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Cop26: Does it matter who attends?

The stakes are higher than ever for the upcoming UN climate talks in Glasgow to deliver results on policy promises, but the absence of key players has tempered expectations. Still, there are positive signs of progress from the world of business and finance.


US President Joe Biden will be in Glasgow but his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping will not. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
  • The pressure for results from Cop26 is higher than for other UN climate summits: its goal is to deliver on ambitions, not merely set them out.
  • The backdrop of a pandemic and heightened geopolitical tensions also pose challenges for the talks, with several big emitters opting to take part virtually.
  • But physical attendance may not be everything, and there are some promising signs of progress, notably from the private sector.

“Still no idea who is coming. No idea. We only know about people who are not coming… it’s really irritating when they talk, but they don’t do,” Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II was reportedly overheard saying in mid-October about next week’s Cop26 climate summit. Evoking the exasperated tone of activist Greta Thunberg as she mocked world leaders last month, the monarch summed up the feelings of many.

How much it matters for the ultimate outcome who attends Cop26 in person – or virtually – is another question.

In the run-up to Cop21, which gave us the landmark Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the team appointed by the French government was widely praised.

By contrast, the UK government is currently an object of ridicule or sympathy, depending on your point of view. It is still fighting Brexit-related battles, dealing with 40,000 new Covid cases per day, experiencing an energy crisis the like of which has not been seen for decades and has spent the past week embroiled in a row over sewage.

This is not encouraging, given the historic importance of the host country for this event.

But comparisons to previous Cop gatherings can only go so far. The overarching objective for Glasgow is entirely different from that of Paris: as Cop26 president Alok Sharma said at an October conference: “Paris promised. Glasgow must deliver.”

What’s more, no previous Cop has been set against the backdrop of an unprecedented pandemic, with many foregoing physical attendance for the first time ever. It will not help that geopolitical tensions are higher now than they were in 2015 – particularly between China and numerous other countries, most notably the US.

Around 120 governments are expected to be represented (with a total expected summit attendance of 25,000), says Tom Evans, a researcher at London-based think tank E3G, who has been sharply focused on the summit.

At the signing of the Paris Accords, attendance had been highest among government delegations, non-governmental organisations and the press (see chart above). But one should not read too much into this: the intention of making a concrete commitment was clear from the start.

Besides, things can still go wrong, even with a high level of attendance. Cop15 in Copenhagen was the second most well attended, but talks still broke down.

Big players absent from the table

More important will be concrete action taken by the world’s biggest economies, particularly China and the US, says James Thornton, chief executive of environmental law charity ClientEarth.

Success largely hinges on the four biggest emitters – China, India, Russia and the US – agrees Kelly Perry, head of ESG client services at research firm Edison Group. For many, formal decarbonisation pledges from China and India alone – which account for 28% and 7% of global emissions, respectively – would be a win.

Much has been made in the press of the fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping will not be attending. What is less widely reported is that he has not set foot outside China for nearly two years. And hundreds of people from Xi’s government will be present in Glasgow, including ‘veteran’ climate envoy Xie Zhenhua, something widely viewed as a positive sign.

President Joe Biden, who returned the US to the Paris climate accord hours after becoming president last year, will be there. But his influence and messaging may be somewhat undermined by the well-documented challenges he has faced trying to pass climate legislation at home.


Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russian President Vladimir Putin will be notable absentees from Cop26. (Photo by Jacques Witt/AFP via Getty Images)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be present, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is expected to attend.

Other big emitters are playing hard to get. Russian President Vladimir Putin will participate via video call, but is sending a 200-strong delegation from Moscow. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison – whose coal-supporting government is proving a major laggard in respect of emissions reduction – will also be attending virtually.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is not expected to participate at all – perhaps unsurprisingly, given his government’s plan to reach net zero by 2060 did not moot any exit from oil and gas.

Japan’s new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, is said to be “making arrangements”. This is despite the fact that leaked documents indicate that his country – alongside Australia and Saudi Arabia – has been lobbying the UN to play down the need to shift away from fossil fuels.

