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Looking Ahead: Covering COP26

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On October 19, we hosted a fantastic panel discussion looking at the upcoming COP26 and how journalists can most effectively cover the conference.

From October 31 – November 12, some 25,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries will gather in Glasgow to review their progress on fighting climate change for the first time since the Paris Agreement was reached in 2015. The situation is more desperate following the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report in August, which highlighted the urgent need for countries to increase efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions to keep global temperature rises below 1.5°C.  Negotiators are therefore hoping to reach agreements that will enable significant emissions cuts by 2030, working toward the overall goal of Net Zero by 2050.

Climate talks are necessarily technical and big picture, so we asked our panel to talk us through what kind of policies we should look out for at the conference and any tips for journalists covering COP26. Scroll down to watch the discussion in full.

Panel:

*Unfortunately, Climate Change Committee Chairman Lord Deben was unable to join us as scheduled.

KEY TERMS

  • UNFCCC: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; environmental treaty established in 1992, entered into force in 1994 and governs ongoing international cooperation and research on climate change
  • Kyoto Protocol: treaty signed in 1997, which ran from 2005-2020, setting out the first implementation of measures under the UNFCCC with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions
  • Paris Agreement: second implementation of UNFCCC measures, signed in Paris in 2015, with the long-term goal to keep the rise in global temperatures below 2°C
  • 1.5: refers to the goal of keeping the rise in global temperatures below 1.5°C, or the consequences of allowing temperatures to rise above that rate
  • IPCC: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; UN body responsible for advancing knowledge on anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change, including regular reviews of all relevant data and literature
  • NDCs: Nationally Determined Contributions; country-specific plans to fight climate change, including targets for greenhouse gas emissions, which are due to be submitted for COP26
  • Market Mechanisms: systems which allow countries or companies to trade or purchase the right to emit tonnes of CO2 from countries or companies that emit below their limits

The UK’s Role

Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace, started us off with a note on the role UK policy plays in the global context with the UK government hosting COP26, noting that diplomatic and international capital are important in order for the talks to be successful and to hold them with credibility. Parr said that with the UK’s international standing weaker with key allies than it was a few years ago, the UK’s domestic policy becomes even more important in lending this credibility.

Our discussion took place just hours after what Parr said was the biggest document drop on climate for over a decade – the Net Zero Strategy, Heat and Buildings Strategy, Net Zero Review and Greening Finance Roadmap – making it a difficult time to assess exactly how effective this policy would be in regards to COP. But he noted some positives: the UK has been very good on phasing out coal, getting offshore wind going, cars and electric vehicle investments; as well as some weaknesses: on buildings, energy efficiency, food, agriculture land use, and plans on industry that are not as well-formed as they might be.

In response to a question later on whether UK had adequately prepared for the summit, UFCCC Technology Executive Committee chair Stephen Minas pointed out that the conference is a ‘mammoth undertaking’ in international diplomacy and said that the conference needs to be judged on its outcomes.

Whether certain leaders turn up is less important than what actually happens at the meeting; Minas and Parr agreed that no government can compel other leaders to attend, but whether they do is irrelevant to the commitments that their delegations make in Glasgow. Parr cautioned against writing the ‘easy story’ about whether someone is coming or not, and urged journalists to get to the core of the issue, for example whether India’s NDCs show real action on coal, rather than whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the summit.

Parr praised the work COP26 President Alok Sharma has put into preparing for the conference as well as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent push to get world leaders on board, but questioned whether the government engaged early enough and used all of the tools at their disposal, pointing out that the recent trade deal with Australia had effectively allowed them to write down climate obligations.

Key Issues at COP26

‘Keep 1.5 Alive’

Both Parr and Yamide Dagnet, Director of Climate Negotiations at the World Resources Institute, highlighted ‘Keeping 1.5 Alive’ as a key goal for a successful summit. The 2015 Paris Agreement set the goal of limiting global warming to 2°C, but the recent IPCC report showed that it is now more urgent to limit warming to 1.5°C.

Parr pointed to the ‘unambiguous’ effects we’re starting to see worldwide, including this year’s heat waves in Canada, Pakistan and Siberia, floods in Germany and China, and associated wildfires, as evidence that consequences escalate quickly as temperatures rise between 1.1 and 1.2°C. He cited the IPCC report’s call for global emissions to be cut by 45% (from 2010 levels) over the next nine years, but noted that the current NDC commitments will actually allow for a rise of 16%, so the leading industrial countries and biggest emitters need to start cutting emissions sharply.

