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A lot is riding on the COP26 global climate summit, but broken promises stall change


As the G-20 wraps up today, another global summit has just begun. World leaders are gathering in Glasgow, Scotland, for the high-profile meetings about climate change known as COP26. Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom has raised hopes that it could be a turning point in the struggle to slow global warming. NPR's Dan Charles is there and joins us now. Thanks for being with us, Dan.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

KHALID: So, Dan, how realistic do you think it is to call this meeting a turning point?

CHARLES: It is really tricky trying to describe how important this meeting is because on the one hand, it is really important because this is the one place where the world - you know, the world's leaders come together to talk about this huge global problem we have. Gases like carbon dioxide and methane are building up in the atmosphere, warming the globe. But on the other hand, it's not clear that this meeting this week is going to produce actual decisions that get us closer to a solution. Some experienced climate negotiators I've talked to are actually a little worried that expectations for this meeting have gotten out of hand, and people are hoping for something that's just not possible.

KHALID: So, Dan, why is that? I mean, why is this meeting not likely to deliver some sort of breakthrough deal in reducing fossil fuel emissions?

CHARLES: So it's partly because of how the whole thing is set up. All these countries agreed six years ago - big meeting in Paris - that they would collectively reduce global greenhouse emissions enough to get climate change under control. But it is up to each country voluntarily to decide how much it will do to get us all there. So it's - it really is like a GoFundMe for the planet. So at this meeting, they don't really negotiate over individual limits on a country's emissions. They just take note of what those countries are doing. The other thing is - and this is more fundamental - quite a few countries have made it pretty clear coming into this meeting that they feel tapped out. They're saying for now, we are doing all we can. And this meeting is not going to change their minds.

KHALID: And so, Dan, I mean, this sounds like this is all kind of voluntary initiatives, and if certain countries don't want to agree to higher limits, you're saying that's totally OK. But who are we speaking about? Which countries?

CHARLES: Well, you know, China's a very big one, also India but, you know, quite a few others, too. But let's start with India. It has just said very clearly that it does not agree with this central goal that a lot of countries have set, you know, for the world, which is to cut net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.

KHALID: And net emissions - meaning any carbon dioxide that you release into the atmosphere, you capture at least an equal amount back by planting trees or something akin to that. Is that right?

CHARLES: Exactly. Right. And scientists have said we have to get to zero - net zero by around 2050 to reach that collective goal that companies - that countries agreed to. But India is saying, OK, maybe you, the U.S. or Germany - you can cut carbon emissions to zero now because you're rich, you can afford to pay people to buy electric cars or replace those coal plants. We can't do that. They say, we need more time and, by the way, more money. You have - you should pay us to do this. China, meanwhile, the largest single source of greenhouse emissions, has said it will get to net zero but on a slower time scale - by 2060, they say, which - honestly, that would be a huge accomplishment if they did manage to do that - a big shift in their economy.

KHALID: So given the expectations here, Dan, what do people think will actually materialize? What would happen at this meeting?

CHARLES: Well, this meeting is all about pledges, but there's also the side of, what do countries do to follow through on those pledges? I mean, take the U.S. You know, the Biden administration said we're going to cut our emissions, but it's held up in Congress. There will be some specific things going on here, a lot of wrangling over language of what these countries will say about the future, what they will do. There were some specific things on the agenda - cutting methane emissions, stop deforestation, phase out coal. And smaller groups of countries may decide to go on with things on their own, you know, coalitions of the willing. You know, there will be companies making announcements, philanthropists. Honestly, you know, there's an academic that I talked to from Bangladesh who's been to every one of these climate summits, and he calls it a three-ring circus. Seems like a pretty good description.

KHALID: That's NPR's Dan Charles at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Thanks very much, Dan. Appreciate it.

CHARLES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Charles
Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.