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By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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Why COP26 matters and what to look for

Uploaded: Oct 24, 2021
The “Conference of Parties” international climate convention happens every year. But this one, COP26 in Glasgow from Oct 31 - Nov 12, is particularly important because it’s the first five-year scheduled review of the national pledges made in Paris in 2015. Each country created its own “Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC),” essentially a promise to reduce emissions. Because it was generally understood that the first versions were just a starting point, the countries agreed to review and ideally strengthen their pledges every five years. This is Year Five. (1)

I last wrote about a COP in early 2020. That was COP25, held in Madrid. Much has happened since then. The world has forcefully experienced many of the impacts of global warming, including heat waves, flooding, droughts, and wildfires. Renewable energy and electric vehicles have seen increased uptake. Large investors and banks have begun to divest from fossil fuels, and insurance companies and big corporations have started to incorporate climate risks. A pandemic has swept (is sweeping) the planet, shining a light on economic inequality. And widely recognized organizations including the International Energy Agency (IEA), the United Nations (UN), and the World Health Organization (WHO) have written compelling reports about the urgency of global warming and the costs of doing nothing. (2)

This graphic from the IEA report is a nice summary of where we are right now. A pathway designed to bring us to net zero emissions by 2050, giving us an even chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 C, is shown (bottom of the green wedge, “Net Zero by 2050”). You can also see how far our current pledges (bottom of yellow) and current policies (bottom of blue) are getting us.

There is a large gap between country policies, country pledges, and where we need to be to stay below 1.5 C. Source: IEA World Energy Outlook 2021 via CarbonBrief

The Paris agreement was a great start, but it does not go far enough to keep us below 1.5 C. Our pledges are inadequate and the policies we have on the books to support those pledges are even more inadequate. In fact, if you look at policies only, IEA’s analysis shows that the global average temperature will be at 2.6 C above pre-industrial levels by 2100 and still rising.

The United States provides a good example of the gap between pledge and policy. We recently announced a plan to reduce emissions by 50% from 2005 levels by 2030. However, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Republicans are doing their best to prevent us from establishing clean-electricity policies that will enable us to achieve that pledge. With Congress hamstrung by fossil interests, it will fall to federal and state regulators to establish review-proof regulations that will clean up our power sector.

The IEA report emphasizes the importance of policies to back up the pledges: “Clear signals and direction from policy makers are essential. If the road ahead is paved only with good intentions, then it will be a bumpy ride indeed.”


The gaps between a 1.5 C path and our pledges, and between our pledges and our policies, are why we look to this COP 26 meeting for increased “ambition” in the national pledges along with policies to back that up. This is especially important for the biggest emitters. Models suggest that we need to approximately halve our emissions by 2030 and be net-zero by 2050 in order to stay under 1.5 degrees C of warming. Look for pledges (and policies!) along those lines. What policies will the US announce to give the world confidence that it can hit its goal to reduce emissions 50% below 2005 levels by 2030? China has announced a goal to be carbon neutral by 2060, but do they have a nearer-term goal other than to hit peak use before 2030? Japan has announced a 46% reduction from 2013 levels by 2030. What will we hear from Australia? India? Russia? I am also interested in signals from diplomats on how pressure will be applied where gaps continue to exist.

Financial Commitment

A second thing to look for is financial commitment from developed countries. In the wake of extreme pandemic inequality, there is a lot of interest in ensuring a just transition to a clean energy system. Developed countries have benefited from polluting the atmosphere, and there has long been pressure on them (us) to offset some of the damages from climate change and to support low-emission development in developing economies. In 2009, as part of the Copenhagen Accord, developed nations promised to be donating $100B each year to a “Green Climate Fund” by 2020, but contributions to date have fallen short. The degree of shortfall is in dispute because countries are (for example) counting loans as donations. What will the likes of the US, EU, Australia, and Japan pony up, and will we clarify expectations to avoid dodgy accounting?

Fossil Phaseout

The IEA report is clear that fossil fuel use needs to drop off quickly, peaking in 2025 to hit even our (inadequate) goals.

Fossil fuel use needs to peak asap to stay below 1.5 C (yellow dashed line). Our stated goals for fossil use are not enough (red line), and the policies we have in place only stabilize use for the coming decades (gray line). Source: CarbonBrief using data from IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2021 report.

Yet the world currently plans to produce far more than we should be using.

The world is planning to produce far more fossil fuel that we should need to stay below 1.5 or even 2 C. Source: United Nations 2021 Production Gap report

The United States is the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, and one of the largest of coal. IEA’s projections show oil and gas production increasing to 17% and 12% above 2019 levels by 2030, with gas continuing to increase beyond that. Coal’s decline stagnates without effective policies to close down remaining plants and transition workers to new jobs.