Parr and Greenpeace say this commitment to a significant emissions cut has to include an explicit commitment to ending fossil fuel projects, citing the International Energy Agency’s Net Zero by 2050 roadmap.

Dagnet, who works with the ACT2025 consortium of think tanks from climate-vulnerable and developing countries, stressed the need for solidarity and resilience when it comes to the 1.5 goal. While we are seeing some momentum with the new NDCs, Dagnet said we need to see more ambition from countries like China and India, and that some G20 countries have submitted inadequate NDCs which means we’re not where we need to be at this point. She noted that the Paris Agreement set up a five-year cycle, acknowledging that it would take repeated effort to make changes, but that acceleration is particularly important in light of the IPCC report, so we need to see change earlier than 2025, especially from countries with inadequate NDCs. But for developing countries, Dagnet said this has to come alongside trust and investment from more developed countries, and an acknowledgement of the idea that we’re all in this together – developed countries need to be meeting their targets, too.

The concept of resilience to 1.5 is equally important, Dagnet said – the idea that we’re in for a tough ride, and that we’re not that prepared for it, including those in developed countries. As we look to limit global temperature rises, Dagnet pointed out that lots of work still needs to be done on helping countries adapt, mobilising the IPCC to provide better metrics and means for assessment, and giving space to seriously discuss issues like displacement and loss of historical heritage that come up in countries most affected by climate change. Both resilience and solidarity are further tied into the issue of finance, which was a second key talking point in our briefing.

Finance and Climate Justice

At the COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, developed countries agreed to provide $100 billion per year in finance for climate mitigation and adaptation measures by 2020. In September, the OECD reported that only $79.6 billion was provided in 2019, with the goal also expected to be missed when 2020 figures are made available.

The commitment is part of a wider recognition that the countries most affected by climate change are not those that have caused it. Parr said that while recent extreme weather events may have made climate change suddenly seem ‘real’ to those in the global north, climate as been ‘getting real’ for communities and countries in the global south for a very long time, and they are often developing and small states that haven’t been responsible for the large-scale emissions that have caused global warming. Parr said this concept of climate justice runs through the negotiations, with less developed, less powerful countries calling for bigger cuts, while larger, industrialised countries are more likely to be digging their heels in.

Dagnet said that the $100 billion commitment was symbolic, and not commensurate with the needs of developing countries, so COP26 should be looking to launch a process to agree a new goal on finance by 2025. Vulnerable countries are looking at ways to make up the gap from the 2020-2024 period, and there are suggestions that by 2025 a commitment should look more like $500 billion per year. But Dagnet said we should be looking to mobilise trillions, not billions, to power the transformation that’s needed, and that furthermore it’s important to make sure this funding is accessible – the data shows that only 2% of climate finance is going to small islands, and only 14% to the least developed countries.

Finance discussions should also take into account the challenges that vulnerable countries are facing, many of which have high levels of debt; climate finance should increasingly come from grants, not loans, to ensure that vulnerable countries are not having to take on additional debt in order to fund climate policies. Dagnet stressed that more financial support is needed for adaptation, with only 25% of finance currently going to these measures.

Parr and Dagnet both raised the issue of ‘loss and damage’ finance, which is essentially a form of compensation for the ‘locked in’ effects of climate change beyond the limits of current mitigation and adaptation measures in countries that haven’t been responsible for the emissions that have caused global warming. Dagnet said finance in this area needs to be more predictable, but that developed countries have a fear of liability issues and don’t like to talk about compensation; she said this should instead be framed as solidarity to help countries prepare for the limits of adaptation, and that coverage really needs to emphasise ‘all hands on deck!’

Rules and Accountability

The third key issue to look out for at COP26 is the idea of rules and accountability. Dagnet said that robust rules are needed to hold countries accountable to their 1.5 commitments, and that ‘no rules are better than bad rules’. ‘Bad rules’ includes some of the market mechanisms that exist for carbon offsets, and Dagnet and Parr had slightly different views on these.

Parr and Greenpeace are calling for no global market in carbon offsets, which Parr said are ‘basically…a scam that don’t work, a distraction’, and something that companies and countries see as an easy way out. He said there is not enough land for nature to take up the emissions, and that there is a history of offsets with questionable validity, including a tree-planting project from BP that was expected to suck up carbon being emitted elsewhere, but ended up being destroyed in the California wildfires.

