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With the leaders gone, COP26 negotiators take centre stage

The next week-and-a-half will see negotiators at COP26 try to agree on carbon trading rules, climate finance, an end to coal and more in a bid to get the world on track to net-zero emissions.

By Nick Ferris

As thousands piled into the Scottish Events Campus in Glasgow on Monday, demonstrators from the Global South chanted and waved banners, reminding delegates of the climate activism that has become such a potent force since the landmark Paris Climate Agreement in 2015.

Around the corner from the front gate a vast queue revealed itself, moving at a snail’s pace through the Scottish drizzle. Checks from local police gave way to checks from UN security, before – finally – the ‘Blue Zone’ revealed itself.

Delegates walk through the Blue Zone on day one of the COP 26 United Nations Climate Change Conference on October 31, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

This is the area open only to those accredited by the UN, housing everything from the knotty climate discussions between world leaders, to live TV interviews, to a hall of special pavilions run by country representatives clamouring to speak to delegates and explain why theirs is the best pathway to net zero. 

The COP is also a chance for people from all corners of the world to explain how climate change is affecting them. 

The feeling on the ground is that the first few days of discussion have exceeded expectations.

Attendees from diverse backgrounds, ages and ethnicities liven up the usual business and media crowd. There are cholitas from Bolivia, First Nation representatives from North America and herdsmen from Central Asia. Languages from every corner of the Earth are heard, while the sterile exhibition centre air is punctuated by the smell of clover-infused Indonesian cigarettes. 

The feeling on the ground is that the first few days of discussion have exceeded expectations. Rousing speeches from 95-year-old naturalist David Attenborough and Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley inspired even the most hardened COP veterans. Initial anxieties over China’s absence have been overshadowed by deals to end deforestation by 2030 and limit methane emissions, as well as India’s net-zero by 2070 pledge. 

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Climate action for 1.5°C

Now it is day four and the likes of Ursula von der Leyen, Joe Biden and Narendra Modi have come and gone. The real work of the COP is starting: multilateral discussions between diplomats, as well as other sideline discussions between countries and businesses. The aim is to hash out new international agreements, such as that announced by 450 banks announced on Wednesday to end fossil fuel financing.

There remain concerns that the agreements reached so far are not enough to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C. It has been announced, for example, that some 18 countries – including Poland, Vietnam and Chile – have offered first-ever pledges to phase out coal, but others, including some of the world’s biggest coal nations – China, India and Australia – are yet to join them. 

Key players in the COP discussions include US climate envoy John Kerry and China’s veteran negotiator Xie Zhenhua – a duo whose working relationship was reportedly critical to the forging of the Paris Agreement as well as former prime minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina, who chairs the 48-strong Climate Vulnerable Group, and Alok Sharma, the UK’s chief negotiator. 

Carbon trading and finance to decide

COP26 will end with a joint declaration. Whether this contains substantial new policy – and in particular, whether an agreement can be reached on carbon trading rules (Article 6) of the Paris Agreement rulebook – is still up in the air.

Other key areas of focus include enhancing climate adaptation efforts as well as climate finance for poorer nations, and whether the long-promised annual payment of $100bn per year can be met sooner than the new deadline of 2023, or the amount increased.

Negotiations are due to end on Friday 12 November, but in previous years they have dragged on into the Saturday as countries have sought to hash out an agreement. The appetite for comprehensive climate action is certainly here, but whether the 197 countries taking part are able to see eye to eye on the actions and investments needed to really get on track to net zero is another question.

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