Current United States policies have us continuing to increase production of oil and gas through 2030 and even beyond (for gas), while coal decreases only slowly. This is far more than we should be producing to keep emissions below 1.5 C or even 2 C. Source: United Nations 2021 Production Gap report

Look to see whether this “production gap” is addressed in the national plans and/or at the conference more generally. How and when are Australia, Russia, India, China, the US, and Indonesia planning to phase out coal production? Saudi Arabia has said in the past that it expects to be compensated for reducing the supply of oil. How will we manage this phaseout equitably? (3)


Much of the time at these conferences has been spent on mitigation -- reducing carbon emissions. But if we have learned anything from the impacts of global warming we have seen over the past few years, we need to work on adaptation as well. Sea level rise will threaten coastal cities. Essential electric and transportation infrastructure will come under threat from floods, fires, and increasingly severe storms. Frequent heat waves and persistent food insecurity will endanger populations while some diseases will become more widespread. Migrations and other stressful life transitions will impact our mental and physical health. How will we harden our infrastructure, shore up our food and water supplies, facilitate necessary migrations and job transitions, and address public health issues? What level of cooperation is needed beyond financing?

It will be important to see how much focus there is on this, though it is a less hopeful topic than mitigation.

Technical Issues

Some important technical issues will be the subject of discussion at COP26. Rules related to carbon trading need to be clarified, specifically to ensure that reductions happen in the real world (not just on paper) when credits are granted. Negotiators are also looking to better align the format of pledges, for example by standardizing on timeframes. These can seem like small things, but the big accomplishment of Paris was really to get countries aligned around a shared process. The better the process, the better the outcome. (4)

Demonstrations and Protests

Finally, how will people show their interest in the proceedings and encourage the attendees to be more ambitious? Will the demonstrations be large? Will they be effective? Who will be represented? What will they call for?

The COP26 conference has been called “The world’s last, best hope to limit global warming”. Well, there is always another chance; and every tenth of a degree saved is an important improvement. But this convention comes at a critical time for increased ambition and collaboration. The IEA minces no words about what we need to see: “A laser-like focus on driving clean electrification, improving efficiency, reducing methane emissions and turbocharging innovation – accompanied by strategies to unlock capital flows in support of clean energy transitions and ensure reliability and affordability. Many of the actions described are cost-effective, and the costs of the remainder are insignificant compared with the immense risks of inaction.”

Pakistan’s commitment, I think, is a useful example because it demonstrates the near-term benefits of taking action. This very populous but poor country has pledged to:

- Shift to 55% renewables by 2025 and 60% by 2030, and ban imported coal. Renewables are cheaper, domestic energy supplies are better for national security, and it is easier to bring local electricity like hydropower to the 20-25% of the population that have no power at all right now.

- Shift to 30% electric vehicles by 2030. Pakistan has some of the worst air quality in the world. Converting to clean transportation will help them begin to improve the health and well-being of their citizens.

- Plant ten billion trees and restore nearly 1M hectares of forest. This initiative will, where successful, make land more resilient and useful, create jobs, and provide shade and habitat. While water may be an issue and all trees won’t thrive, the country is making a convincing start at reversing decades of deforestation.

Pakistan is one of the most populous countries on the planet, and one of the most vulnerable to climate change. It faces increased heat waves, intensifying cyclones and flooding, and melting glaciers. The nation and its people have rallied around these goals in anticipation of the clear, near-term benefits they provide.

The world as a whole has similar opportunity. In the IEA’s net-zero pathway everyone has access to energy by 2030, and in just ten years we see 2.2 million fewer premature deaths from air pollution. Energy use drops 8% by 2050 although the population grows by two billion, and GDP doubles at the same time. This pathway requires unprecedented and immediate international commitment and cooperation, but imo it is compelling.

Will the nations of the world commit to a more sustainable planet in Glasgow?

Notes and References
1. Technically speaking it’s Year Six, but last year was cancelled due to the pandemic.

2. Many reports are coming out in the lead-up to COP26 in addition to those mentioned above. The White House recently released several related to the national security implications of climate change. The Lancet medical journal released a report on the costs to human health, calling climate change “the greatest global health threat facing the world in the 21st century”.

3. This chart blows my mind. We continue to spend more public money on fossil fuel than on clean energy.

Source: United Nations 2021 Production Gap report

4. You can find a good description of the outstanding carbon market issues here.

5. The UN lists the most recent NDC contributions here, and the Climate Action Tracker has some easy-to-read analysis of them for select countries here. (Strangely, though, India is not one of the countries they cover.)

