As with any multinational showcase meeting, delegates at each COP (and especially its host) want the meeting to be seen as a success. As the 26th COP approaches, it is in some ways salutary to look back at previous COPs and identify those outcomes which made them a hallmark meeting and the failures which made others less memorable. In recent years, COP15 in Copenhagen was regarded as a failure because despite high hopes and great hoopla it failed to gain agreement by the UNFCCC signatories on taking action to reduce carbon emissions and ended with the weak “agreement to agree” known as the Copenhagen Accord. The COP21 in Paris is regarded as a success in that 196 countries agreed to take action to slow and eventually reduce carbon emissions (“Paris Agreement”). Furthermore, the Paris Agreement aspired to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, adding to the 2 degree limit from 1970 temperatures. Of course, there was much else that was positive to come out of Paris, including a commitment by developed nations to deliver $100 billion a year for five years from 2020 to help poorer countries address climate change. There were a number of other significant agreements which we have considered previously.

However, as a delayed COP26 is about to start, the world in which the Paris Agreement was fashioned looks markedly different to the world today. In 2015 relations between the major industrial nations were more cordial (or at least not as fractious) as they are today. Heads of governments and business leaders were both present and committed. Climate change featured large on political and social agendas; the Pope issued his encyclical ‘Laudato si’, calling for human action to combat global warming; the host country generated over 90% of its electricity from zero carbon sources (including nuclear), and, whilst the issues were pressing, they still seemed solvable, provided countries delivered on their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

Between Paris and Glasgow there were many encouraging pointers that the world was on the right road. Concern over climate change broadened into a desire to achieve sustainability in human endeavour; the World Economic Forum in Davos included climate related matters in its agenda. The world’s financial regulators recognised that climate change not only impacted on society but also threatened the resilience of the global financial system and took steps to address that. Private capital was mobilised to finance sustainability and there was an awakening to the fact that extreme weather events and climate change were linked. The UK, the host for COP26, announced that oil, gas and coal only produced 40% of the country’s electricity in 2020, with the rest coming from renewable sources and nuclear.

Yet 2021 heralds the Conference of the Parties in Glasgow in a pandemic world with countries’ coffers depleted by furlough schemes, aid for business and support for health systems, in a period of marked economic disruption affecting tax revenues. There is increased friction among the world’s industrial powers, with several leaders choosing not to attend Glasgow. At the same time, it was announced that the $500 billion fund to help poorer countries would not now start delivering its promised $100 billion a year until 2023, three years behind target. The latest Emissions Gap Report published by the UN Environmental Partnership (UNEP) and the UNEP DTU Partnership shows that current NDCs, plus other mitigation measures, puts the world on track for temperature rise of 2.7 degrees by the end of the century, markedly beyond the 1.5 degrees and above the 2 degrees which was a goal even before Paris.

Whilst it could be argued that if countries set their own NDCs, then they will be more likely to stick to them, cynics will point to the lack of an international policing or sanction system. Yet it is unlikely that so many countries would have signed up to the Paris Agreement if they were to make themselves subject to external scrutiny and censure. Perhaps the key is for more countries to recognise that the greater self-interest is to mitigate the effects of climate change rather than the pursuit of carbon based economic development. It may be that this will come in time.

However, in the realms of climate change, time and tide wait for no man, nor any nation. Time is not a luxury in unrestrained supply to the delegates when working out the plan that needs to be agreed to at COP26. Just as the lack of time exponentially increases the urgency of agreeing to a plan (and sticking to it), it also reduces the choices that can be made and shows that there are a few stark indicators of success by which COP26 can be measured. So, notwithstanding our previous briefings on what to expect from Glasgow, judgment on COP26 will turn on a narrow set of criteria.

It would be trite to say, that the Parties need to recommit to limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The NDCs emanating from the Paris Agreement sought to do that and the latest Emissions Gap Report indicates that the signatories to the Paris Agreement have not achieved that.  Six years on from Paris, Parties need to increase their NDCs significantly if they are to bring temperature change back on track with the Paris Agreement’s objective. However, as the world is further down the road to the “point of no return”, revised NDCs are needed to bring greenhouse gases back on the Paris Agreement trajectory, going further than previously submitted NDCs to generate larger reductions sooner. That said, for as long as the NDCs are voluntary (and based on the framework of the Copenhagen Accord on which the Paris Agreement is built, there is no mechanism for them not to be), the success of COP26 relies on the Parties’ reprioritisation of their self-interests. Whether that happens or not, it won’t be evident from the COP communiques, only time will tell and time is an asset in short supply. Whilst increased sustainability funding, carbon taxes, carbon market mechanisms and the like will all be discussed at COP26 (as they should be), sincerity, credibility and commitment will be the indicia by which Glasgow will be judged by history.