COP26: A guide to the what’s what and who’s who at the talks 

What exactly is the Paris Agreement, and why are developing countries asking for financing? Read on for everything you need to know at one of the most important global climate talks yet. 

1. What is COP26?
For the past 27 years, the nations of the world have convened to discuss ways to cut greenhouse gasses to reduce climate change. It is a painstaking process and fiendishly complex. The 26th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, better known as COP26 will be held in Glasgow, Scotland from October 31 until November 12, and aims to bring about radical climate action aligned with the Paris Agreement. About 25,000 people are expected to attend the conference, and it is hosted by the UK this year. 

2. What does COP26 want to achieve?
This year’s talks are expected to be the most ambitious meeting yet, with negotiations expected to call for drastic measures from the different countries in attendance to curb emissions and achieve net-zero by 2050. The negotiators revolve around ways to cut greenhouses so that temperature rise can be kept under 1.5°C to halt a runaway climate crisis. But to achieve that the world would need to halve its emissions. Getting nations to commit to emission targets will be a big focus of the UK presidency. But three other areas are expected to dominate talks at COP26; namely:

  1. Climate finance,
  2. Phasing out coal, and
  3. Nature-based solutions.

Developing countries will press for more financial aid to both adapt to and mitigate climate change, and climate finance is expected to dominate discussions. 

3. How will climate change affect Africa?
Climate change will have a significant impact on African countries and the lives and livelihoods of Africans. Africa will be particularly affected given its lack of financial resources, technical capacity and infrastructure. Many Africans rely on ecosystem goods for livelihoods and the continent has less well developed agricultural production systems than more developed countries. At the moment over 80% of Africa’s emissions are produced by its 10 most developed countries, with South Africa leading the pack.

4. Why can’t nations just agree to cut emissions?
It is all about money. Developed nations such as the United States, Canada, the European nations, Japan and Australia grew their economies largely as a result of burning fossil fuels to power their economies during the past 100 years. It left the planet with its current carbon crisis. Yet economies such as  India and Brazil have grown considerably and especially China’s competitive economy in recent years have created tension within the negotiations. Rich nations do not want to cut their emissions and hamper their economies if China is not compelled to do so as well. South Africa as the world 8th biggest emitter per capita is also in the spotlight because as a developing country it can’t afford to limit its economic growth. 

5. What is the Paris Agreement and why is it so important?
The landmark Paris agreement, signed in 2015 by 196 parties saw nations committing to holding global temperature rises to “well below” 2C above pre-industrial levels, while “pursuing efforts” to limit heating to 1.5C. The goals are legally binding in the treaty.

The agreement is important as it compels countries to take climate action in order to keep global average temperatures in check. Unfortunately, the Paris Agreement could not convince countries to submit legally enforceable targets for cutting their emissions by 2030, leaving countries to submit non-binding national targets.

Yet these national targets – known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs – are the soul of the Paris Agreement. The biggest concern is that the pledges made do not go far enough, and every year the climate talks urge nations to do more. NDCs are updated every five years and also represent each country’s efforts to maintain a global average temperature of no more than 1.5°C. Countries had to update their efforts at the end of last year, but the pandemic slowed this down. 

6. What are South Africa’s latest NDCs that it has committed to?
South Africa recently updated its NDCs this year, committing to a target of between 350 to 420 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent for 2025 and 2030, through adaptation and mitigation means. The country’s new NDC shows the country’s ambition as the 350Mt CO2-eq is in line with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target. This places South Africa ahead of the curve, turning the nation into a global leader in tackling climate change.

7. Why is climate change an opportunity for South Africa?
South Africa’s economy is coal-dependent, with more than 90% of its electricity generated by its power utility Eskom’s coal plants. But the state-owned enterprise is facing a financial crisis, while its ageing fleet is struggling to keep South Africa’s lights on. At the same time, South Africa’s transport sector is also a huge emitter that desperately needs clean fuel. The essence is that South Africa’s dirty economy has to transform if the country is to meet its NDCs.

And herein lies the opportunity. Eskom has to replace its ageing fleet, and replacing it with green technology is essential. At the same time, investors in rich countries are looking to invest in green projects that deliver the necessary carbon offsets they need. And so the match is made, and COP26 presents a great opportunity for South Africa to connect with such investors.

At the same time, South Africa’s investment into green fuels such as its green hydrogen project presents a huge money-making opportunity for investors looking to put their money into the “oil of the future”.

