Getting Glasgow — Covering the Climate Conference From Afar

September 29, 2021
At the upcoming UN Conference of the Parties meeting, a main focus will be on how ambitious is each nation’s plan to contribute to slowing climate change. Above, a video camera captures an image from the last COP in 2019. Photo: UNclimatechange, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Getting Glasgow — Covering the Climate Conference From Afar

By Joseph A. Davis

The UN climate conference in Glasgow will see some stellar VIP sightings — Pope Francis, Queen Elizabeth and President Biden are all expected to attend. Oh and also, the future of the world may depend on this gathering.

If you’re attending the event itself, scheduled for Oct. 31-Nov. 12, make haste to get credentialed and make other arrangements (i.e., get vaxxed and get proof).

But even if you are not attending, your editors may seek a story making it relevant to your audience. This TipSheet is designed to help out.

But either way, if you are new to climate conferences, get ready to be overwhelmed.

There is a dictionary full of unfamiliar names for things; a codebook you will need to translate; an alphabet soup of organizations and side-meetings; a carnival of activists, lobbyists, publicists, performers, observers and special pleaders; and plenty of speeches and meetings. This year, though, may include Zooms.


Start with the terminology

This is COP26, the 26th Conference of the Parties under the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC — which produced the now-obsolete 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the landmark 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

COPs have been held almost every year, with scads of other pre-meetings, special meetings, side-meetings, big reports, press conferences, pep rallies and after-parties. COP26 was originally scheduled for November 2020, but was postponed for a year because of the pandemic.

The Paris accords were the big one because they enlisted almost every nation (197 of them; minus, of course, the Trump-led U.S. for a few years; may require subscription) in a serious effort to slow human-made climate change.

In other words, Paris was a diplomatic coup. It brought along so many countries partly because it left commitments up to each nation on a sort of honor system. Countries declared their own nationally determined contributions, or NDCs, as it suited them.


A key post-Paris gathering

It is these NDCs that are the ballgame at COP26. The Paris treaty declared a goal of limiting warming to 2° C above pre-industrial levels, with hopes for achieving 1.5° C. The bad news is that, given the original Paris NDCs, the world’s nations would not come close to either of these goals.

The original Paris treaty required nations to update their NDCs every five years (i.e., this year). The UN code word for raising these voluntary NDCs is “ambition.”


What John Kerry has been doing for most of

the past year has been traveling the globe and

airwaves urging nations to raise their ambition.


What the special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, has been doing for most of the past year has been traveling the globe and airwaves urging nations to raise their ambition (may require subscription). Some have. Many others have not or remain silent.

As secretary of state during the Obama years, Kerry helped nail down the Paris treaty — which gives him a special moral mojo while jawboning. It is still unclear whether he can persuade China to up its ante.

If we have to simplify, the sum total of increases in NDCs could be seen as the single metric on which to judge the success of COP26. Not all nations have updated their NDCs yet. Of course, NDCs may be fuzzy, and translating them into degrees a scientific challenge.

One credible “umpire” for scoring NDCs is the secretariat of the UNFCCC, headed by Patricia Espinosa. Check the secretariat’s pre-Glasgow report and keep an eye on the UNFCCC’s running registry of NDCs.


Tracking the complex global politics

The UNFCCC, and COP26, are the arena for a lot of intense global politics. To say the least.

The rich, developed nations, which prospered from the coal-fired industrial revolution and the colonial exploitation of developing nation resources, have emitted far and away the most greenhouse gases over the last two centuries.

A victim of flooding in Bangladesh in 2019. Photo: UN Women Asia and the Pacific, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

The cumulative effect of such gases (many stay in the atmosphere for a long time) is the problem. They build up. The poorer, developing nations have emitted comparatively small amounts of greenhouse gases — but very much want economic development, which could raise their emissions.

Some of these nations (e.g., Bangladesh) are among the most vulnerable to climate change’s harmful impacts. It’s a global equity (or climate justice) issue. The Global South says that the Global North owes it help.

Which brings us to another key issue that nations will struggle with in Glasgow: the Green Climate Fund, or GCF, established by the Paris treaty. Through it, developed nations abstractly pledged, as a group, to contribute $100 billion to help developing nations with mitigation (lowering net emissions) and adaptation.

