Climate activist Greta Thunberg, center, demonstrates with others in front of the Standard and Chartered Bank during a climate protest in London, Oct. 29, 2021. People were protesting in London ahead of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), which

Why COP26 is the ‘last, best hope’ for fighting climate change 

Here's what you need to know about the big UN climate summit in Glasgow.

The World

Climate activist Greta Thunberg, center, demonstrates with others in front of the Standard and Chartered Bank during a climate protest in London, Oct. 29, 2021. People were protesting in London ahead of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), which starts Sunday in Glasgow, Scotland.

Frank Augstein/AP

The UN climate summit in Glasgow — dubbed COP26 — has been called the “last, best hope” for preventing the worst impacts of climate change.

It’s the most important UN climate summit since 2015 when 192 countries signed on to the Paris Agreement to work together to limit planet-warming greenhouse gases. 

Related: US credibility on climate on the line in Washington

Roughly 20,000 accredited delegates, including some 120 world leaders, government officials, activists, scientists and journalists are expected to attend the negotiating sessions, which are happening in Glasgow, Scotland, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12.

The meeting has been established as a deadline for countries to commit to carbon cuts that will keep within reach the Paris agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius and “pursue efforts” to keep the rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“The overarching ambition that we’ve got is that we want to be able to say, with credibility, coming out of Glasgow, that we have kept 1.5 within reach.”

Alok Sharma, COP26 president  

“The overarching ambition that we’ve got is that we want to be able to say, with credibility, coming out of Glasgow, that we have kept 1.5 within reach,” COP26 President Alok Sharma told reporters this past week.

In a year that’s seen devastating flooding, wildfires, heat and drought across the globe, delegates hope increased public awareness about the urgency of the climate crisis — and the damage it’s already causing — will translate into action.

“We have now crossed a threshold,” said Saleemul Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, and a longtime adviser to least-developed countries at the UN climate talks.

Related: Discussion: Climate change and a deepening global health crisis

“This is no longer something that will happen, it is happening.” 

Why is this year so important? 

COP26 is shorthand for the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, an agreement signed in 1994.

At COP21, in Paris in 2015, countries made promises about how much carbon they would cut over the next several years. In UN parlance, those promises are called Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs, and countries are required to update them every five years.

The first round of NDCs didn’t come close to getting emissions low enough to meet the Paris agreement targets.

And Glasgow has been set as a deadline for countries to submit new targets for 2030.

That’s the year that scientists say the world needs to nearly halve its emissions to keep the 1.5-degree target within reach.

Ahead of the summit, leaders hoped that COP26 “could become a turning point on climate action,” according to a recent UN press release, and that new carbon-cutting targets submitted ahead of the negotiations would get the world close to the Paris targets.

“If we do not change course by 2020,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned in 2018, before the summit was delayed by a year due to the pandemic, “we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change with disastrous consequences.”

Now, on the eve of the summit, pledges submitted by countries still fail to make the sweeping changes needed.

The 1.5-degree Celsius goal has always been wildly ambitious, and it’s getting even more so as countries delay action.

A UN assessment published this past week finds that even if every country delivers on the promises it’s made under the Paris agreement, the world is still on track for a “catastrophic” 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming.

“The emissions gap is the result of a leadership gap,” Guterres said earlier this week. “The time for closing this leadership gap must begin in Glasgow.” 

What’s on the negotiating table? 

It’s highly unlikely that new announced targets at the summit will have countries hitting that 1.5-degree Celsius target. COP President Sharma has set out to keep the goal alive, but he’ll have to get creative.

“We have to look to see how we can reach some agreement on revisiting the commitments that have been made over the next few years,” Sharma said.

Related: Ghana's vegetable sellers see produce dwindle due to climate change

Developing countries will ask for an agreement at the COP to speed up the timeline for countries to submit new carbon-cutting pledges from five years to just a year or two. 

Another key issue heading into the summit is climate finance, or money developed countries have pledged to help developing countries build renewable energy systems and adapt to the rising seas, droughts and heat waves they are already experiencing.

Developed countries pledged in 2009 to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020, but so far haven’t delivered.

That’s fueling a “sense of distrust and tension, especially around finance, which has been building for several years already,” said Maria Laura Rojas Vallejo, the director of a Colombian climate change think tank called Transforma.

The unequal distribution of vaccines, which is making it more difficult for people from the countries most impacted by climate change to attend the summit, is only adding to the gulf between rich and poor nations.

“One of the key negotiating issues is whether countries like the US, developed countries, pay for and support the transition in developing countries.”

Chris Venables, Green Alliance, head of politics

“One of the key negotiating issues is whether countries like the US, developed countries, pay for and support the transition in developing countries,” Chris Venables, head of politics for UK think tank Green Alliance, told The World on Wednesday.

On the finance front, developing countries will be looking for a specific plan from developed countries for delivering on the $100 billion, with an emphasis on grants instead of loans, and increased funding for adaptation, or money to help countries deal with the impacts of climate change that are already being felt.

Related: Study finds widespread climate anxiety among youth

“This is one of the main priorities for developing countries, and we are hoping to see concrete success and progress at COP,” Vallejo said.

The Glasgow talks are also aimed at finalizing what’s known as the “Paris rulebook,” the complex set of rules and regulations that transform a framework agreed to in 2015 into a detailed agreement that can be implemented.

“We need to move from negotiations to implementation,” said Lia Nicholson, lead negotiator for climate change for the Alliance of Small Island States.

That includes finalizing rules for the transparent reporting of carbon emissions by countries to the UN.

And rules for international carbon markets, which would allow countries to offset their emissions by “buying” the excess emissions reductions of countries exceeding their own targets, by doing things like planting trees or switching to renewable energy. 

Negotiators have been hammering out the final details of the Paris agreement since it was passed in 2015, and only the most complex and contentious details are left still. 

“I think this is going to be, in many ways, more challenging than Paris,” Sharma said of the Glasgow talks. 

What’s the political backdrop to the meeting? 

This is the first UN climate summit the US will attend after reentering the Paris agreement, and US climate envoy John Kerry has been crisscrossing the globe for months trying to boost ambition at the meeting.

The world has been watching closely as lawmakers in Washington battle over an infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden hoped would include a clean electricity program that would transform the nation’s electric utilities.

A robust domestic climate plan enshrined in law would have given the Biden administration more room to push other countries to increase the ambition of their own plans.

As it stands now, Biden will be heading to Glasgow with a pared-down climate proposal, still not agreed to by the legislature, with $555 billion for clean energy tax credits, incentives and resilience projects.

A vote isn’t yet scheduled, and if no deal is in hand when Biden speaks in Glasgow, “I think it does hurt US credibility, the US is 15% of global emissions, that’s no small number,” Green Alliance’s Venables said.

The US and China together emit more than a third of the globe’s greenhouse gases, and their cooperation is seen as key to combating climate change.

Meetings leading up to the summit between Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, resulted in no major announcements.

On Thursday, China submitted its updated nationally determined contribution, which essentially enshrined into policy announcements that President Xi Jinping had already made.

“China's decision on its NDC casts a shadow on the global climate effort,” Greenpeace East Asia’s senior global policy adviser Li Shuo tweeted on Thursday after the document was published.

China’s choice, he wrote, “reflects Beijing's mistrust of the US ability to fulfill its carbon and finance targets. There’s real fear that Washington's empty words will intensify an unfair global climate order.”