Two years after COP26 brought global climate politics to Glasgow, the international climate summit kicks off this Thursday in the United Arab Emirates.

Presided over by the head of an oil company this year, and dogged by scepticism and criticism, it nevertheless brings 197 countries together in a spirit of hope. 

Like COP26, it will gather leaders from around the world, as well as civic organisations, lobbying groups, scientists and environmental thought-leaders.

But what are the headline ambitions being dealt with at this conference? And is there still a hope of keeping, as was said in Glasgow, '1.5 °C alive'? 

A global stock-take of progress, an attempt to address methane emissions, debate over whether to use the terms “phasedown” of fossil fuels or “phase out”, plus the issue of getting a “loss and damage” fund up and running in the midst of conflict over whether the World Bank should host it, are all on the agenda.

What kind of cuts are we looking at globally?

The global plan, of course, is net zero by 2050. If we’re going to limit global warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change now says greenhouse gas emissions will need to fall by 43% by 2030, compared with 2019 and at least 60% by 2035.

So how are we doing on that 1.5 °C?

At the end of the Glasgow COP26 in 2021, Alok Sharma said that 1.5 °C was still alive but its “pulse was weak”. Last year, in Egypt, it was said to be on “life support” and “hanging by a thread”.

The goal of limiting global temperature rise to just 1.5 °C more than pre-industrial levels was proposed when scientific research started showing that the previous limit of 2°C , proposed in the Paris Agreement, would be catastrophic.

But that 1.5C is already looming up fast, and year on year, looking less reachable, though the general message is that it is still possible and an important goal – and that every tenth of a degree matters.

A recent UN report estimated that the world is heading for a temperature rise of between 2.5°C and 2.9°C. Even if it feels like we in Scotland had a damp squib of a summer, predictions are that 2023 will have been the hottest year on record.

This month, globally, has been the warmest November on record and included the first day in which the global temperature exceeded 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

However, doomism is not yet entirely warranted. Just one year averaging at 1.5°C  is not necessarily a crash through the goal, and the key measure is whether it remains raised over a series of years.

So how is that global stock take shaping up?

The figures are not yet all in, but it should be no surprise that none of the signatory nations is on target in terms of climate action. An interim report released earlier this year found that progress on various climate initiatives has been “significant yet inadequate”.

One organisation that follows what different countries are doing is Climate Action Tracker, a scientific project that tracks government climate action and measures it against goals The latest update on its website (on November 6) listed 38 countries as having submitted an update to their nationally determined contributions. 157, it said, had not. Only Australia, Norway, UAE, Singapore and Thailand had increased their ambition since 2022.

Its recent State of Climate Action report also stated that global progress across sectors was not happening at the pace needed to limit warming to 1.5 °C, with the exception of the EV sector.The Herald: Global Progress from Climate Action Tracker's State of Climate Action report 2023Global Progress from Climate Action Tracker's State of Climate Action report 2023 (Image: Climate Action Tracker)

Can Scotland and the UK hold their heads up high going into the conference?

Not exactly. Neither the UK Government nor Scottish Government have entirely covered themselves in glory as they head into COP28.

How is the UK doing?

If all countries were to follow the UK’s approach, Climate Action Tracker said, warming would reach up to 3°C. The UK is on par with the USA and UAE – though not “highly insufficient” like China and Canada, or “critically insufficient” like Russia. Norway, for instance, is doing better than us and is rated “sufficient”.

The Herald: Rishi Sunak/ PARishi Sunak/ PA (Image: PA)

The tracker's website states: “The current UK government is wrecking the United Kingdom’s long-held claims to climate leadership, making a series of U-turns on key climate policies, demonstrating chronic delays and a lack of vision in developing new policies, and actively undermining investor confidence in the country's commitment to climate action.

“As a result of these worsening policies, the CAT now rates the UK’s overall climate action as “Insufficient”, one grade lower than before. The UK needs to urgently accelerate climate policy development and implementation to regain credibility on the global stage.”

How about Scotland?

Scotland, famously, has made ambitious targets – to reach net zero by 2045, rather than the UK’s 2050, and with an interim target of 75% reduction by the end of this decade (with respect to a 1990 baseline).

But earlier this year it was reported that Scotland had missed its emissions reduction targets in 2021, following a bounceback in transport after Covid. The difference may not look huge – it's 49.2%, compared with the 51.9% of the target – but it means still harder cuts up ahead.