Dagnet said that market mechanisms can be useful if they’re done right – avoiding double counting and double claiming, ensuring that they preserve and safeguard human rights, and that they are more than just an offset mechanism. She said the mechanisms should work not only to make action more efficient, but to accelerate and provide additional contributions toward global objectives.

Tips for Journalists

Stephen Minas offered some advice on the conference itself from his experience, having first attended COP as a journalist. He noted that COP is actually a number of overlapping events – the intergovernmental negotiations, an international trade show, and a global public square where civil society and popular movements come together – all important, but not the same thing.

Firstly, he noted that the negotiations between the members can result in very important decisions that have billion-dollar consequences as well as implications for human rights and environmental integrity, among other things – in other words, real world ramifications. Minas said finance, which had been highlighted as a key issue already, permeates the discussions, and talks are ‘often about finance even when they’re not explicitly about finance’, so it’s important for journalists to be aware of that dynamic. The conference is also, oddly, usually technology-neutral, with words like fossil fuel, coal, and solar energy often left out of the agreements.

Minas pointed out that COP26 is very different to Paris in 2015 and Kyoto in 1997, in that there is no one big agreement to either succeed or fail, and no new treaty to be agreed. As a result, there are dozens of negotiating tracts under the three existing treaties, which means a sprawling agenda. And yet, some of the most important topics that we talked about are not even specifically on the agenda, including the $100bn goal, new NDCs, and greening finance – but they underpin and permeate COP. Nobody can cover all of it; Minas advises journalists to figure out your angle, what are you there to cover, and what is your editor interested in.

On the practicalities, Minas said your contacts are key: the first and final sessions are open to civil society observers, but in between, parties discuss in informal settings. While journalists can go to plenaries, they are generally not involved and the conference is a mix of transparency and opacity, so your coverage is really about who your contacts are and who is willing to talk to you.

It’s also important to get a really thorough understanding ahead of time: the negotiations are often in a form of code, with words and acronyms that have a great deal of meaning but are not in plain English, so it’s important to be aware of what they all mean to make sense of what’s going on. Parties often sit in different coalitions and overlapping groups, so you need to be aware of these and their key stances and positions, as well as understand the various bodies and committees that contribute to COP through recommendations and guidance but do not make decisions.

Minas sees COP26 as a test of whether the Paris Agreement works: ‘It’s a huge amount to cover and a huge amount to interpret, but a fascinating event to cover’.

Q&A

BRICS Countries

Q: What are some of the areas to focus on from the perspective of India?

Q: The current Brazilian government is different to the one that was in Paris – they have a different approach, where previously they were more proactive. Is the international community really counting on Brazil to improve or is it more damage-control?

Q: If BRICS leaders don’t show up, will the UK government be to blame for that?

Yamide Dagnet provided some helpful insight on areas India would look to focus on at COP26:

  • How ambitious India positions themselves in their NDCs: can they translate their ambitions to accelerate the pace of emissions cuts and the expectations as a G20 country?
  • Finance agenda: they will likely fingerpoint developed countries for failing some of their commitments, and they’ll be looking to make headway on getting the right commitments for finance.
  • Solidarity among developing counties around the resilience and adaptation agenda, an area India leads on.
  • Market mechanisms: India is one of the countries that has most benefitted from previous market mechanisms, so really looking at how to transition from the Kyoto Protocol and use of credits to the Paris Agreement.
  • Common end dates: some countries are locked into too-comfortable, low-ambition periods, and need to be much more responsive to science, technological and societal changes. Hopefully India can be more flexible here.

On Brazil: It would be good to have all BRICS countries participate, but what matters more is what they’re going to commit to. Brazil’s NDCs are backsliding, they are really not adequate. We need to watch out for how Brazil is going to approach the rules agenda, the market mechanisms and so on. All developing countries will be looking to push the finance, loss and damage, and adaptation agenda, but we also need to look at how they’re going to react and where they will stand on ambition and on the rules – not having them undermine the discussions. We are still waiting for China and India’s NDCs, and we hope Brazil won’t block the possibility of adjusting commitments before 2025.

As mentioned earlier, in response to the question on whether the UK government is to blame, Stephen Minas and Doug Parr both said the government can’t force any world leader show up, but that this mattered less than the commitments their delegations make at the summit.

GERMANY

Q: What role is expected of Germany, given they don’t have a new government yet and most ministers attending won’t still be in their jobs afterwards?

