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COP26 climate summit shifts from pomp and promises to difficult negotiations

“The next week will be tense, but has to be productive,” says one policy expert on the expectations for the negotiations.

Six activists from developing countries share how climate change has impacted their countries and how they would define success at the U.N. climate summit. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post)
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GLASGOW, Scotland — The pomp and promises that marked the initial days of the COP26 climate conference here are giving way to the difficult task of hammering out an agreement on what nations will actually do together to combat global warming — and how.

As the second and final week of the most-watched international climate summit in years begins, delegates face familiar but vexing problems about how the world can agree on policies to deal with widespread deforestation, warming temperatures, rising seas and other dimensions of global climate change at stake. Central to all that is the allocation of hundreds of billions of dollars.

COP26 President Alok Sharma, striving to make Glasgow a success, urged delegates that it was “the time to shift the mode of work” and enter “a more political, high-level phase of the conference.”

Last week was a preview of sorts. But the presidents and prime ministers have long since come and gone. The streets that only a day ago echoed with the chants of protesters, marching by the thousands through a cold November rain to demand climate action, sat mostly calm and quiet on Sunday. The lines at security checkpoints and coffee stands have vanished. Prince William, by all accounts, has left the building.

In coming days, by contrast, negotiators from nearly 200 countries will haggle over every word in every line of an agreement that could shape how nations report progress on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, how global carbon markets function, and how the rich countries of the world deliver on promises to help more vulnerable nations.

Perhaps this year more than ever, the delegates debating in private conference rooms along the River Clyde know their decisions will be scrutinized by the activists who have descended on Glasgow in recent days, as well as people around the world who have seen their lives and livelihoods upended as the planet warms.

Voices from around the world on what’s at stake at COP26

“As the negotiators huddle in smaller groups trying to thrash out agreement on technical issues and specific words, so the world outside the negotiating rooms will become more and more frustrated if they fear an agreement that doesn’t represent the urgency young people feel and match the anxiety that climate policy experts feel,” Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, said in an email. “The next week will be tense, but has to be productive.”

The beginning of this year’s United Nations climate talks offered a chance for scores of world leaders to unfurl a litany of long-term promises.

There was the new coalition of nations working to halt deforestation, another to curb the powerful greenhouse gas methane, and still another promising to stop spending tax dollars to fund overseas fossil fuel projects. Financial giants, meanwhile, pledged to use their monetary might to help the world hit net-zero emissions by the middle of the century.

At the same time, the presidents of major emitting nations such as China and Russia skipped out on Glasgow and offered little in the way of new climate plans. And the promises that nations submitted in the lead-up to the summit fell short of the most ambitious goal of the Paris agreement: limiting Earth’s warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.

By now, the parallel universe that exists inside and outside of the climate summit has been well documented.

Inside: A week dominated by pronouncements and assurances that true progress is being made, that the world is inching toward a less-dark future. Outside: Accusations that leaders are again failing to act and are offering empty promises.

The chasm between the two was captured by protesters carrying posters with activist Greta Thunberg’s three-word summary of the proceedings: “Blah, blah, blah.” Asad Rehman, one of the lead organizers of the massive climate justice protests in Glasgow on Saturday, slammed the U.N. meeting as a “conference of polluters.”

In Glasgow, young activists take to the streets to demand more from U.N. climate summit

Inside on the same day, Sharma was noting how merely months ago, pledges to reach “net zero” in coming decades existed for only about 30 percent of the global economy. Today, that number is close to 90 percent. “By any measure, that is progress,” he said.

But beyond blanket assessments about whether COP26 is succeeding or failing lie thorny issues that have tripped up negotiators at these talks for years — and that they will have to overcome to shape an agreement all nations are willing to embrace.

The Paris accord set key thresholds of warming that world leaders agreed not to cross, most important the 1.5 Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) target. It also created a voluntary framework to translate those lofty goals into practical policies.

But the framework still has unfinished parts. The Paris agreement said country reports on climate must be more transparent. It established a detailed but incomplete set of rules to make sure that carbon markets function fairly. And it promised that rich nations pony up at least $100 billion annually in financing to help poorer countries cope with catastrophic impacts and build greener economies — a pledge that has not yet been fully met.

“We’ve been discussing a whole range of these issues for six years without resolution,” Sharma said. “And I think that shows you how challenging this is.”

