As the COP26 climate summit approaches its final days, negotiators from nearly 200 countries work 24 hours a day to try to agree on the final texts that will be published at the end of the two-week conference.
Amid this growing intensity, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is returning to Glasgow on Wednesday to try and move things around.
Following headlines about coal and finance deals during the opening days, and well-known speeches by former US President Barack Obama and youth activist Greta Thunberg, the negotiations that typically dominate the end of a COP summit may seem technical and mysterious.
But they are also a geopolitical minefield, often opening up surprising differences of opinion, as well as unexpected alliances, between the 197 countries that approved the Paris climate agreement at COP21 in 2015.
So what exactly are they negotiating? And what are the biggest bottlenecks? Here’s what to look for when selecting yours.
What rules will be imposed to implement the Paris Climate Agreement?
One task of COP26 is to iron out the rulebook for how the Paris Agreement will be implemented. This includes how countries will report their greenhouse gas emissions – and how those reports will be verified.
Another key issue is whether all countries should be required to set shorter than five-year climate targets, or 10-year targets for developing countries.
Will the UN set up a global carbon market?
There is a section of the Paris Agreement, known as “Article Six”, which aims to establish a framework for a global market in carbon offsets.
Carbon deposits represent a unit of carbon that is permanently avoided or removed from the atmosphere, and can compensate for emissions elsewhere.
In theory, the market in offsets could allow rich countries to pay developing countries for offsets, with a corresponding accounting mechanism to avoid double counting.
If the rules agreed in Glasgow are robust enough to prevent low-quality deviations from the system, and to prevent any reduction made from being double-counted, then advocates say a global carbon market can help the accelerate emission reduction.
However, if the agreed rules contain loopholes, the system may be ripe for fraud and abuse. This was what happened the last time something similar was tried, with the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.
Will all this be enough to limit rising temperatures to 1.5C?
Even with all the new promises made in Glasgow, the world is still on course for around 2.7C by the end of the century. This means that the COP26 slogan “keeps 1.5 alive” – a reference to limiting heating to 1.5C as the point under the Paris Agreement that is crucial to preventing the worse effects of climate change – seems increasingly difficult to reach.
The 2015 Paris Agreement contains a “ratchet” mechanism by which countries are required to improve their climate targets every five years.
The Glasgow summit was the deadline for the first “ratchet” after the signing of the Paris Treaty, and 152 countries formally submitted new targets to the UN ahead of the conference.
Nevertheless, those promises will not reduce emissions fast enough to reach the temperature targets. According to analysis by the UN Environment Program, the promises will only succeed in keeping emissions stable during this decade.
Being on course for 1.5C would mean halving emissions this decade.
For this reason, a number of countries, including the UK, the US and the EU, are urging countries to return by 2023 with updated promises. That proposal, which will be debated in the coming days, seems highly controversial.
What is the role of the UK and what will be the final text of COP26?
Hosted by COP26, the UK holds the presidency, a role that requires considerable diplomatic finesse.
At the end of the summit, various texts will be published on which all parties have agreed. The most important of these will be the “cover text”, which is a summary statement by the British Presidency, to which all parties agreed.
Although the presidency is technically a neutral role, designed to bring all the parties together in the UN system, it can have a major impact on the outcome of the negotiations.
The UK has this year focused on raising climate ambition and limiting warming to 1.5C, which it hopes will be reflected in the final “front page text”.
This document will be the subject of intense controversy in the coming days, as so-called “high ambition countries” including the UK and EU are trying to get other nations to come back sooner with updated targets.
When does COP end?
In theory, COP will be finished by 6pm local time on Friday – but no COP ended on time.
Alok Sharma, the COP26 president, said at a press briefing on Tuesday that he was sticking to the Friday deadline: “There is a sense of urgency and yes, I would very much like us to finish by the time set out.”
Although official statements from the British delegation indicate that they will try to be punctual, many seasoned negotiators say that a Saturday or Sunday finish is not unlikely.
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