Current Climate Data (September 2021)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

This week’s item of interest is a massive renewable build in China. From CarbonBrief's 10/21 China Briefing: "China is bulk-building “new energy” projects in its vast deserts, according to state media. The province of Gansu in north-western China started the construction of 39 renewable energy projects simultaneously last Friday, reported CGTN. With a combined investment of $10.8bn, these projects involve solar, wind and solar-thermal power plants, as well as energy storage facilities, the official channel said. Their total installed capacity is expected to reach 12.85 gigawatts (GW), the outlet added. Local officials also hope that these projects can help them prevent and control desertification, China News Service reported (link in Mandarin). " For reference, 13 GW is about the capacity of all the solar power in California (14 GW not including rooftop).

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Posted by d+page, a resident of Midtown,
on Oct 24, 2021 at 9:07 pm

d+page is a registered user.

I pray your sunny outlook will carry the day.

Besides the usual suspects (Poland, Brazil, OPEC+), I'm worried about how recent events in Britain and China will shape negotiations. Both, I think, have gone back to dirty energy - somewhat - due to possibly not having enough heat or electricity this winter.

Also, where will Pakistan get funding for these projects?

Let's see how things unfold. I'm hoping you'll be right.

Posted by Mondoman, a resident of Green Acres,
on Oct 25, 2021 at 1:12 am

Mondoman is a registered user.

Just to make things clear, in your first graph (with the ambition gap), that's just showing NEW yearly emissions. Even when it drops to zero, most past emissions still remain in the atmosphere exerting their warming effect for either decades (like methane) or probably 200 years (CO2). Thus, getting yearly emissions down to zero doesn't fix the problem, it just stops it from getting worse.

Regarding your chart 3 with government investment in fossil and other fuels, that's the total for all G20 countries, not just the US. US values will be much smaller.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Oct 25, 2021 at 12:19 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Thanks for the comments! FWIW, the purpose of this post is more to help people understand what success looks like than to weigh in on the likelihood of success. Most pundits think much of what will be accomplished wrt COP26 has already been accomplished. You can't just whip out a better NDC on a moment's notice. My hope is that readers will know what "good" looks like and can better understand how far from "good" we are. Some essential "good" things are:
- We ramp back production and use of coal asap.
- We stop increasing production of fossils asap, and have a plan to reduce as we ramp up renewables.
- Countries have aggressive clean power policies in place as well as policies to electrify transportation, both with big 2030 targets.
- Rich countries donate meaningful funds and tech for poor/vulnerable countries to adapt, and provide tech assistance to developing economies to build clean power and electrify transport.
- Private and public sector incorporate risks of climate change into financial/insurance planning. Adaptation investment becomes meaningful.
- Countries agree to strong market rules for carbon trading, and strong transparency and reporting agreements.

China, India, Australia, Russia, Singapore -- all are big question marks wrt coal usage, emissions reductions, and more. The US is a big question mark wrt funding and other assistance, as well as its ability to craft effective policies on clean power and transportation. I worry about Brazil's commitment to its forests as well. I'm sure there's more, I'm no expert!

We have seen a lot of movement in the last few years. Even if COP26 doesn't go as far as we need, it's helpful to understand where the big gaps lie and what to look for.

Posted by TimR, a resident of Downtown North,
on Oct 25, 2021 at 2:55 pm

TimR is a registered user.

Regarding Pakistan, they also plan on building 32 new nuclear power plants by 2050.

Why would you leave that off your list of all the good things they're doing? And for that matter, why no mention at all here, of all the good things other countries are doing with nuclear? Because nuclear is a VERY crucial part of reducing emissions.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Oct 27, 2021 at 2:47 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@TimR, interesting. There is no mention of nuclear in Pakistan's NDC, but I had heard a person named Nadeem Babar speak in an Atlantic Council forum and he mentioned that around 10% of their energy would be from nuclear, and that would make Pakistan 70% carbon-free by 2030. I thought of including that when I wrote this, but it didn't seem like as big a push as these other things. But it is strange that nuclear is nowhere to be found in the NDC. I don't know if that's true for other countries as well. (I tried to look at France's but it's in French...) I wonder if this is related to UN policies?

FWIW, see pics below for how Pakistan plans to evolve its energy supply. It's interesting that they are planning to replace imported coal (from China) with domestic coal, and their fossil reductions come mainly from gas. More on that here. The devil is always in the details. I should probably read that whole IGCEP report...

Thanks for the comment!

Posted by Michael, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows,
on Oct 30, 2021 at 11:39 am

Michael is a registered user.

NetZero is capitalism trying to solve a problem it created, we need to address our over consumption and need for never ending market growth to deal with this catastrophe. We have to get to Zero Emissions, billions of lives hang in the balance. COP26 is theater.

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