Analysis: why is there so much focus on what's about to happen in Glasgow - and will it make any difference?

The COP26 climate change conference, taking place over the next two weeks in Glasgow, has been hailed by some as our last best chance to tackle climate change, and by others as just another talking shop. But what really is COP26 and what should we expect from it?

The acronym COP26 indicates that this is the 26th "Conference of the Parties" (COP) to the foundational treaty of the international community's response to climate change, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Each year, the annual UN climate gathering brings together representatives of governments, business, and civil society. Organisers are expecting upwards of 20,000 participants to descend on Glasgow for the two-week meeting.

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The organisation of this year’s COP has been complicated significantly by Covid-19. In fact, the conference was originally scheduled to take place in November 2020, but was postponed by a year because of the pandemic. The decision to proceed this year has been criticised by some civil society groups, who called for it to be postponed a second time.

Questions of equity and justice have been central to the UN climate negotiations since their inception. At the heart of the climate problem is a profound injustice: those least responsible for causing climate change through greenhouse gas emissions are on the front lines of the impacts of the climate crisis. This has found expression in ongoing tensions between developed countries that have contributed the lion’s share of emissions since the industrial revolution, and developing countries that have contributed very little but have the most to lose.

This dichotomy between rich and poor countries has to some extent been blurred by the growth of large emerging economies like China and India in recent decades, but North-South tensions will loom large over the negotiations once again this year.

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There are at least three distinct, though related, elements of COP26. The first is the high-level political dimension. The conference will open with a world leaders summit next Monday and Tuesday. This is designed to inject the conference with high-level political momentum. Observers will be watching out for new pledges and commitments from leaders, though many of these have been announced already in advance of the conference.

Over 100 leaders are expected to participate in this segment - Ireland will be represented by Taoiseach Micheál Martin - but there are likely to be some notable absences. Most significant of these are Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin. The absence of the head of state of the biggest emitter is not unexpected – President Xi has not left China since the pandemic emerged – but it does little to help the mood music surrounding the conference.

The second element is the more mundane business of technical intergovernmental negotiations. When heads of government depart Glasgow on Tuesday next, they will leave behind their teams of negotiators to continue their work for the rest of the two-week conference. These negotiations will span a range of topics.

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Ó RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta's Tús Áite, tá comhdháil COP beagnach linn ach cad ar cheart dúinn a bheith ag súil leis ann?

The UK presidency of COP26 has set a goal of "keeping 1.5 degrees alive", a reference to the aspiration set out in the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The omens do not look good. The 2021 Emissions Gap Report, published earlier this week, indicated that if all currently announced climate pledges are implemented, global heating will reach 2.7 degrees by the end of the 21st century.

Adaptation to climate impacts is another key element of the negotiations, especially for countries that are at greatest vulnerability such as low income countries and small island states. Intersecting with both the mitigation and adaptation agendas is the question of climate finance. Developed countries in 2009 pledged $100 billion per year to developing countries by 2020. They have so far failed to deliver. Earlier this week, a Climate Finance Delivery Plan led by Canada and Germany set a roadmap that would see developed countries fulfil the $100 billion commitment by 2023.

At the more technical end of the negotiating spectrum, some important loose ends of what is known as the "Paris rulebook" – the detailed rules governing implementation of the Paris Agreement - remain to be concluded. In particular, the rules governing international carbon markets need to be finalised in a way that guarantees their environmental integrity.

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The third element of COP26 is the wider ecosystem of events, exhibitions, workshops, demonstrations, and protests that will take place in Glasgow over the two weeks. Covid restrictions may dampen some of these, but colourful and dramatic demonstrations are expected nonetheless. The world’s media are expected to descend on Glasgow as well and will be looking for ways to keep their audiences engaged over two weeks of negotiations. The minutiae of negotiations don’t always make for compelling viewing or reading.

The backdrop for COP26 is decidedly mixed. While global climate awareness has arguably never been higher, a number of factors threaten to hamper the negotiations. Among them are the energy supply shortages around the world, deteriorating relations between China and the US, and concerns over the organisation of the conference itself.

Whatever the outcome of the negotiations themselves, the real job of tackling climate change commences once the negotiators return home from COP26. The commitments made by leaders in Glasgow are only as good as their subsequent efforts to implement them.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