COP26: A Pivotal Moment for the U.S. and Climate

Among all the heightened bustle and activity of climate action since President Biden took office this year is the United Nations 26th annual Climate Change Conference, or COP26. Postponed until November this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, COP26 is one of the most important convenings of world leaders on climate. It was at COP21 in 2015 that countries came together to form the Paris Agreement, an international treaty with a goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius below pre-industrial levels, and to aim for less than 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming. This year’s COP, held in Glasgow, Scotland, is a particularly big one for climate action, for the United States and the rest of the world. 

The Urgency of Climate Action 

In August of this year, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report – finding that climate impacts in every part of the world, including every region of the United States, are now widespread and severe. 

“We are living through exactly what the climate models predicted: more frequent and more intense extreme storms, floods, wildfires, drought, and heat waves that threaten lives, livelihoods, and communities,” National Wildlife Federation President and CEO Collin O’Mara said of the report release. “This report drives home the reality that there is absolutely no time to waste. We desperately need to invest in zero-emission 21st-century infrastructure, while bolstering the resilience of communities across the country.”

Soldiers from the Louisiana National Guard responding to Hurricane Laura.
Soldiers from the Louisiana National Guard responding to Hurricane Laura. Credit: Josiah Pugh

The IPCC report analyzed different emissions scenarios; in other words, the possible future pathways climate change can take, depending on how quickly and how much humans reduce climate-warming emissions into the atmosphere. The report found that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C is still possible, but it requires ambitious climate action. Without this transformational change, we won’t achieve the deep reductions in carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases, needed to limit global warming – and needed to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, including increases in the frequency and intensity of heatwaves and heavy precipitation, agricultural and ecological droughts, intense tropical cyclones, and reductions in Arctic sea ice, snow cover and permafrost. All of these impacts will be devastating for wildlife and human communities.

This sobering report – as well as the lived experience of peoples across the world, already coping with climate impacts – is the backdrop to COP26. 

Why COP26 is a big deal for the U.S.

In 2017, under the Trump administration, the U.S. withdrew from the Paris Agreement, a move that jeopardized the United States’ leadership in global affairs and our best opportunity to tackle climate change. This year – on President Biden’s first day in office – the U.S. officially rejoined Paris, and Glasgow will be the first COP where the U.S. is back at the negotiating table as an active participant. 

In April, President Biden announced a new 2030 Nationally Determined Contribution for the U.S. A Nationally Determined Contribution, or NDC, is the backbone of the Paris Agreement. Each Party or country develops a NDC which proposes how that Party plans to reduce their overall emissions in order to reach the long-term goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. The NDC aims to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 percent of 2005 levels by 2030.

The NDC target is attainable if the administration uses all the tools in its back pocket. This includes the newly unveiled Build Back Better Act – which contains historic investments in climate solutions, environmental justice, agricultural conservation, and more. The bill, which is currently being shaped and debated in Congress, is a key part of how the U.S. can meet our NDC. President Biden announced the Build Back Better Act framework immediately before leaving for COP26, and has detailed how the Act, along with other legislative and administrative actions, can help contribute to U.S. climate goals.

policymakers cheering
Plenary session of the COP21 for the adoption of the Paris Accord, United Nations Climate Change Conference. Credit: UNclimatechange

Why COP26 is a big deal for climate

The international climate change conference is always a major climate moment, but this year perhaps especially so, because of the Paris timetable. Under the Paris Agreement, committed countries are required to deliver updated NDCs every five years to ensure that, globally, we’re on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Over 100 countries (including the U.S., as detailed above) have already done so. 

Last month, the UN published a NDC Synthesis report that had some good news and some bad. The good: Nations, on the whole, are reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions over time. And the bad: Nations need to redouble their climate efforts to prevent global warming from rising above Paris Agreement levels. Countries that haven’t submitted revised NDCs need to do so before COP26, and there will be pressure on countries that are major greenhouse gas emitters to strengthen their climate targets – particularly if they don’t align with the 1.5 degree C warming goal. 

Promising news has already come from COP26 negotiations — nations around the world are pledging to make large investments in forest conservation and restoration, as well as taking measures to cut methane emissions, one of the most potent greenhouse gases. As critical climate talks continue, we hope to see more of these collaborative commitments. 

National Wildlife Federation at COP26

The National Wildlife Federation is attending COP26 this year with a few specific priorities in mind. We want to see measures taken that will: 

  • Ensure the 1.5 degrees C target is still firmly on the table, as the effects of climate change take a catastrophic turn once warming surpasses this level; increase the frequency of revised Nationally Determined Contributions, (NDCs) to keep the goal of a net-zero economy within reach; and raise awareness for nature-based solutions and the power they hold to mitigate the effects of climate change
  • Prioritize the role of Indigenous communities as forest guardians and make certain their voices are heard in decision-making processes, and secure substantial investments for forest conservation and restoration
  • Provide least developed countries (LDCs) greater access to financing and support for climate change adaptation, as environmental and climate justice communities around the world often lack the resources to weather the effects of climate change

Stay tuned for more updates on COP26 from the National Wildlife Federation blog team!

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