The global climate change challenge faced by COP26 summit

The United Nations Environment Programme’s latest Emissions Gap Report finds that new and updated Nationally Determined Contributions will only reduce predicted carbon emissions for 2030 by 7.5%, instead of the 55% needed to meet the goal set down in the Paris Agreement of keeping the world temperature rise to 1.5°C.

Currently the world is heading towards a global temperature rise of at least 2.7°C this century.

The Paris Agreement signed in December 2015 is a legally binding international treaty on climate change, adopted by the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, informally known as COP21, in the French capital.

The collective aim of all 196 countries that signed the Paris Agreement is to limit global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, with a target of 1.5°C, to avoid “dangerous human interference with the climate system”.

Countries set their own goals or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) aimed to start to reverse global climate warming as soon as possible and achieve carbon neutrality or net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

However, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report offers a clear warning that current plans are way off track, although it adds that net-zero commitments could shave off another 0.5°C, if these pledges were made robust and if 2030 promises were made consistent with the net-zero commitments.

But currently net-zero pledges are still vague, incomplete in many cases, and inconsistent with most 2030 NDCs. Also, many of the national climate plans delay action until after 2030, raising doubts about whether net-zero pledges can be delivered, UNEP says.

“Climate change is no longer a future problem. It is a now problem,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP. “To stand a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, we have eight years to almost halve greenhouse gas emissions: eight years to make the plans, put in place the policies, implement them and ultimately deliver the cuts. The clock is ticking loudly.”

Her words were echoed by the naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough this week who said the world must act now or “it will be too late” for the planet.

“Every month that passes, it becomes more and more incontrovertible, the changes to the planet that we are responsible for that are having these devastating effects,” he told the BBC.

“If we don’t act now, it will be too late. We have to do it now.”

The United Nations Climate Change Conference, the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is being held in Glasgow, Scotland, from 31 October to 12 November, including a world leaders’ summit on 1-2 November.

Under the Paris Agreement (2015), each country is expected to submit plans every five years for ratcheting up action to mitigate climate change. COP26 was due to be held in 2020, and represents the first iteration of the ratchet mechanism, but it was postponed due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Alok Sharma, incoming COP26 president, said the report underlined why countries need to show ambitious climate action at COP26: “As this report makes clear, if countries deliver on their 2030 NDCs and net-zero commitments, which have been announced by the end of September, we will be heading towards average global temperature rises of just above 2°C.

He said: “We especially need the biggest emitters, the G20 nations, to come forward with stronger commitments to 2030 if we are to keep 1.5°C in reach over this critical decade.”

‘Imminent peril’

“The world has to wake up to the imminent peril we face as a species,” Andersen added. “Nations need to put in place the policies to meet their new commitments, and start implementing them within months.

“They need to make their net-zero pledges more concrete, ensuring these commitments are included in NDCs, and action brought forward. They then need to get the policies in place to back this raised ambition and, again, start implementing them urgently.

“It is also essential to deliver financial and technological support to developing nations – so that they can both adapt to the impacts of climate change already here and set out on a low-emissions growth path.”

To deliver on these targets, COP26 organisers say, countries need to accelerate the phase-out of coal, curtail deforestation, speed up the switch to electric vehicles, and encourage investment in renewables.

At the same time, it has to be recognised that the climate is already changing with devastating effects on many communities, so collective and collaborative efforts are needed to adapt to protect communities and natural habitats. This will involve action to protect and restore ecosystems, and build defences, warning systems and resilience infrastructure and agriculture to avoid the loss of lives, homes and livelihoods.

Vital role of universities

It hardly needs saying that universities have a vital contribution to make in identifying climate change causes and developing the knowledge, know-how and mechanisms to address them and improve protection. This includes developing the technology for green transition but also addressing how to change mindsets and behaviour to make change actually happen.

When United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in 2020 called on the world to take urgent action to combat climate change, he praised the work of universities as “essential to our success”.

Joanna Newman, chief executive and secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, which is one of the organisations representing the international higher education sector at COP26, said: “It is universities working with industry and governments that will make the difference.”

Newman, who is also a member of the leadership council of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, believes that beyond producing knowledge for solutions, there is an important role for universities to play by working in equitable partnerships with the communities they are rooted in. But they can also make a long-term impact through their core mission of educating young people.

“Higher education is vital to tackling climate change,” she told University World News this week.

Controversy over climate finance delays

Another major issue to be addressed by COP26 is that, to deliver transition and resilience, developed countries were also required to fulfil their commitment to mobilise US$100 billion in climate finance per year for poorer countries by 2020. But the developed nations said this week that they will only be able to reach this target by 2023, three years behind schedule.

Attenborough said Western countries have a moral duty to help poorer nations and in particular to help refugees displaced by climate change and the many people whose lives have been ruined by it.

He said it would “really catastrophic” if the threats to poorer nations were ignored.

“Whole parts of Africa are likely to be unliveable – people will simply have to move away because of the advancing deserts and increasing heat, and where will they go? Well, a lot of them will try to get into Europe.

“Do we say, “Oh, it’s nothing to do with us’ and cross our arms?

“We caused it – our kind of industrialisation is one of the major factors in producing this change in climate. So we have a moral responsibility,” he told the BBC.

“Even if we didn’t cause it, we would have a moral responsibility to do something about thousands of men, women and children who’ve lost everything, everything. Can we just say goodbye and say this is no business of ours?”