Hope for a 'eureka' moment on climate change persists as COP26 begins in Scotland

Delayed by the pandemic for a year, the 26th UN Conference of the Parties (COP26) began in Glasgow Sunday. Though the chances of success have been described by the British hosts as "touch and go", many still hope for a breakthrough to limit the impacts of climate change.

Target to hold global warming to 1.5 C must be 'kept alive,' say organizers of giant climate conference

A leafy display of #COP26 welcomes delegates to Glasgow. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

As the UN climate summit began in Scotland, an event billed as the "last, best hope" to save the planet from catastrophic consequences, there were more than enough reasons to feel as gloomy as the Glasgow weather that welcomed delegates.

Harmful greenhouse gas emissions keep rising in spite of 25 previous UN Summits aimed at holding them at bay.

The Conference of Parties (COP), as it's known, meets every year and is the global decision-making body set up to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted in the early 1990s, and subsequent climate agreements.

The leaders of two of the world's biggest polluters, Russia and China, stayed away from the event, and while Australia's prime minister will be here, environmental critics say the country's stance on abandoning coal production lacks ambition, to put it charitably.

Even the world's richest nations, those in the best position to reposition their economies to a low-emissions future, failed to ante up enough money to cover a $100-billion US fund to help poorer nations make the same transition.

Still, longtime COP watchers and participants told CBC News there may still be room for pleasant surprises and even some "eureka" moments at COP26 as the two-week event plays out and international pressure to show progress takes hold.

Delegates take a timeout in a conference room featuring a replica of Earth. COP26 is expected to draw more than 21,000 delegates from all over the world. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"I think the big opportunity we have at this COP26 is in getting a 'eureka' moment around countries coming back with more ambition for the 2020s — right now," said Alex Scott, climate diplomacy leader at E3G Consultancy, an energy think-tank based in London.

"We will definitely see from this COP26 a series of deals on moving faster in key sectors," she said, referencing finance, green energy and the protection of natural spaces in particular. 

"We will see countries coming together in small coalitions around faster action in those sectors."

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Scott, who has advised the U.K. government on climate issues and has attended several COP events, says even when a national leader is not present at the event, there can be intense pressure on national delegations to produce deals once negotiations begin.

Canadian climate campaigner Catherine Abreu of Destination Zero, a Canada-based NGO that's pushing to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels, agreed.

"We bring all these countries together to declare one to another what their commitments are and then they sit across the table and say is that good enough … and I think those processes are really, really key," she said.

Her group is pushing nations and industry for a faster transition away from fossil fuels.

"I think we will see some significant progress on coal phase-out. That's one of the things [U.K. Prime Minister] Boris Johnson has been saying — coal, cash, cars and trees," said Abreu, who arrived in Glasgow Sunday as the first sessions were beginning. 

"We have a pact that will be announced on coal phase-out later in the COP process."

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More than 21,000 delegates, 13,000 observers and 3,000 members of the media have registered for COP26. Although weather delayed many arriving trains, on Sunday the halls and conference rooms at the venue were crowded with delegates from all over the world. All around the venue, artwork and signs promote the net-zero goal.

China crucial to global success

The case of China is especially crucial to success on climate change.

It's currently the world's largest polluter, but its climate plan, released on the eve of the summit, contained no new initiatives.

While China has slowed the growth of its emissions over the past several years, it has recently increased the use of coal for energy generation and has failed to set a timetable for hitting net-zero emissions.

Even so, Scott believes new, smaller developing nations will be pushing for more aggressive targets to phase out fossil fuels as the conference goes on. As the second week begins, she says even the Chinese delegation will be under pressure to "raise its ambition."

"We'll start to see coalitions forming around a high ambition outcome that really puts countries under the thumb to revisit their 2020s climate action so that we get on that pathway to 1.5 degrees," she said.

A masked woman listens to speakers at a plenary session on Day 1 of the COP26 summit in Glasgow. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Building on 2015 Paris Agreement

The key goals of COP26 have been to deliver on major promises from the 2015 Paris Summit. 

They include securing the $100-billion US global finance agreement, agreeing on a roadmap to get to net zero by mid-century and keeping 1.5 degrees within reach and signing agreements to help communities adapt to and mitigate climate change impacts.

Successive reports from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UNIPCC) along with a new one released by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Sunday collectively paint a bleak picture of efforts so far to hold the line on global emissions.

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The WMO reports that in 2020 greenhouse gas concentrations reached new highs.

Temperatures were about 1.09 C above the 1850-1900 average — almost two-thirds of the way to the 1.5 degree threshold after which climate scientists say the world risks catastrophic consequences from fires, drought, and other extreme climate events. 

'We will succeed or fail as one'

To hit that mid-century target requires cutting global emissions in half by 2030 with yet more drastic cuts in the decade following that.

A man works in a lookalike phone box during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26), where world leaders discuss how to tackle climate change on a global scale in Glasgow on Sunday. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Nonetheless, as COP26 host British MP Alok Sharma launched the event, he too stressed that room for a breakthrough remains.

"We know what we need to do," Sharma told the opening plenary session.

"We will succeed or fail as one."

COP26 was cancelled last year because of COVID-19. Though the logistics for the Glasgow event have been complicated to work though, tens of thousands of delegates and members of civil society groups planning major demonstrations will nonetheless make their way here over the next two weeks.

They will include 95-year-old Sir David Attenborough to 18-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

World leaders to speak Monday

A person walks past 'Messy the COP Ness Monster', a sculpture made with recycled jeans, in London's Grosvenor Square on Sunday. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

The world leaders' segment of the conference begins Monday with speeches from heads of state and prime ministers, including Canada's Justin Trudeau.

His government has promised to cut emissions over the next decade to a level representing a 40 to 45 per cent reduction compared to 2005.

At the same time, however, the Liberals continue to support the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to B.C. and other other fossil fuel initiatives, which critics claim is incompatible with the goals of COP26.

Trudeau and other G20 leaders finished their meetings in Rome with a lacklustre communique that stopped short of committing nations to hit the 1.5-degree target.

​​"We recognize that the impacts of climate change at 1.5 C are much lower than at 2 C. Keeping 1.5 C within reach will require meaningful and effective actions and commitment by all countries," G20 leaders said in a communiqué.


  • A previous version of this story said Canada's carbon emissions reduction target is 30 per cent of 2005 levels by 2030. In fact, the reduction target is 40 to 45 per cent by 2030.
    Nov 01, 2021 10:57 AM ET


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

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