-trade, carbon taxes and performance standards is feasible.  Such linkage lowers costs, enabling countries to be more ambitious. One study estimated that linkage could, in theory, reduce compliance costs by 75%.

But for such systems to be meaningful, each country’s steps must be correctly counted toward its national target under the Paris Agreement, with no double-counting. This is where Article 6 comes in. Writing the rules for this article was the primary task for negotiators in Madrid (28 other articles were completed at the 2018 COP in Katowice, Poland).  Unfortunately, Brazil and a few other countries insisted on adopting accounting loopholes that made it impossible to reach agreement in Madrid on Article 6.  Negotiators had an opportunity to define clear and consistent guidance for accounting for emissions transfers but failed to close a deal.  On the other hand, if they had adopted guidance that extended much beyond basic accounting rules, as some countries wanted, the result could have been restrictive requirements that would actually impede effective linkage.  This would have made it more expensive, not less, for nations to achieve their Paris targets.  So, with no closure in Madrid, the baton for completing Article 6 was passed to COP-26 in Glasgow.  The good news is that very recently, Brazil has signaled that it may be open to compromise.

Another issue that policy wonks are watching is associated with cutting global emissions of methane — an extremely potent greenhouse gas, although relatively short-lived in the atmosphere. There will be a success in this regard in Glasgow, because leaders from a number of important countries are likely to pledge at COP-26 to cut methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030, a goal that was previously unveiled by the United States and the European Union in September. More than a dozen countries have now signed the pact. For its part, the Biden administration will impose aggressive regulations on methane leaking from all existing oil and gas wells and pipelines throughout the United States, an approach which is more ambitious than the Obama administration’s regulation, subsequently withdrawn by former President Trump, to regulate wells built since 2015. Unfortunately, the world’s top methane emitter, China, has not joined the international pledge.

One other potentially very important issue is not actually associated directly with COP-26 itself, but rather with the reality that prior to the beginning of the Glasgow sessions, the Biden administration announced a trade agreement with the European Union which incorporates the concept of using tariffs on trade to cut carbon emissions. The agreement is intended to cut imports of steel that is particularly carbon intensive in its production (such as from China and Brazil). Such agreements may turn out to be a very important complement (or even substitute) for the Paris Agreement. I hope to write more about carbon tariffs (border adjustments) in a forthcoming essay at this blog. 

The Elephant in the Room

For everyone – the press, the delegates, and observers of all kinds – a major question in Glasgow will be whether the United States’s ambitious NDC – a 50-52% reduction of GHG emissions by 2030 below the 2005 level – is truly achievable with reasonably anticipated policiesI’ve written about this in the past, so suffice it to say that this question boils down to whether the Biden administration – in the real world of current Congressional politics – is able to sign enacted legislation that can make dramatic strides toward that impressive 2030 target.  The Biden administration has included in its scaled-down “reconciliation bill” a $555-billion spending plan of tax breaks, tax credits, and other subsidies for various approaches and types of clean energy generation and use, validating once again that U.S. politicians are more comfortable giving out benefits than costs. Importantly, what would have been an effective program for green electricity generation has been scrapped, and fees on methane releases may or may not survive. Indeed, a new White House plan for achieving the 2030 target relies in part on carbon removal and unknown technologies.

So what can the Biden administration accomplish via regulations and executive orders?  See my comments above regarding a new methane rule. But the regulatory approach, in general, is particularly challenging because legal challenges from the political right are much more likely to be successful during the Biden years than they were during the Obama years, given the 245 Trump-appointed Federal judges (>25% of the total federal judiciary) and the 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

In this regard, it is worth noting that a recent report from the Rhodium Group calculates that even if the scaled-back version of the climate and social spending bill now before Congress is signed into law, new action by the states plus a significant number of new rules and regulations will be required (for sectors that have yet to be regulated, including chemicals, natural gas, and refineries) in order to have a chance of achieving the Biden administration’s NDC target.  Also, regulations for power plant emissions would have to be more stringent than the Obama-era predecessor (the Clean Power Plan), and would have to include mandates for carbon capture and storage for existing power plants.  Despite all of this, it can be anticipated that President Biden’s climate team in Glasgow will seek to assure the delegates that the U.S. is on track to achieve its 2030 target.

Looking Forward to COP-26

In addition to my making presentations at COP-26 in Glasgow at the pavilions of some of the major countries, and participating in meetings with various country delegations, multilateral organizations, NGOs, academics, and the press, the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements will conduct two panel events in connection with COP-26.

The first one – Prospects for Article 6: COP-26 and Beyondwill be a webinar co-sponsored with the Enel Foundation, held on Monday, November 1, 2021, 9:00–10:15 am (U.S. Eastern Daylight Time).  For more details, including registration link, here.

The second one – Securing Climate Ambition with Cooperative Approaches: Options under Article 6 will be an in-person event held at COP-26.  This event will be co-sponsored with the Enel Foundation and the Foundation Environment – Law Society (FURG).  It will take place on Wednesday, November 10, 2021, 4:45–6:00 pm Greenwich Mean Time, in Clyde Auditorium, within the “Blue Zone” – the secure area – at COP-26 in Glasgow.  More details are available here.

Both events will be based, in part, on a recent discussion paper released by the Harvard Project, written by Michael Mehling, and titled “Advancing International Cooperation under the Paris Agreement: Issues and Options for Article 6.” In this interesting and helpful new paper, Michael lays out the key issues in the ongoing negotiations on Article 6, and examines promising options for resolving some of those issues.  The complete paper can be downloaded here.  Michael will present highlights of the paper at each of the above events. At both of these events, following Michael Mehling’s presentation, we will hold a panel discussion, which will include:  Daniele Agostini, Head of Low Carbon and European Energy Policies, Enel; Kelley Kizzier, Vice President for Global Climate, Environmental Defense Fund; Michael Mehling, Deputy Director, Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and myself (and quite possibly some others).


Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.