COP26 Global Climate Conference in Glasgow: Can the world turn the tide of climate change?

December 2, 2021

Photo: Karwai Tang/ UK Government

What are your memories of this summer? Many people around the globe will remember it for its record heatwaves, wildfires and floods that took lives, impacted livelihoods, and caused irreparable damage to the environment.

Fires were raging in Turkey and Greece, and flash floods took almost 200 lives in Germany and affected other European countries as well.

Serbia had its 5th warmest summer in the last 70 years. Thunders and heat sparked fires in Zlatibor and Tara mountains, burning hundreds of acres of forest, while the long dry periods reduced agricultural yields.

This kind of weather, only more frequent and more extreme, is what we can expect in the future, if we don’t put climate change under control. Greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), primarily from burning fossil fuels, trap the heat in the atmosphere, making our word already 1.2C warmer than it was in the 19th century, when the Industrial revolution began.

Why is COP 26 a milestone for our future?

The latest UN report on climate change indicates that the life as we know it, our livelihood and all economic activities, shall not be possible in case the global average temperature exceeds the 2°C before the end of this century, compared to 1890s. It also estimates that, with current trend in emissions, we are dangerously close to that scenario, as the global warming will reach or exceed 1,5°C in the next 20 years.

On the bright side, the report says that if we achieve the net zero global GHG emissions by 2050 it is very likely that we can keep global warming well below 2°C by 2100. To reach net zero we need to decrease GHG emissions worldwide so that they are equal to the amount of CO2 that can be absorbed from the atmosphere, for example by trees.

To encourage a new global agreement on urgent climate action, the leaders and representatives of almost 200 countries, including Serbia, will meet in Glasgow next week at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, or COP26. The conference will also bring together representatives of businesses, development and financing institutions, climate change experts and civil society activists. It will be the most important climate change conference since the landmark talks in Paris in 2015.

Three main expectations ahead of Glasgow are that the conference will a) secure additional pledges and plans of the countries to keep the global temperature rise well below 2°C, in line with the Paris Agreement, b) that it will accelerate actions for adaptation to already changed climate conditions and c) that it will mobilise enough finance for realising the first two goals. 

Photo: Vladimir Živojinović/UNDP

Putting the planet’s temperature under control

At the climate change conference in Paris (COP21), back in 2015, all participating nations, including Serbia, agreed to cut their GHG emissions to keep the global temperature rise below 1,5°C. The commitments laid out in Paris have not been fulfilled, as the world’s total CO2 emissions continued to increase. The latest UN Report on climate change prepared by 234 scientists from 66 countries warned that unprecedented changes have occurred across the whole of Earth’s climate system: in the atmosphere, in the oceans, ice floes, and on land. Some of the shifts are in motion now, while some - such as continued sea level rise – are already ‘irreversible’ for centuries to millennia, ahead.

COP 26 must now address two major concerns: what has been agreed that hasn’t been achieved since 2015, and how to further increase climate ambitions to reach the Paris Agreement targets and avoid the looming climate-induced disasters.

Serbia is expected to announce that it will cut emissions by 33% by 2030, a significant increase compared to the previous target of 9%.

The biggest push forward comes from the top three contributors to global GHG emissions, USA, China and EU. USA has re-joined the Paris Agreement and set its new target to lower GHG emissions by 52% by 2030. The EU promised to lower emissions by 55% by the same year, and China said it will cut its emissions in half and is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2060.  

Reaching net zero global GHG emissions is not simple and will require major changes by all parties. Countries will need to stop relying on carbon to grow their economies. This can be done by improving energy efficiency and increasing the share of renewables, such as solar, wind, biomass, hydro, and geothermal energy. Afforestation, ensuring maximum usage of resources through circular economy and better waste management can also accelerate green transformation, as well as usage of cleaner technologies in industries and switching to electric vehicles.

