Crunch time: Climate clock ticks down to COP26

Key points: 

  • Despite numerous calls for further postponement, COP26 is set to go ahead in November, with final logistical arrangements being rushed through so world leaders can descend on Glasgow. 
  • The ever more challenging geopolitical context means the UK Presidency is actively dampening down expectations of what will be agreed, with a diplomatic stand-off not completely excluded at this stage. 
  • Discussions in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly this week will be crucial if the Prime Minister is to inject much needed political momentum in the final weeks before the summit. 
  • Despite rising political concerns on affordability, the Government is preparing to make a series of significant green announcements in the coming weeks to show that climate leadership starts at home.   

It is happening this time, promise 

The COVID pandemic has thrown all our plans off course. The impact has been most acute for those looking to go abroad given the patchwork of local restrictions and uneven vaccination rates. This has become a complete nightmare for those in the UK Government seeking to plan a global climate conference with 197 countries and over 30,000 delegates in November.  

Many have started to doubt the Government’s continual assurances that COP26 can go ahead as planned. Developing countries and civil society groups have been calling for a delay given concerns over access and transparency.  

Despite this, the Government is now fully committed to COP26 going ahead. Final logistical arrangements are being made. Hotels are booked, delegate passes are being distributed and events in the Green and Blue zones are being finalised. Government has been delivering free vaccinations to ensure all countries can send full political delegations to Glasgow. A further delay would have little practical benefit and would leave the summit outcome hanging over the Government. While a significant COVID spike could still throw things off course, the safe money is now on the summit going ahead as planned. 

All roads lead to China 

The geopolitical context facing negotiators in Glasgow is bleak. The fallout from the Afghanistan crisis, and now AUKUS, is sucking up precious diplomatic energy. Importantly in the context of COP26, both highlight the tensions between China and the West on issues of global importance. 

As with COP21 in 2015, a major climate commitment from China in advance of Glasgow could be a game-changer, setting the tone for other countries in China’s sphere of influence to follow. The UK and US are working in partnership to make this happen, aiming for a major commitment on coal, as well as a commitment to peaking overall Chinese emissions earlier. Despite these efforts, prospects of success remain low, with China looking to use leverage on climate to ease current trade restrictions – no small ask. Increases in ambition are essential – the UN published a report last week outlining that the current national commitments would put the world on course for 2.7C of global warming. 

The old phrase ‘money talks’ is also hanging over political preparations for the summit. Developing countries are increasingly vocal that without a significant mobilisation of new climate finance there is little chance of a breakthrough on ambitions. There is some way to go – the OECD published a report last week showing that developed countries were still around $20bn off their target to mobilise $100bn in finance by 2020. We are seeing some movement, with the EU coming forward with a €4bn commitment, but others, including the US, still need to act.  

Time is ticking down 

Given the geopolitical context, the Government is ratcheting down expectations for the summit. While no formal treaty was ever expected, the hope now is to at least agree a communiqué that shows COP26 isn’t the end of the road. Instead of marking a major inflection point in global emissions, the hope is now to show that the summit keeps 1.5 degrees warming ‘in reach’, and to set out markers for further national action beyond Glasgow. There is also a hope of securing commitments on specific technologies, such as countries committing to phase out coal and end production of internal combustion engine vehicles. 

Although expectations are now materially lower, there is still a major political mobilisation needed to finalise the outstanding elements of the Paris Rulebook – including Article 6 – and avoid complete diplomatic stalemate. This and next week will be key. World leaders are descending on New York for the United Nations General Assembly, with Boris Johnson due to hold a series of meetings and make a major speech urging greater ambition – though with AUKUS still fresh, China is unlikely to be involved in these discussions. If there is no material movement this week, it may be too late. 

Time to walk the walk 

The heat index on climate is also rising at a domestic level. Rocketing global gas prices are driving up energy bills for UK households, just as Conservative backbenchers are starting to mobilise on the cost of climate action. While the two issues are largely unconnected, there are increasing concerns that a greater focus on affordability will weaken the Government’s determination on green issues. 

Thus far, the Government is insisting this is not the case and is still planning to publish a series of politically charged documents ahead of COP26, covering how we heat UK homes, the likely cost of the transition and a full strategy for delivering net zero out to 2050. Progress is expected on green finance, including further detail on the UK green taxonomy framework. No10 is eyeing the Spending Review in late October as a key moment in the final few days before COP26. Government realises it will be even harder to mobilise ambition at the summit if it goes cold on climate action at home. 

Implications for business 

It is now time for businesses to finalise their COP26 programmes. Government wants a full business voice at the summit, and final decisions on showcasing applications are now being made. The fringe programme is filling up, offering wider opportunities for businesses to create a platform. Action starts now, with a series of key events to build momentum, including the Green Investment Summit on October 19 where many businesses are expected to make major corporate green announcements. 

As well as getting involved in the summit itself, it is time for businesses to start considering what comes next. COP26 will launch countless new policy and regulatory initiatives, with those businesses already involved leading the charge. If the summit goes badly, there is a risk of the political momentum on green issues reducing, leaving businesses to take a more active role in showing the benefits that can accrue from clean investment. Whatever happens at COP26, it certainly won’t be the end of the road.  


Josh BucklandPartner leads Flint’s work on energy, sustainability and environmental issues. Prior to joining Flint, Josh was Energy Adviser to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Josh previously worked on energy and climate issues across HM Treasury and in the No10 Policy Unit. Josh also worked as a senior adviser within the COP26 Unit.  

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