Experts React: COP26 Preview

Mixed News on Emissions

Joseph Majkut
Director, Energy Security and Climate Change Program

The Paris Agreement set long-term global climate ambition at keeping global warming well below 2°C, but under the Paris framework, countries must draw the map from here to there. Glasgow will show that the map is still incomplete. 

The good news is that climate ambition has reduced expectations for emissions this decade. The UN Environment Program’s emissions gap report, released this past week, shows that current policies will see global emissions fall slightly from current levels to 55 gigatons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases (GtCO2) by 2030, and new pledges could see that number fall further to 50 GtCO2. If that is realized, it will represent a 15 GtCO2 fall from what would have been expected in 2010. Evaluating climate policies is an exercise in comparing counterfactuals, and countries can claim some success at Glasgow.

But even if they are achieved, the UN estimates that current pledges are consistent with a world that will see 2.9°C of warming this century. That is far less than what the business-as-usual of 10 years ago would have led to, but twice the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) stretch goal of 1.5°C and well above the negotiated threshold of 2°C. This is where reality sets in. To meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, countries will need to deliver on their current pledges, increase the ambition for near-term emissions cuts, and expand the reach of commitments toward net-zero emissions. A recent study estimated that if every country that has committed to a net-zero target, either informally or in law, were to achieve that mark, then warming will be limited to 2.0–2.4°C (a figure consistent with the UN report).

It’s tempting to look at exceeded temperature targets and emissions gaps and declare the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) a bust when we don’t see breakthroughs (which we probably won’t). But this is how the process is supposed to work. The world has made progress on emissions but is still off target. Before the next big COP, countries will need to do more to reduce their emissions and work together to ensure low-carbon growth in developing countries. That challenging work will have to happen after the delegates return home.

The Crisis That Didn’t Bark

Nikos Tsafos
James R. Schlesinger Chair for Energy and Geopolitics, Energy Security and Climate Change Program

A sudden and sharp increase in energy prices should have cast a shadow over Glasgow. It hasn’t. Going into the summit, the conversation is familiar—the usual squabbles over climate finance and climate justice, lots of bold net-zero targets announced, the perennial question about whether the United States can really commit. It seems like a normal COP, rather than one taking place during an energy crunch that has pushed some prices to multi-year highs and others to all-time records.


Maybe the reason is that fossil fuels have failed right now. There’s not enough coal in China and India, not enough gas in Europe, not enough oil everywhere. Who can show up in Glasgow and blame high energy prices on climate policy? Or maybe the economics have shifted too much. Climate action is usually framed as a trade-off—pay more now to avoid losses later. That framing resonates less and less. The losses are here today. The premium for clean energy is shrinking. And governments are eager and willing to compensate firms and individuals for climate action.

The politics have shifted too. In some corners, high prices are a trigger for bolder climate action; in others, they’re a warning sign—it all depends on the politics of the place. But once net zero became the consensus goal, the question is only how and how quickly—not if. The prize is also clearer: too many governments and too many businesses can see the enormous opportunity created by a historic effort to rewire the energy system. Why let a momentary shift in energy prices derail the journey to build new industries and rebuild a shared environment?

And so, the most important thing going into COP26 might not be the summitry itself—the announcements, the deals, the drama—but that such a gathering can happen at all during a most dramatic increase in energy prices. It’s a turning point indeed.

Convergence on Methane at COP26

Ben Cahill
Senior Fellow, Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Methane abatement is one of the few “quick wins” that governments can pursue in the next decade to slow the pace of global warming, and there are signs of progress ahead of COP26. More than 30 countries have signed on to the Global Methane Pledge, an agreement to reduce global methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030. In the past week, Saudi Arabia and South Korea have joined, showing that both major oil and gas producers and net importers have a role to play.

To back up those commitments, governments could set new standards for landfills and agriculture but will mainly target the oil and gas sector, which accounts for about a quarter of anthropogenic methane emissions. New ground- and satellite-based technologies are helping to pinpoint methane leaks and venting, demonstrating the scale of the industry’s methane problem. In the United States, research suggests that methane emissions are much more extensive than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated in its greenhouse gas inventory. Fortunately, abatement technologies in the energy sector can be relatively inexpensive.

New regulations are on the way in the United States and Europe. The U.S. EPA is about to issue new rules that will require companies to find and fix methane leaks, install new equipment to cut emissions, and possibly end routine flaring. It remains to be seen how new EPA regulations will accommodate emerging technologies and whether they will apply to marginal wells. For now, efforts to introduce a methane fee in the United States seem to be losing momentum. In the coming months, the European Union could introduce a methane performance standard that would require all gas sold in the European Union to meet an upstream emissions intensity benchmark. These efforts set the tone for global action on methane, and other gas-consuming regions could follow suit after the climate summit.