The Scottish Government is also behind on delivering its climate plan, in the midst of delays by the UK Government to the phase-out of petrol and diesel cars and boiler targets. Then came the news earlier this week that Scotland’s domestic heating targets were to be put back too.

READ MORE: SNP-Green Government poised to delay climate change plan

The Herald: First Minister Humza YousafFirst Minister Humza Yousaf (Image: PA)

And who is going to Dubai (or not going)?

President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping are expected to be key absences, though their countries will be represented. Rishi Sunak, King Charles III, David Cameron are the UK headline team - and the king, long an advocate for the environment, will deliver an opening address on Friday.

Scotland, while not a separate  ‘party’ in the negotiations, will be represented by Humza Yousaf and Net Zero Secretary Màiri McAllan. The leader of Glasgow Council, Susan Aitken, is also set to take the trip out. 

Scotland is also taking out a tech cluster, with businesses ranging from the satellite monitoring company Digital Content Access Technology to marine renewables consultancy Aquatera and flat-pack solar outfit SolarisKit.

What about the scandal and greenwashing?

Every year, COP brings with it some kind of scandal or greenwash. Among the biggest criticisms has been that the COP’s president, Sultan al-Jaber, is the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co, one of the world’s largest petroleum producers which last year emitted more than 24 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Earlier this week, the Centre for Climate Reporting and the BBC, revealed leaked documents which suggested that the UAE’s COP organisers had scheduled talks about oil and gas development projects during the conference.

Other issues have included the green credentials of the companies sponsoring the talks. This year, a Guardian report found that most of them – including Bank of America and Baker Hughes - were not committed to cutting their greenhouse gas emissions in line with net zero targets.

Will COP28 be agreeing to phase-out to fossil fuels?

A returning COP debate is which of two subtly different phrases, “phase down” or “phase out” of fossil fuels, will be used in the text.

Whilst many countries, inlcuding US and EU member states are calling for a timeline to phase out “unabated” fossil fuels (those burnt without the capture of emissions) - a phrase which itself leaves a great deal of room for interpretation and reliance on emissions capture. - there are others like Russia which have said it would fight a deal to reduce use of fossil fuels.

The Herald: An oil rig in the North Sea. Image: PAAn oil rig in the North Sea. Image: PA

Russia said: “We oppose any provisions or outcomes that somehow discriminate or call for phase-out of any specific energy source or fossil fuel type.”

Meanwhile China’s climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, has called any phase-out of fossil fuels “unrealistic.”

China is also amongst countries calling for a tripling of renewable anergy by 2030. And not surprisingly, perhaps, since while the country is the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases and is still building new coal-fired power plants, it has achieved an astonishing expansion in clean energy.

READ MORE How can the COP27 agreement STILL miss out fossil fuels?

And what’s going on with methane?

Methane pollution is responsible, according to Wood Mackenzie, “for almost a third of the emissions-induced increase in global temperatures since the start of the industrial era” - and not just from those famous cow belches.

The oil and gas industry is estimated to account for up to a quarter of human-caused methane emissions. A global methane pledge was signed at COP26, but a goal of COP28 it to turn those pledges into action. How is UK doing on methane?

In the UK, in spite of plans to introduce methane-suppressing feed for livestock from 2025, and stop biodegradable waste going to landfill, the UK isn’t on track for anything close to the target agreed under the global methane pledge signed at COP26 - of 30% reduction by 2030.

A report by the Green Alliance thinktank found that UK policies would cut methane output by only 14% by the end of the decade. A routine ban on venting and flaring from gas and oil drilling platforms by 2025 has been rejected and is likely to be put off till at least 2030.

Green Alliance have estimated that in 2021 offshore operators, venting and flaring, have wasted enough methane to supply 750,000 homes.

The Herald: Nicola Sturgeon at the Scottish Government's loss and damage summitNicola Sturgeon at the Scottish Government's loss and damage summit (Image: Scottish Government)

Finally, what about loss and damage?

At COP27 last year, Nicola Sturgeon, as First Minister, pledged £5 million from Scotland in "reparations", saying she hoped the money would send an “important message” on the need for developed nations to act on loss and damage.

A basic agreement on “loss and damage”  was a breakthrough in Egypt. For years it has been viewed as a key missing element of climate justice, because those poorer countries most suffering the effects of climate change have generally historically caused relatively few greenhouse emissions.

But a plan for how it would be delivered wasn’t put in place in Egypt. Conflict at this year's COP is likely to be over whether the fund is to be based in the World Bank, as has been agreed, or the independent loss and damage fund which is what many developing countries want. It seems like justice may still be a long time coming.