Being ready for the inevitable

Reducing GHG emissions is necessary but is no longer enough. The climate is already changing and will continue to change even as we reduce emissions. Between 1999 and 2018 there have been nearly 500,000 fatalities and close to $3.5 trillion of economic losses due to climate impacts worldwide. In January this year UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for 50% of the total share of climate finance to be spent on building resilience and adapting to the effects of a warming world.

Climate change increases the risk of hot, dry weather and more intense and longer droughts that endanger farming and add fuel to the wildfires. Warmer weather also means more vapour in the atmosphere, resulting in heavier rainfall and flooding. These effects of climate change threaten the most people in poorer countries, as they lack the money to adapt.

That is why COP26 will ask the countries to work together to help those most affected by climate change to protect and restore ecosystems, build defences, put warning systems in place and make infrastructure and agriculture more resilient. One of the reasons that the conference is held in person, despite the pandemic, is to ensure that the voices of less developed countries are heard and that they get the much-needed support.

Adaptation is important for Serbia too, as it is situated in a region that warms up 1 degree faster that the global average. The country needs to adapt quickly to avoid economic losses due to extreme weather events that may amount to $13 billion by 2030. If nothing is done, agriculture as we know it today shall not be possible, while Serbia’s forestry, energy, transport, and infrastructure sector growth shall be slowed down.

With the Green Climate Fund support, UNDP is helping the Government of Serbia to develop the country’s first National Climate Change Adaptation Plan, with concrete actions for responding to the greatest climate risks in key economic sectors. For example, measures for protecting the agricultural yield that accounts for 7.5% of Serbia’s GDP, include increasing irrigation, switching to seeds resistant to drought, building more greenhouses and using more anti-hail nets and systems. 

Photo: Vladimir Živojinović/UNDP

Where will the money come from?

In 2009, developed countries promised to raise $100 billion a year by 2020 to help less developed countries, including Serbia, to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. This promise was repeated in 2015 as part of the Paris Agreement, but so far hasn’t been completely fulfilled. As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD) data shows, the biggest amount for climate finance for developing nations was provided in 2019 and it amounted to $79.6 billion.

In the run up to the COP26 conference, UK and US have announced they are doubling their international climate financing efforts, to help developing nations with $16 billion in the next five years (UK) and $11.4 billion a year by 2024 (US). In parallel, the EU said it will commit an additional $5bn by 2027 to support low-income and climate vulnerable countries.   

COP 26 will call on all the donors to step up their support and demonstrate that the annual $100 billion target will be met and surpassed. It will also call on private sector to put more money into funding technology and innovation needed to put the world on track towards net zero by the middle of the century. 

However, countries that wish to qualify for this support, will need to regularly plan, monitor, and report on their commitments to cut GHG emissions and adapt to climate change. Also, International Financing institutions and bilateral donors have agreed to integrate strong climate criteria, as a prerequisite for receiving their loans and official development assistance.

As a recipient of these funds, Serbia will need to show readiness to switch to an economy less dependent on fossil fuels. Reducing its carbon intensity will bring another benefit for the Serbian economy, as it will become more competitive in external markets, especially in the EU as its key export market, and other advanced economies that are already favouring goods and services with limited carbon and environmental footprint. Lower carbon impact will also mean less carbon border customs, i.e. carbon price on imports of strategic goods from outside the EU, to be introduced in 2023.

No more time to waste

Recent global shortage and rising gas prices have made some question whether it is too risky to abandon fossil fuels as an energy source. Instead, it should make us turn to renewables even faster. Not only that gas, oil and coal reserves will only last for 50 or 100 years more, but the prices of renewables, such as wind and solar energy have dropped by 60 and 90 percent in the last decade.

Increasing the share of renewable sources in the energy mix, as well as greater energy efficiency, is the only way to energy security. This way also leads to more resilient and more just economies, it preserves our environment and provides a healthier future for humanity.

Whether Glasgow will succeed in securing such a future will be measured not only by the promises we hear in the first 12 days of November, but also by the concrete steps taken to act on them urgently.


Text originally published in magazine ˝Vreme˝.