Minas noted that there are always countries that are between governments at COP, so this is not unusual. Germany is an integral part of the EU, which negotiates as a group at COP, and Germany will continue to negotiate within that team in accordance with those mandates. Parr pointed out that the recent elections had a strong vote in favour of the Greens, and hoped that the existing postholders would respect the democratic mandate for their government to move further and faster on climate action.

Dagnet said that as a developed country, Germany will be expected to lead on action and finance. In their individual capacity, Germany are trying to work alongside Canada on a delivery plan for the $100 billion commitment, so we’ll see how successful that is, but they’re trying. The other area we’re hoping to see some movement on is the mindset shift on how to appreciate the need for resilience and make more tangible progress on adaptation and loss and damage, which has been very sensitive.

SMALL ISLAND STATES

Q: Small island states have little to no negotiating power, and their NDCs have no impact on climate change. What can they do besides being bystanders while developed world decides their fate?

Dagnet disagreed that SIS have little influence – without them we wouldn’t have had the 1.5 in the Paris Agreement. The push was led by the Marshall Islands and the Climate Vulnerable Forum, and they did a lot to bring the commitment in and to hold developed countries to accountability. She said we need to keep their moral authority – keep their voices on the UN Security Council, keep empowering them to use their voices. Parr echoed this sentiment, saying it was the job of journalists to reveal the ‘moral conflict at the heart of the negotiations’. He likened it to a David versus Goliath tale, of countries with moral authority but little actual power up against interests that have economic and emissions might, who are going to have to be pushed to move by the little guys.

Minas said SIS play a ‘tremendously important’ role in the negotiations, not only with moral authority but also with practical proposals and experience, and cautioned against underestimating their role in the process. Dagnet also highlighted the value of their experience, saying small islands can be used to pilot solutions for coastal communities in larger countries. She used the examples of prosperity and investment plans in Jamaica and Antigua and Barbuda, whose approach could be studied at a local level in other countries, highlighting once again the importance of getting investment to support innovation in those islands.

MEDIA COVERAGE – TIMING AND FRAMING

Q: Should we expect negotiations to go beyond the current stated deadline like they did at COP25?

Minas said it’s very likely but impossible to say. In recent years, COPs have tended to go over the scheduled time, and this COP is two years’ worth of discussions – he wouldn’t bet on it closing at the scheduled time. Dagnet agreed that the sheer amount of issues and complexity at a technical and political level would make it a challenge, but hoped this would spur more focus and determination to end decisively and on time. She said nobody wants to stay longer than they have to due to pandemic. For journalists: be aware that biggest coverage moments might be later than planned if there’s a good chance the big decisions will be made after November 12.

Q: How should journalists cover COP outcomes and climate change to drive home the importance of immediate activity and talk responsibly about the costs – what is the most helpful framing?

Parr said the level of support for individual policy measures is related to the extent to which people recognise there’s a climate problem. Every time there’s an extreme weather event linked to climate change, there’s a rise in support for climate action, including those that reach into people’s own lives. For narrative storytelling, Parr said that means highlighting the connectedness between extreme weather events abroad and at home, and the measures that are necessary – a paragraph saying climate change was recently seen in floods in China and Germany, and now to tackle it the UK government is suggesting we do x to deal with gas boilers. This makes the link more effectively and enhances the support for policy measures.

Dagnet pointed to the lack of global solidarity, and said while we see a lot of what’s happening in the global north, the media needs to highlight that it’s also happening in places like Uganda and Mozambique – the difference is that in the UK or Germany there may be more resources for recovery. People also need to understand that these countries in the global south have contributed the least to the problem.

The other side of it is highlighting the positive side of climate innovation so much more than we currently do. Dagnet cited a paper the WRI published just this week alongside the International Trade Union Confederation which highlighted the extra jobs created in green industries compared to fossil fuel investments – 1.5 times more jobs in the case of solar, and 3.7 times in the case of ecosystem restoration. She said positive reporting can demonstrate the benefits of investing into powering the transformation, rather than just focusing on the negative impacts.

We can also report on lessons learned from the experience of more resilient developing countries: Bangladesh doesn’t suffer as badly from cyclones, for example, despite higher intensity weather than what we see in the US or Europe, because they have achieved a state of adaptation with early warning systems that other countries could learn from.

KEY UPCOMING DATES

 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Watch the full discussion:

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