Some positive signs

Part of the corporate world will also be notable by its absence. A freedom of information request revealed that oil and gas companies were considered ‘not appropriate’ for an official Cop role, including sponsorship, despite them pushing hard for involvement. That sets Glasgow apart from previous Cops and is a clear win for campaigners. This is perhaps unsurprising, as an email leak has shown British civil servants expressing concern that oil companies’ net-zero plans are insufficient.

There are also positive signals from elsewhere.

Eyes will be on the Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance, for instance, which aims to ensure that setting a formal date for the phase-out of oil and gas production “is seen as a key tenet of climate leadership”. The governments of Costa Rica and Denmark announced its launch on 16 September, and further details – and new members – are expected to be unveiled in Glasgow. Another similar initiative is calling for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty to be on the table during the talks.

The one big problem with Cop is that the emissions reduction treaty doesn’t mention the words coal, oil or gas anywhere. Mark Campanale, Carbon Tracker Initiative

Projects like these are more encouraging than the formal negotiations, says Mark Campanale, founder of Carbon Tracker Initiative, a London-based non-profit think tank.

“The one big problem with Cop is that the emissions reduction treaty [at the centre of the Paris Agreement] doesn’t mention the words coal, oil or gas anywhere – yet 89% of global warming is caused by fossil fuels. It’s an international agreement that doesn’t talk about the problem,” he tells Capital Monitor.

“At Glasgow, we need to move on from that and get deeper into the specifics and take seriously what the IEA [International Energy Agency] says: no new investment anywhere in coal, oil or gas.”

While the official Cop negotiations are separate from much of the broader activity at the event – a fraction of the total summit audience is involved in the official talks – E3G’s Evans says the broader programme will apply pressure to negotiators.

Arguably there is greater optimism around the expected response from the corporate and financial worlds – most notably from big institutional investors – than that from policymakers. “Companies won’t want to lose out on capital and so will align [with investors] independent of government decisions,” says Edison’s Perry.

NDCs, carbon markets and developing countries

The number one thing that is expected to come out of the summit is renewed – or in some cases first-time – nationally determined contributions. The current NDCs – effectively governments’ climate plans – are estimated to be consistent with 2.7°C of warming by 2100. Sharma has said he wants to keep the 1.5°C goal alive.

Carbon markets will also be discussed, as per article 6 of the Paris Agreement. But few are holding out much hope for progress at the international level – despite the IMF, OECD, World Bank and a wide range of investors calling for a global tax or at least some form of agreed pricing mechanism.

Despite encouraging headlines from China, the EU and the US, only one-fifth of global carbon emissions are subject to a pricing regime, most of which have prices set far too low to make a meaningful difference.

International aid for climate change mitigation and adaptation will be another key area of discussion. A Cop summit has the benefit of bringing rich economies together with representatives from the world’s poorest countries, many of which are already seeing the negative impact of climate change first-hand.

In 2009, the G7 grouping of countries promised to ‘mobilise’ – from both public and private sources – $100bn per year until 2020 for developing countries, but have consistently failed to do so (see chart above).

The former president of the island state of the Maldives told the Hindu Times in late October, climate-vulnerable nations like his will be hoping to restructure their national debt with richer countries. Belize and the Seychelles are examples of how nations can use instruments such as blue bonds and ESG public debt swaps to refinance debt with investors.

The Climate Vulnerable Forum comprises 48 countries, including Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Kenya and the Philippines. A report released just this week says lower-income countries spend five times more on debt than on climate change adaptation and energy transition – and that could reach seven times by 2025 if nothing changes.

This year’s summit is often labelled the most important since Paris’s Cop21 in 2015, because it is about reviewing progress since then and fleshing out some of the details. There is compelling evidence showing how little progress has been made. Cop26’s success may depend on whether governments are honest with themselves, and the rest of the world, about that.

Elizabeth Meager

Policy editor

Elizabeth Meager is the policy editor of Capital Monitor, a position dedicated to making sense of the slew of investment and corporate regulatory changes surrounding sustainability.