Agreeing on the specifics of how to make each of those and other elements work in the real world will define how much COP26 actually accomplishes.

“It is tense right now. People are having to take tough decisions, as they should,” Archie Young, the lead U.K. negotiator, said Saturday, adding, “I think it is really important that we recognize the hard work that goes into the importance of some of that technical work.”

U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry, for one, remains an optimist. He has said he supports activists pushing leaders to do more, and shares their frustration. But he also sees the usefulness in the lumbering and sometimes messy climate talks, where countries large and small have a voice.

“The alternative is you don’t say anything, you don’t do anything. You don’t have any promises. You don’t have any commitments,” he told reporters Friday. “And you’re sitting there just waiting for the deluge. So we’re doing what democracies and the democratic process in the global multilateral system does, which is bring people together and find a way forward.”

Malik Amin Aslam, a federal minister and special assistant on climate to Pakistan’s prime minister, praised the 77-year-old Kerry’s “passion,” but said that “the average age of decision-makers is 60. We’re talking about 2060, 2070 [targets] and none of these guys is going to be around. The people affected are the ones out on the streets. They’re the ones whose lives are at stake.”

He compared the recent promises to hit net-zero emissions targets between 2050 and 2070 to a bit of dark humor circulating the conference. It describes a 73-year-old man who is hailed for setting “an ambitious target” to quit drinking within the next 30 years.

Unfortunately, the Pakistani envoy said, “climate change is not a joke.”

Firm language around financial support was missing from a list of priorities the COP presidency sent out to negotiators Sunday. Developing nations have long called on their wealthy counterparts to compensate hard-hit communities for what’s known as “loss and damage” — the lives, livelihoods, homes and infrastructure irreversibly harmed by climate effects. Yet the priorities document contains minimal references to the issue, and richer countries could block efforts to include it in the final agreement.

“If we don’t have some processes, some solutions, on how to get finance for loss and damage, that would not be seen as a success,” Yamide Dagnet, director of climate negotiations at the World Resources Institute (WRI), told reporters Sunday. “It would be unlikely that vulnerable countries would be happy with the outcome.”

Dagnet’s colleague David Waskow, director of WRI’s International Climate Initiative, also worried about the relatively modest pledges put forward by major polluters such as China and Russia. Technically, these nations won’t have to boost their ambitions until 2025, the next official “ratcheting up” deadline under the Paris agreement. But by then it may be too late to keep the ambitious 1.5 goal within reach.

“This is an important gap,” he said.

More than 100,000 demonstrators flooded the streets of Glasgow on Nov. 6, protest organizers said. (Video: Kasha Patel/The Washington Post)

Farhana Yamin, a prominent climate lawyer and longtime adviser to developing and vulnerable nations who has attended numerous COP summits, said negotiators in the coming week must find a way to back up all the recent promises with concrete rules.

“I think overpromising and underdelivering is fatal to law, to international law,” she said on a panel Saturday evening. “We were supposed to have peaked emissions in 2020 and now in 2030 they’re not peaking, even after all the pledges and support are in. So this is the credibility gap, and it is vast. Pretending that is not the case is the reality gap.”

The reality gap must close in coming days, she added. “Because in the real world, people are really suffering.”

Although COP26 will not reach the overarching goal to meet the most ambitious Paris goal — to “keep 1.5 alive,” as many leaders and protesters alike have said — there are signs that the curve is beginning to bend in a positive direction.

On Thursday, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that new national emissions reduction pledges, combined with other commitments made last week, could give humanity an even chance of limiting warming to 1.8 degrees Celsius (3.2 degrees Fahrenheit).

That level of temperature rise would still have catastrophic consequences, scientists say. But it is the first time global climate commitments have put the Paris target of holding warming “well below 2 degrees Celsius” within humanity’s reach.

That is, if the world actually follows through.

That’s what the second week of the U.N. climate conference must be about, said Corinne Le Quéré, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia. Whatever agreement negotiators reach will determine whether the IEA analysis represents a realistic scenario for the future, or just another fantasy about what could have been.

“Really, it’s about the level of detail they’re able to put behind the promises,” Le Quéré said. “It’s going to be, I’m afraid, a bit more boring.”

“But this what the COPs are really about,” she added, “Sorting out the details.”

Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

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