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Analysis: What's different about this world climate summit

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Countries acknowledge the danger of climate change and say they’re committed to doing something about it. But there is increasing alarm that countries won’t do enough to hold world temperatures below the key threshold most scientists have set.
I’ve borrowed most of what’s below from CNN’s climate team, which covers this topic on a daily basis. The grim takeaway is the growing skepticism over the world’s ability to meet key benchmarks in time to avert catastrophic effects.
Why do they call it COP26?
It’s the 26th annual conference of parties brought together by the United Nations to address climate change. You might recall the Paris Agreement in 2015, which then-President Donald Trump withdrew the US from and current President Joe Biden subsequently re-entered? That occurred at COP 21, which was held in Paris.
What are the countries trying to accomplish?
They’re going to set new goals of what they’ll do to help slow climate change.
How much can the climate warm before catastrophic consequences occur?
The prevailing scientific consensus is that temperatures can rise 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels before the most catastrophic changes — increasingly devastating fires, floods and droughts — begin to occur.
Can temperatures be kept below that 1.5-degree Celsius threshold?
There’s a growing consensus that temperatures may rise beyond that level no matter what corrective action is taken. As a result, you’ll also hear scientists and policymakers refer to the more attainable goal of limiting temperature increases to 2 degrees over pre-industrial levels.
1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius. How much is that in Fahrenheit?
That’s 2.7 or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
What if the world changes its policies right this second? Will that keep the temperatures from rising?
As CNN wrote recently, even under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most optimistic scenario, in which the world’s emissions begin to drop sharply today and are reduced to net zero by 2050, global temperatures will still peak above the 1.5-degree threshold before falling.
What exactly are pre-industrial levels?
We’re talking, generally, about the climate before the Industrial Revolution. But here again there is debate since the world has been around for a very long time and temperatures have fluctuated. UN reports have referred to the period between 1850 and 1900 as pre-industrial as there were more reliable record-keeping and observations of temperatures then.
There are many terms that are unique to the climate vernacular. We’ve got a glossary, and it includes definitions of things like achieving “net-zero emissions,” which means a country is removing as much greenhouse gas from the atmosphere as it emits.
How much has the climate changed already?
Around 1.2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. The effects of climate change are being felt in more frequently extreme weather. The rise in temperatures is happening faster than previously thought, according to one recent UN report.
If current policies remain in place, the report estimates the climate will warm 2.7 degrees over pre-industrial levels by 2030, well above the 1.5-degree threshold.
Why haven’t countries addressed this before?
Many nations have talked a lot about climate change. CNN published a graphic that overlaid five major climate conferences — starting with the first in 1979 — with the rise in average temperatures.
Is COP26 going to be different?
There is certainly the feeling that the world is running out of time to address climate change. This conference has been called the “last best chance” for countries to avert climate disaster.
Do we know how much a country’s actions can affect the changing climate?
There are many educated guesses. Climate Action Tracker applies an independent scientific analysis to various policies. It currently grades the US pathway as “insufficient,” but much improved from the period of the Trump administration. It grades countries like China and Russia as “highly insufficient” or “critically insufficient.”
What are US leaders saying?
Biden promised in a speech at the conference Monday that the US would do its part to combat climate change, an existential threat to humans.
“Will we act? Will we do what is necessary? Will we seize the enormous opportunity before us or will we condemn future generations to suffer?” Biden implored gathered leaders. “This is the decade that will determine the answer.”
Hours later, however, back in Washington, Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from coal country, was skeptical the US can afford a massive new spending bill that includes provisions to fight climate change — even thought its price tag was already cut in half to attract his vote.
That’s an oversimplification since Manchin seems to be more concerned about expanding Medicare and social spending. But these subjects are tied together in the Democrats’ spending bill. So it’s also completely fair to say what the US can offer the world on climate change is directly tied to what Manchin will support. And he’s not actively supporting Biden’s Build Back Better agenda just yet.
What, specifically, is Biden’s plan for the US to combat climate change?
A larger National Climate Strategy is still being written, but Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry and his climate adviser Gina McCarthy released a five-prong plan ahead of the summit:
  • Achieve Biden’s goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035.
  • Transition American cars, buildings and industries away from burning fuel and toward electricity.
  • Help Americans transition to energy-efficient appliances and homes.
  • Reduce methane emissions with new rules.
  • Invest in carbon removal.
What are other countries doing?
There are some major promises. Brazil, for instance, pledged to end illegal deforestation by 2028.
But many countries are not doing enough, according to CNN’s report:
China’s long-awaited new emissions pledge submitted last week was just a fraction higher than its previous one. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Sunday it wouldn’t be strong-armed into net zero by 2050. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison showed no interest in consigning coal to history. India has made no net-zero pledge and, as European lawmaker Bas Eickhout told CNN, it was one of a handful of nations against putting a date on phasing out coal.”
Here’s a particularly mixed message from China as noted in CNN’s live coverage of the summit:
“In September (Chinese President Xi Jinping) promised that China will not build any new coal-fired power projects abroad; however, the following month he ordered his country to “produce as much coal as possible” amid an ongoing energy crunch.
How do China and the US compare on carbon emissions?
Since 2006, China has been the world’s largest emitter, and the US ranks second. China’s 2019 output was more than 2.5 times the US. Taking a longer view, the US was the top emitter for so long that its cumulative emissions are twice that of China’s. CNN’s Helen Regan and Carlotta Dotto have a detailed comparison.
What will COP26 actually accomplish?
Kerry and his team downplayed expectations for the summit, particularly since a worldwide energy crunch as countries emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic has led countries to ramp up coal and fossil fuel production rather than cut it. Key leaders from Russia and China chose not to attend the summit.
“It would be wonderful if everybody came and everybody hit the 1.5 degrees mark now,” Kerry told the Associated Press in October. “That would be terrific. But some countries just don’t have the energy mix yet that allows them to do that.”
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