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Six things you need to know about the Glasgow climate talks

Green is the theme and the color scheme at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.ALAIN JOCARD/AFP via Getty Images

Whether you’re a climate wonk or just a person living life in this climate- altered landscape, chances are you’re about to be bombarded with news of rising temperatures and the world’s response.

Tens of thousands of world leaders, climate activists, NGOs, and corporations are now converging in Glasgow, Scotland, as the United Nations hosts two weeks of international climate negotiations. It’s like climate lollapalooza — except the stakes are sky-high.

The backdrop for this year’s conference, the 26th since the United Nations began convening them, is a plague of climate-related disasters across the world this year: Heat waves in the Pacific Northwest that killed a thousand people; catastrophic floods in Germany and China; California wildfires whose smoke tinged East Coast skies and dropped air quality to dangerous levels; in Massachusetts, record rains caused a billion gallons of untreated sewage to be dumped into the Merrimack River.

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And, as a major UN report in August made abundantly clear, time is quickly running out for the kind of worldwide action necessary to avoid a dramatic escalation of global temperatures and further climate damage.

The meeting in Glasgow is one of the best hopes for making that action happen.

The question, of course, is whether the nations gathered there will emerge with an agreement to cut fossil fuel emissions enough — and cut them quickly enough — to keep warming to moderate levels. That’s why Glasgow is being billed as the “last best chance” to stave off the worst of global warming.

There will be announcements and posturing throughout the conference. To help wade through the noise, here are the top six things you need to know:

1. What is a COP?

The climate talks in Glasgow are technically called the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, but everyone calls it COP26 — referring to the annual event’s historical name, “Conference of Parties,” and the fact that it’s the 26th such meeting.

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The Paris Accords of 2015 — in which 192 of the world’s nations agreed to a goal of keeping warming well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial times, ideally 1.5 degrees, in order to stave off the changes more warming would bring — was the most significant of the COP outcomes. And it has set the agenda for everything that has happened since.

To stay in line with the 1.5 degrees goal, the world needs to slash emissions by 46 percent by the end of this decade, according to a recent UN assessment, requiring a rapid worldwide move off of fossil fuels. Currently, the world is on a path to increase emissions by 16 percent during that time, putting the planet on track to reach 2.7 degrees of warming.

The two weeks of meetings will end with all of the nations signing a joint statement that, if successful, will communicate a unifying plan and the next steps in the global effort on climate change.

Outside the negotiation rooms will be a different story. There will be side events upon side events exploring such issues as climate and health, a just transition to deliver good jobs to workers and unions, and agriculture as a climate solution. Expect a lot of activism, too, including a climate strike on Friday, Nov. 5, that has been organized by Fridays for Future Scotland and which climate activist Greta Thunberg, who has famously called out politicians for failing to act, has said she will attend.

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2. Why Glasgow matters

This meeting is the first real test of the Paris Accords. As part of that agreement, countries agreed that every five years they would step up their ambition and pledge to do more. Technically, those pledges were due last year, but that COP was canceled because of COVID. So, those all-important pledges are coming this year.

So far, the showing is disappointing. Just 148 of 192 countries had submitted new pledges by the UN’s deadline of Oct. 12. Of those, only 84 countries, including the United States, promised to reduce their total emissions by 2030. But keep an eye out for more countries to submit or strengthen pledges in the coming days.

Over the course of the conference, in a flurry of diplomacy and deal-making, the United States will be among the countries expected to push for more aggressive pledges.

The goal will be a final agreement among the world’s countries that adds up to enough emissions cuts to keep the planet from exceeding the limits set in the Paris Accords.

Experts say it is unclear what kind of agreement will emerge from the Glasgow conference, but they point to a few things to look for: a commitment to updating climate pledges annually, rather than every five years, as well as stronger commitments on how developed nations can help finance climate efforts by developing nations — both to cut emissions and protect themselves from sea rise and other climate impacts.

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3. The question of American commitment

The last time a COP was held, in 2019, President Trump was in office and the United States was on its way out of the Paris agreement. But on his first day in office, President Biden rejoined. This COP will be the United States’ chance to prove it really is committed to climate action, but that road is fraught.

John Kerry, US special presidential envoy on climate, has said he’s making it clear that the United States is fully in on climate action. And President Biden’s pledges on climate — to slash emissions by 50-52 percent by 2030 and get to net-zero by 2050 — are among the most progressive.

But international leaders have been closely watching to see what might happen to Biden’s climate agenda here in the United States; for the president’s pledges on the international stage to actually make a difference, they have to turn into policy back home. With progress stalled on both the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act, Biden will be arriving in Glasgow without having much to show.

What remains to be seen is whether Kerry and Biden can sufficiently convince other countries that the era of Trump is over, that the Democrats back home won’t derail the climate agenda, and that the United States won’t backslide into conservative policies — and out of the Paris agreement — when the next presidential election rolls around.

4. China

Will President Xi Jinping show up at the COP? Will he sit it out? Will China up its commitments in a way that addresses its massive emissions footprint?

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Earlier this fall, China announced it would stop financing international coal projects — a big step in the right direction, as eliminating coal represents “the single most important step” to keeping warming to 1.5 degrees, according to Selwin Hart, assistant secretary-general of the United Nations, Climate Action Team.

But still, China is responsible for nearly a quarter of total global emissions, and so far has not significantly increased its ambitions for 2030 or beyond. As of now, its commitment calls for hitting net-zero emissions by 2060 — a decade later than what experts say is needed.

5. A Global Methane Pledge

Look out for the formal launch of the Global Methane Pledge — an agreement by the European Union and the United States to cut global methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Methane is a greenhouse gas that’s far more potent than carbon dioxide, and as the UN’s IPCC report made clear this summer, cutting those emissions will be crucial for keeping warming to 1.5 degrees.

6. Show me the money

The Glasgow summit has been talked of as a “climate finance summit” and here’s why: A decade ago, richer nations pledged that by 2020, they would be providing $100 billion annually to developing nations to help with mitigation and adaptation. A year past that deadline, and they are far behind on that commitment.

“Delivering on the pledge has nothing to do with the generosity of the global north,” Jochen Flasbarth, the German environment minister, said in a tweet. “It’s about fairness and responsibility.”

Last week, a joint report from the governments of Canada and Germany found that developed nations are on track to hit that goal by 2023, but there is no sign that the shortfall will be made up. Developing nations and advocates are hoping that in Glasgow, they’ll get some answers and see more progress on this.

“This is not about a one-time event or disaster,” said Pelenise Alofa, the national coordinator for the Climate Action Network Kiribati, an island nation in the central Pacific. “It’s about rising sea level that threatens to totally swallow our home that we’ve been living in for the last thousands of years. It’s about the continuous water crisis from the contamination of water sources from constant sea surge and food insecurity as land becomes impossible to cultivate over time.”

While the people of Kiribati, like other low-lying Pacific islands, are trying to adapt, some things can’t be replaced. “It’s about the loss of culture, the loss of identity. The loss of social ties and our heritage,” said Alofa.

While money can’t replace those things, she said, it can help them rebuild and thrive. And, she says, “This is also how we hold polluters responsible.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story attributed a quote by German Environment Minister Jochen Flasberth to someone else.


Sabrina Shankman can be reached at sabrina.shankman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shankman.