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Mondial Fall 2021: The Glasgow Climate Conference: What lessons will we learn?

By Fergus Watt
with files from Earth Negotiations Bulletin,

There are few more important events on the international calendar this year than the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference – formally the “26th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change,” hosted by the UK in partnership with Italy, that takes place from 31 October to 12 November 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. This Conference was originally scheduled to take place in November 2020 but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Below, we review the international legal and treaty context for this meeting; highlight a few of the major issues facing delegates meeting in Glasgow; and discuss some of the underlying challenges facing global climate governance.

World leaders and delegates at COP 26, Glasgow, Nov 1 to 12, 2021

(1) Legal context

International agreement on a legal and political response to climate change began with the 1992 adoption of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which sets out the basic legal framework and principles for international climate change cooperation with the aim of stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The UNFCCC was one of three treaties (along with the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention to Combat Desertification) adopted at the landmark 1992 Earth Summit. To further the goals of the 1992 UNFCCC, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997. It committed industrialized countries and countries in transition to achieve quantified emissions reduction targets. The Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period took place from 2008 to 2012. The 2012 Doha Amendment established the second commitment period from 2013 to 2020. In December 2015, parties to the UNFCCC adopted the Paris Agreement, which establishes shared goals for reducing global warming, and requires governments to submit and regularly report on the pledges – called nationally determined contribution (NDCs) – that each undertakes to reduce emissions and/or build resilience to climate change.

(2) Climate Ambition

The Paris Agreement works on a five-year cycle of increasingly ambitious climate action. By 2020, parties to the Paris Agreement were to conduct a “Global Stocktake” of their collective progress on mitigation, adaptation, and provision of support to developing countries. By the end of 2020, there were 48 new NDCs submitted by 47 countries and the EU. Additional NDCs were submitted in 2021, notably from the United States, which pledges to reduce emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030. Some governments will announce their revised NDCs in Glasgow. The UNFCCC Secretariat analyzed the NDCs submitted by the end of July 2021 and reported that the effects of the new, updated NDCs that cover about 59% of parties to the Paris Agreement and account for 49% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The good news is that the NDCs represent a 12% decrease in emissions. The bad news is that the pledges may lead to a temperature rise of 2.7°C by the end of the century. Some major emitting countries, including Australia, China, and India, have yet to submit new pledges.

(3) Pledges – are they enough?

The Glasgow COP will bring added scrutiny to the adequacy of the central pillar of the Paris Agreement – the nationally determined contributions. Is a treaty system based on pledges made by sovereign nation-states sufficient to address a global problem like climate change? This pledging approach has been called “bottom-up” governance. Countries put forward pledges toward a shared goal in the hopes that the sum of these pledges will safeguard the environment. It isn’t unique to the Paris Agreement. Other multilateral environmental agreements and other global initiatives feature similar types of participant pledging. In the context of treaties, pledging has found a foothold. International treaties generally involve rules that guide or explicitly set out what countries will do. By reversing that logic and allowing countries to set their terms, more countries may be willing to sign up. It makes participating easier. However, there are few rules governing what an NDC should contain. Under the Paris Agreement, having an NDC is a legally binding requirement, but it is up to participating states to decide its content. And reaching the targets set out in an NDC is not legally required. And that’s the paradox of a treaty based on nation-state pledging: it helps to reach agreement or to mobilize a wide range of actors toward environmental goals. But, at the end of the day it’s a non-legally binding promise to be fulfilled in the future. In the absence of adequate mechanisms for transparency, oversight and accountability to safeguard the promises, there are many who question the efficacy of this approach to addressing the challenges of mitigating climate change. In the years to come we may well see new negotiations – a renewed effort to build upon the Paris Agreement to strengthen further the international UNFCCC framework of climate governance.

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