COP26, Global Coal Phaseout, and Just Transitions

Sandeep Pai
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program

To meet global climate targets, the world needs to phase out fossil fuels, particularly coal. COP26 hosts, including President Alok Sharma, have called for an end to the use of coal-based power in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries by 2030 and in non-OECD countries by 2040. Recently, Sharma said: “Unless we get all countries signed up to a coal phase-out, keeping 1.5C in reach is going to be extremely difficult.” The math is clear; it’s the politics that are hard.

There has not been a clear articulation of what a coal phaseout would mean for different coal-dependent countries’ energy security and just transition goals. COP26 hosts have also not explained what support will be provided to countries that sign such an agreement. Without such details, major coal producers and consumers—particularly emerging economies—are unlikely to sign off on a coal phaseout deal at Glasgow.

Among emerging economies, all eyes will be on India and South Africa. They are the two most coal-dependent economies out of the G20 countries; 71 percent and 86 percent of their electricity, respectively, comes from coal. India has clearly expressed its stance that coal will remain the mainstay of its energy systems in the coming decades, given the high levels of projected energy demand in the country. South Africa could sign on to a deal for reducing coal use in the power sector but has asked for billions to help fund such as transition. Beyond energy dependency on coal, in both these countries, the coal sector provides regionally significant jobs, local revenues, and fuel for the industrial sector.

For any meaningful dialogue on a global coal phaseout at Glasgow, COP26 hosts will need to clearly explain how appropriate technical and financial assistance will be provided to support the energy security needs of coal-dependent countries like India and South Africa and a just transition for coal communities in these countries.

The COP before the Storm

Kevin Book
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program

The elephant in the room in Glasgow could be an impending carbon trade war. As the postwar international order frayed, climate policy devolved from its Kyoto-era top-down, globalist standard of “commitments” to the Paris Agreement’s bottom-up, nationalist system of “contributions.” This power inversion may have made some climate policies more durable, as with the U.S. subnational governments that responded to Trump-era rollbacks by setting new program goals of their own. Internationally, however, the bottom-up Paris world came with an intrinsic instability: greener, regulated economies seemed likely to conclude—at some point—that less-compliant nations were dumping goods and services on them.

Brussels did so this year, but economic asymmetries had long set the European Union up to be a border adjustment first mover: the bloc has been regulating itself under the Emissions Trading System since January 2005, but few of its trade partners impose comparable strictures. The idea caught on fast, perhaps because unprecedented Covid-19 fiscal stimulus has stoked protectionist sentiment. Weeks after the European Commission mooted its carbon border adjustment mechanism in July, lawmakers in Washington and the federal government in Ottawa floated proposals of their own. The high-emitting BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) protested, and the fight was on.

If Paris was assessed to have been successful because it expanded participation, Glasgow may be judged by whether it raised ambition. If parties come up short, carbon trade reprisals could seem more justified. In the most salutary scenario, chalk outlines of a new order may be emerging: a “carbon club” of 31 nations accounting for around 45 percent of global GDP and around 23 percent of global CO2 emissions in 2020 holding other emitters to account. Alternatively, all-out carbon trade conflict could pit those countries against one another (and their other trade partners), a new deglobalization high-water mark.

China’s Sortie in the Climate Diplomacy Expands Globally

Taiya Smith
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Over the weekend, China released its top-level framework for the country’s climate response, offering a preview of the policymaking effort necessary for China to reach its 2060 carbon neutrality commitment. While overtly a planning document, the framework addresses China’s political ambitions alongside its climate ones with several pokes at Western countries.

A notable passage talks about balancing "struggle" and "cooperation" in international relations, mirroring the debate in U.S. circles about whether to engage with or confront China. Here the aim appears to be to increase China's influence and ability to steer international discourse. A section on the Belt and Road reflects President Xi’s recent diplomatic pledge to increase support for green energy in developing countries, and the industrial policy section makes it clear that China seeks to gain competitive advantage by encouraging domestic suppliers of China’s new energy and other green technologies and products “to go global.”

Domestically, the new framework offers support to a set of existing policies, including a national CO2 peaking action plan, implementation plans for key sectors and local government plans, and importantly, performance and reporting evaluations for local officials. A target of 80 percent non-fossil energy by 2050 is notable and is accompanied by the announcement that coal use should fall gradually from 2026 to 2030, while oil use should plateau, leaving only fossil gas to grow.

Yet, questions remain. Targeting 80 percent non-fossil energy by 2050 implies a heavy reliance on carbon capture to get to net zero. And to accomplish that 80 percent goal, China will have to increase annual installations of clean energy at double or triple current rates, significantly faster than its current plan for 2030.

And, finally, this framework won’t quell the three perennial questions Special Envoy Xie Zhenhua will face when he arrives in Glasgow: When will China’s emissions peak? At what level will they peak? And how fast will they fall after the peak?

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