A crucial U.N. climate summit kicks off Oct. 31. Here’s what you need to know.

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Amid the growing frequency of natural disasters, climate change has steadily moved up the global agenda, and at the end of the month a climate summit will begin that experts say could prove decisive in determining whether humankind can avoid catastrophic global warming or not.

Between Oct. 31 and Nov. 12, Glasgow in Scotland will host a United Nations climate change conference that is expected to draw up to 25,000 participants, including more than 100 world leaders. COP26 will discuss the specific steps nations are taking to halt disastrous global warming and it is considered the most important conference of its type since the 2015 climate change conference in Paris.

Why is COP26 significant?

The world agreed at the 2015 Paris summit to combat global warming by taking action to keep the global average temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial levels, and to make all efforts to limit it to 1.5 C. In addition, there was a promise to provide financing to developing countries to help them mitigate climate change and strengthen their ability to absorb its impacts.

To reach these goals, it was also decided that nations needed to take specific midterm actions, which would be reviewed at future climate change summits. These include numerical targets for domestic greenhouse gas reductions and methods by which the nations would strive to meet the Paris Agreement.

These plans, termed “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs), are to be reviewed at U.N. climate change conferences every five years. They serve as progress reports on what individual nations are doing to help meet the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 C.

COP26 was supposed to have been held last year but was postponed due to the COVID-19 crisis. As a result, it’s the first update since Paris on what nations are doing to reduce emissions. Individual countries’ pledges and plans announced in Glasgow will give climatologists and governments a further basis to scientifically determine what then needs to be done in the immediate future to meet the Paris goals.

A Fridays for Future climate strike in Milan on Oct. 1 | REUTERS

What kinds of NDCs have been announced so far?

As of September, 86 countries and the 27-member European Union had submitted new or updated NDCs. The United Kingdom has pledged to reduce its emissions by 78% by 2035 compared with 1990 levels. The EU is aiming for a reduction of at least 55% by 2030 compared with the same benchmark. The United States’ target is a reduction of 50% to 52% compared with 2005 levels.

China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, has announced that it plans to peak its carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. For 2030, the country has pledged to lower its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product by over 65% compared with 2005, and to increase the share of nonfossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 25%.

India, another major emitter, has indicated it will update its present NDC at Glasgow. The one it announced in 2015 pledged to reduce emissions intensity to 33% to 35% below 2005 levels, and have about 40% of its electricity come from nonfossil-based energy sources by 2030.

Is the world on track to meet the Paris goals?

No. An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released earlier this year warned that, while it’s still possible to limit global warming to 1.5 C, unprecedented action — in the form of more ambitious reduction efforts and stronger NDCs — is needed.

These numbers, especially the 1.5 C target, are important for COP26 and individual countries’ NDCs because the IPCC says that, in order to have the best chance of limiting global warming to that goal, global greenhouse emissions must first be cut in half by 2030 and eventually reach net zero by 2050. The IPCC report estimates that, without deep emissions cuts, the planet is likely to see 1.5 C of warming by the early 2030s, and then 2 C or more by the end of this century. A temperature rise of beyond 1.5 C could trigger irreversible climate change.

What are the basic issues COP26 is expected to address?

The main focus of the summit will be on whether nations agree to go beyond the 2030 reduction targets they have already announced, and to come up with other ways in which they will commit to reducing their carbon emissions, such as by adopting more green technologies.

Another issue is finance. Specifically, developed countries promised in 2009, at a climate change conference in Copenhagen, to mobilize $100 billion annually by 2020 for various forms of assistance to mitigate climate change in developing countries. While 2020 figures are not expected to be formally announced until next year, it appears that goal was not met.

In Glasgow, further ramping up financial assistance for developing countries will also form one of the core issues, as will the form in which that assistance should be made available. Some countries, such as the U.S., recently announced that they are pledging to double the amount of finance provided, but more commitments are needed.

What is Japan expected to bring to COP26?

Pressure by a wide range of domestic and international actors favoring a strong greenhouse gas emissions reduction target led the government of previous Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to revise Japan’s original goal of a 26% reduction by 2030 to a 46% cut, based on the country’s 2013 emissions levels. In addition, Suga also declared that Japan would aim for net zero emissions by 2050, in line with what many other countries have declared.

That 2030 target, however, has been the subject of some criticism, and Japan could find itself under pressure to raise its reduction goal.

Environmental experts say that a 46% reduction based on 2013 levels is not enough to help meet the Paris goal of limiting average global warming to a 1.5 C rise by midcentury. Criticism has also been directed at a separate long-term energy plan for 2030, which calls for renewable energy sources to account for between 36% and 38% by then and for nuclear power to provide 20% to 22%, with coal and natural gas making up much of the remainder.

On Friday, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government approved both the 46% reduction and the current 2030 energy plan. But critics say that further raising the percentage of renewable energy would make it easier for Japan to then raise the greenhouse gas reduction target at Glasgow to a level that would offer a better, scientifically backed chance of helping keep the global temperature rise to 1.5 C.

Photovoltaic panels at Eurus Rokkasho Solar Park in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture | BLOOMBERG
Photovoltaic panels at Eurus Rokkasho Solar Park in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture | BLOOMBERG

The future role of coal worldwide is expected to be a contentious issue at Glasgow. Despite growing international pressure for all nations to phase out coal completely in order to meet the Paris goals, Japan’s position is that coal remains an important energy source, and that emissions can be controlled with new carbon capture and storage technologies. But the effectiveness, including the cost-effectiveness, of such technologies remains uncertain.

The 2030 energy plan calls for coal’s share of the energy mix to fall from about 26% to 19%. There is pressure on Japan to reduce that reliance further through increased renewable energy use or cleaner-burning natural gas. Japan has also faced international criticism over its funding of coal plants abroad and could come under pressure at COP26 to halt all such financing and make additional commitments to reducing its own coal use by 2030.

At the same time, Japan may unveil new pledges before or at Glasgow for further aid to developing countries to help with reducing their emissions and mitigating climate change.

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