World leaders will walk into a political minefield when they arrive in Glasgow for Cop26, with the future of the planet hinging on whether 196 countries can put aside their differences to take decisive action on climate change.
Negotiators will face tricky talks on issues such as shutting down coal plants, taxing carbon emissions and raising funds for poorer countries.
Britain, as host of the summit, has big ambitions. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted to a group of schoolchildren this week that it was “touch and go” whether an agreement would be reached.
Preparations for the summit have been clouded by Covid-19. Summit president Alok Sharma said in a letter to delegates that “these extraordinary times will require extraordinary levels of solidarity and co-operation”.
A UN report in August, which predicted catastrophe if global warming is not slowed down, created a “strong sense of urgency,” he said.
But phasing out coal power, trading carbon permits and financing the green transition are key issues on which “consensus remains to be found,” said Emmanuel Bonne, diplomatic adviser to French President Emmanuel Macron.
Steering the world away from coal is a centrepiece of Britain’s ambitions. Although it is considered the dirtiest fossil fuel, it generates more than a third of the world’s electricity.
Mr Sharma has described Cop26 as the moment when “coal power should be consigned to history”. But to his frustration, G20 countries have failed to agree on a timetable for phasing it out.
Talks in July ended with India, the world’s second-biggest coal user, dissenting to the G20’s call to slash emissions. India said this week that it does not plan to set a target for reaching net zero.
Japan and Australia, meanwhile, say that high-efficiency coal plants should be regarded as clean enough to be eligible for green funding.
The ideal outcome would be no more coal subsidies, a promise to stop building plants and a 2040 deadline for ending coal use, says a campaign group called the Powering Past Coal Alliance.
Mr Sharma has urged China, the world’s top coal consumer, to stop funding coal power stations abroad. But Beijing plans to continue building coal plants at home.
Britain wants to phase out coal by 2024. Germany will do so by 2038, and perhaps sooner. The US hopes for a clean electricity grid by 2035.
Developing countries need money to tackle climate change. Many are particularly vulnerable to disasters such as floods and droughts.
Rich nations promised in 2009 to organise $100 billion in annual climate finance for the global south. But the target has not yet been reached and is not expected to be until 2023.
“We must call on world leaders to keep their $100bn annual pledge for climate action in solidarity with people most affected by the climate crisis,” said UN youth envoy Jayathma Wickramanayake.
It is not only poorer countries making this point. A group of smaller European nations including Belgium, Denmark and Sweden issued an appeal to the world’s biggest economies to be “aware of the responsibility they bear”.
In addition to leaving countries short of money, the missed target could break down trust in the climate talks.
Mr Johnson said it was up to the nations “which have historically produced so much of the world’s carbon” to reach the $100bn goal. It expires in 2025 and Mr Sharma hopes to use Cop26 to start work on a new target.
Under pressure from activists, the US has promised to double climate finance by 2024. The EU regards its current donations as sufficient.
The Glasgow summit is the deadline for countries to submit updated climate plans, setting out how they will cut emissions by 2030.
Although Mr Sharma has been pressing for ambitious plans, the current suite of proposals would lead to emissions rising, rather than falling, between 2010 and 2030, the UN says.
China handed in its climate plan days before the summit, but it was criticised for lacking ambition. Turkey has yet to submit a proposal.
“We are nowhere near where science says we should be,” said UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa. “Overshooting the temperature goals will lead to a destabilised world and endless suffering.”
Under the Paris Agreement in 2015, countries promised to strive for temperature rises of no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
Mr Sharma said many diplomats had called for climate plans to be strengthened at Cop26 so that this can still be achieved.
Negotiators also need to agree on common timetables for their emissions cuts. Mr Sharma said he was “confident that a political resolution is possible”.
The rules for international carbon pricing are a piece of unfinished business left over from the Paris Agreement in 2015.
Carbon pricing works by charging people for using dirty fuels. This steers them towards cleaner energy and generates revenue.
One way of doing this is for polluters to buy and sell emissions permits. For this to happen across borders, countries would need to agree on a set of rules.
But negotiators failed to do this at Cop25 in 2019. They will try again in Glasgow. Diplomats have been bogged down in details such as the validity of carbon vouchers acquired under old UN rules.
Billions of carbon credits were generated under an agreement called the Clean Development Mechanism, which rewarded climate-friendly projects.
Developing countries want to protect their investments, but others fear that the market will be flooded with credits that reflect past accomplishments.
“The world is expecting these issues to be resolved in Glasgow, six years on from Paris,” Mr Sharma said.
Another task is determining how countries measure and report their emissions reductions and how transparent they are with each other.