The problem is that specific national pledges and actual contributions fall way short — scarcely a tenth of that — which is why the $11.4 billion contribution President Biden pledged before the UN General Assembly on Sept. 21 was important.

So where the GCF stands at the end of COP26 will be another metric for success. An official GCF tracker is here.


From fossil fuel producers to inundated island states

That’s just the beginning. The countries that produce and use fossil fuels are another important faction.

Saudi Arabia, for example, has often worked against the climate treaty’s goals. Australia, which mines huge amounts of coal, is another example (i.e., low ambition). During the coal-oriented Trump administration, the United States went to COP meetings and worked to undermine the treaty.

Another important faction is made up of the islands and low-lying states that will be inundated by global warming-driven sea level rise. These include Pacific islands like Palau and Vanuatu, plus many in other oceans, like Haiti.

They also include nations like Bangladesh, with large amounts of flood-vulnerable coastal lowlands. These nations are organized for climate politics as the Alliance of Small Island States, or AOSIS.

Europe, more specifically the European Union, is another bloc in climate politics. Europe generally is highly industrialized and has historically depended on fossil fuels, though many of its nations are leading the transition to renewables.


Today, and in the past, the EU has collectively pledged

aggressive decarbonization — however, its performance

in living up to those pledges has often fallen short.


Today, and in the past, the EU has collectively pledged aggressive decarbonization — however, its performance in living up to those pledges has often fallen short.

In actuality, the goals of EU member nations vary a lot (e.g., coal-burning Poland vs. low-lying Netherlands). Just this summer, EU nations adopted an aggressive new climate plan. Notionally, it is a manifestation of the “European Green Deal.”


Deciphering the Paris “rulebook”

A lot of the negotiations (and squabbling) since Paris have centered on specific details of how the Paris treaty will be implemented.

This gets bureaucratic and obscure, and you will probably need your decoder ring to understand and write about it. People commonly talk about the “Paris Rulebook” (although it’s not a single thing).

Beyond the NDC pledges, there is an area called “reporting and transparency.” That refers to requirements in the Paris treaty that nations report to the UNFCCC the actual reductions in their emissions and that they supply documentation to prove to all they actually happened. The requirements are more stringent on developed nations than on developing ones.

This whole scheme is called the “enhanced transparency framework,” or ETF, on the decoder ring. Much of it was worked out at the 2018 COP24 in Katowice, Poland. A key ingredient is peer review by experts from other nations. Still, the only real enforcement mechanism is naming and shaming.


The ‘loss and damage’ debate

Another chapter in the rulebook is code-named “loss and damage” — or sometimes, in a more hopeful world, the related “adaptation.” The rulebook calls for nations to quantify and report climate harms such as damage to economic well-being, cultural heritage or public health.

There is little question that climate change is already causing serious harm in many nations (including the United States). This concept can even include the displacement of “climate refugees.”

The UNFCCC has yet to develop a full-blown response to loss and damage, although it has been trying for years. Signatories have generally agreed that damaged nations deserve some support — including financial support.

Theoretically, such support could help nations adapt. The word “damage,” however, can decode for some as monetary compensation. This is the sort of thing that makes tort lawyers purr.


Story ideas

Carrying the climate story from Glasgow to Peoria is a huge challenge, of course, especially when it is competing with other daily news. Nonetheless, environmental journalism requires ingenuity, so here are some story angles to consider for your locale.

  • What is the energy mix in your area? How does it affect climate change? What changes are underway?
  • What are the impacts of climate change on your area? Drought? Floods? Wildfire? Storms? Forest damage? Crop loss?
  • What industries in your area (such as agriculture, chemicals, transportation) affect climate? And how are they adjusting?
  • What do local or regional government officials have to say about climate change — or efforts by the UNFCCC to address it?
  • Where do your local and regional officials stand on current efforts by the administration and Congress to address climate change through rulemaking, legislation and other government action?
  • How much attention is your audience paying to Glasgow, and what do they think of it?


Reporting resources

There is a lot of spin, hype and fluff about climate change out there in public forums. Evaluate possible sources for potential bias. Climate change is a scientific fact — so a “both sides” approach won’t enlighten your readers.

There are many great sources of information on climate and the whole UNFCCC process. One good starting point is the Society of Environmental Journalists’ own Climate Change Resource Guide, recently updated. It is extensive. A few other key reliable sources include:

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 34. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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