Read more about this in our previous explainer here

8. But why would investors be attracted to South Africa in the wake of its economic challenges?
South Africa’s abundance of sunshine and wind makes it an ideal destination for investment in renewable energy. Even more crucial is that it draws investors looking to cash in on the rewards promised if you finance clean technologies in coal-dependent countries. This makes South Africa is a dream destination with its industrialised economy that promises a good return. In other words, South Africa is an excellent haven to spend funds destined for a climate transition, because its climate transition promises to be a success story. 

9. Why is climate finance expected to take centre stage at the negotiations?
​​Climate finance must provide funds to poor countries, from public and private sources, to help them cut emissions and cope with the impacts of extreme weather. African countries especially are concerned that climate finance promises have not been met, and are looking for reassurances that they will receive the necessary financial support.

Back in 2009 at COP15 in Copenhagen Cop, poor countries were promised $100 billion a year by 2020. But reports show that the promise was broken and that only $80 billion was provided last year. Developing countries also want pledges that the climate fund will grow as the years tick by. At the last climate talks in Madrid two years ago, climate finance was one of the reasons for the breakdown of talks.

10. Why is it all about the money?
If developing countries significantly cut their emissions, it would curb their growth because they would be unable to power their economy sufficiently. To move away from fossil fuels to clean technologies costs money, and the developed world has negotiated hard for financial aid in the past to move to a green-powered economy. This year climate financing is again expected to dominate negotiations. Developing countries argue that the 20 richest countries contribute up to 80% of global emissions, but that developing countries are most vulnerable even though they emit the least greenhouse gasses. 

11. Why is COP26 an opportunity for Africa to secure development funding?
Investors are eager to search for new opportunities in the green sphere, and with Africa being energy-constrained, huge opportunities exist to invest in new clean technologies and green infrastructure. Apart from climate finance from both the public and private sphere that will help Africa with its energy transition, investors at COP26 will be examining money-making opportunities in new emerging markets eager for green financing.  

12. Why is the focus on greenhouse emissions?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, comprising esteemed scientists tasked to study the effects of climate change, has concluded that there is no longer any doubt that climate change is real. Their reports suggest that this change is caused by human activities — primarily the burning of fossil fuels and land-based activities such as deforestation. The change will ultimately lead to extreme weather, the changing of rain patterns, melting of glaciers and rising sea levels.

13. Who are the negotiating groups at the talks?
Here at the major groups: some are powerful negotiating blocks that have managed to make or break climate talks. 

  • G77 and China: Developing country parties generally work through the Group of 77 to establish common negotiating positions. This big negotiating group is a loose coalition of developing nations, designed to promote its members’ collective economic interests and create an enhanced joint negotiating capacity in the United Nation. But its interests, as it relates to climate change, are so diverse that it sometimes seems cohesion within the group is impossible. It includes countries such as the small island states that are threatened with flooding because of climate change, Saudi Arabia, which will lose income if the use of fossil fuels is reduced, Brazil and China, which are dependent on fossil fuels to grow their economies, and wealthy states such South Korea.
  • The African Group of Negotiators (African Group): This group puts forward Africa’s position, especially on mitigation issues, and will be a strong voice to shape negotiations. It comprises 54 Parties and is active in all aspects of the climate change negotiating process, for example, vulnerability, mitigation and adaptation to climate change.
  • The Umbrella Group: This group is often seen as an obstacle to negotiations. It is a loose coalition of non-European Union (EU) developed countries that formed after the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Although there is no formal list, the group is generally made up of Australia, Canada, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the Russian Federation, Ukraine and the United States (though the US is not as active as the others in the coalition). They are frequently under fire from non-governmental organisations for stalling negotiations.
  • Basic: Made up of Brazil, South Africa, India and China, Basic rose to prominence at the Copenhagen negotiations and speaks for the more “developed” developing countries that are under pressure from the US and the Umbrella Group to cap their emissions dramatically. Power plays between members however has lessened the influence of this potential strong negotiating group. 
  • Least Developed Countries: These 48 Parties defined as Least Developed Countries by the UN regularly work together in the wider UN system. They have become increasingly active in the climate change process, often working together to defend their particular interests, for example with regard to vulnerability and adaptation to climate change. Previously there were 49 Parties in the LDCs Group. However, in 2014 Samoa became too developed to fit into the LDCs circle.
  • The Small Island Developing States (SIDS): SIDS is a coalition of some 40 low-lying islands, most of which are members of the G-77 that are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise. SIDS Parties are united by the threat that climate change poses to their survival and frequently adopt a common stance in negotiations. They were the first to propose a draft text during the Kyoto Protocol negotiations calling for cuts in carbon dioxide emissions of 20% from 1990 levels by 2005.

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