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COP26: Stage set for crucial climate negotiations

World leaders will meet in Glasgow, Scotland, to discuss emissions targets as climate scientists warn time is running out to avoid the worst consequences of global warming.
People walk through a damaged street after severe flooding in Chenee, Belgium, on July 16, 2021. Valentin Bianchi / AP file

In what's being billed as "the world's last best chance" to curb the climate crisis, leaders from around the globe are set to descend on Scotland this weekend to pledge their commitments in the fight against global warming.

For two weeks beginning Sunday, Glasgow will play host to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, during which nations are expected to negotiate targets to reduce emissions as part of a global plan to address the climate emergency.

This year's meeting is the 26th "conference of parties" (hence called COP26) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the stakes at this year's event are high. Climate scientists have said time is running out for world leaders to act in order to avert the most devastating impacts of global warming.

A report released earlier this week by the U.N. Environment Programme warned that existing national climate pledges are not enough to limit warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the aspirational target set forth under the Paris Agreement. And a separate U.N. report released in August found that climate change is intensifying, occurring at an accelerated pace and is already affecting every region of the planet. At the time, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called the situation a "code red for humanity."

World leaders will be under pressure to set forth ambitious targets to reduce emissions, but questions remain about whether the richest nations and the ones that have historically contributed the most to climate change will be aggressive enough in their commitments. Many developing nations make up a relatively small fraction of global greenhouse gas emissions, but they are disproportionately affected by sea-level rise, droughts, flooding and other extreme weather events that are exacerbated by climate change.

Ahead of the conference starting Sunday, Pope Francis called for a "renewed sense of shared responsibility for our world" and urged political leaders to take action to give "concrete hope" to future generations.

The pope is not attending the summit in person, but the Vatican is sending a delegation led by its secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

President Joe Biden will be in attendance, along with 12 Cabinet members and senior administration officials. All eyes will be on the United States at this year's event, which marks the return of American officials to global climate negotiations since Biden officially rejoined the Paris Agreement earlier this year.

More than 100 other world leaders are expected to be present in Glasgow including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. There are, however, some notable no-shows: Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

Former President Barack Obama, who signed the Paris Agreement in 2016, will deliver remarks and take part in a roundtable discussion at COP26. In a statement ahead of the summit, he praised young activists for pushing older generations to take action.

"And if old folks won't do it, get out of the way, because these young folks are coming and they're ready to make sure that we have a sustainable planet and a better future for our kids and our grandkids," he said in a video statement released by the Obama Foundation.

But while a lot is riding on the negotiations set to take place in Glasgow, efforts to address the climate crisis need to go beyond diplomacy and political grandstanding, said Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

"The climate doesn't really care about summits," she said. "The atmosphere cares about how much carbon dioxide goes into it, so if we want to limit warming to avoid the worst-case scenario, we need to do everything we can in order to reduce greenhouse gases."