COP26: the Last Chance to Limit Global Warming to 1.5°C

This year’s UN climate conference (COP26) hosted in Glasgow is the most important one since COP21 in Paris in 2015. The most recent IPCC publication (AR6 Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis) is dire. Scientists do not contest climate change and the need to act fast: in order to limit global warming to 1.5ºC—the increasingly aspirational goal of the Paris Agreement—emissions must halve worldwide by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. The Paris Agreement requires its parties (i.e. all of the world’s national governments) to submit so-called nationally determined contributions (NDCs) or emissions reduction commitments and increase their ambitions by updating their NDCs every five years. The first such update is scheduled for COP26 this year (postponed from 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic). So far, only a handful of countries have introduced measures in line with the 1.5°C target. Some major emitters still need to submit their updated NDCs at this conference.

Global warming mitigation is crucial. But since consequences of climate change are becoming inevitable, so is adaptation. The adaptation needs of communities and natural habitats must be accounted for. Many countries are already feeling the impacts of climate change and are facing losses and damages that must be dealt with in a socially just manner. As low-income countries are most severely impacted by climate change, it is especially important to support them financially. Back in 2009, developed countries pledged to provide $100 billion per year by 2020 in financial support for mitigation and adaptation. That goal has not been met yet. Unless an alternative source of climate finance for low-income countries is found, the credibility of the developed world will be damaged, which is unacceptable in the face of what is at stake at COP26. The world’s richest 10% account for more than 50% of global emissions. Since they have the means to do so, rich countries must take the largest share of responsibility to set ambitious reduction targets and respect the Paris Agreement.

Another goal of this COP is to improve the collaboration between governments, businesses, and civil society. Negotiations between international leaders are important, but they cannot happen between politicians behind closed doors alone. Businesses must take responsibility as well. The civil society’s voice must be heard, as it fosters transparency and accountability. For the first time, the COP26 presidency established a civil society and youth advisory council to nurture inclusive negotiations. We salute the effort and hope that the voice of youth will be taken seriously and that the process will not simply follow tokenistic goals.  

As one of the world’s richest countries, Switzerland in particular must take on more responsibility. The revision of Switzerland’s CO2 law (which constituted the main climate policy instrument to implement the Paris Agreement on a federal level) was unfortunately rejected last June, containing ambitious emission reduction milestones to be reached on the way to net zero. The more modest revision that the Federal Council presented will likely not be able to hit those milestones and relies merely on incentives and financial aid. Moreover, it does not specify the percentage of emissions expected to be offset abroad, which is especially bad since carbon offsets should only be used as a last resort when domestic cuts are impossible. Switzerland has the financial means, the technologies, and the innovation potential to cut emissions domestically and become a leader in international negotiations.

For Switzerland and the rest of the world, the past year and a half have been tainted by another crisis: COVID-19. As a result, COP26 has been postponed by one year and vaccine inequity makes it challenging for lower-income countries’ representatives to join at all, particularly civil society representatives. As citizens of Switzerland, we are aware of our privilege and will push our leaders to act accordingly in official negotiations. We expect all the more ambitious targets and a rapid implementation of climate policies to cut down emissions in Switzerland and worldwide. The COVID-19 crisis has shown us that a change is needed—we demand a green recovery instead of a return to the unsustainable past. Decision makers worldwide and our parliamentarians need to realize that the decisions they are making today will affect all future generations. Time is running out, we need to act now!