Can climate talk turn into climate action? : Short Wave In the first week of COP26, the UN climate conference, world leaders took to the podium to talk about what their countries are going to do to fight climate change. They made big pledges, but protestors in the streets call their promises "greenwashing" and are calling for more action.

Joining the show from Glasgow, Scotland, NPR science correspondent, Dan Charles, talks about how the conference is going. Will the diplomats follow the science on climate change? And will the nations of the world follow through on their pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions?

Can climate talk turn into climate action?

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MADDIE SOFIA, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

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SOFIA: ...From NPR.

EMILY KWONG, HOST:

Hey. Emily Kwong here with Dan Charles, who covers climate for NPR. Hey, Dan.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Hi there, Emily. I am speaking to you from the global climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland...

KWONG: Nice.

CHARLES: ...Where the science of climate change meets the world of diplomats. They're negotiating agreements; 190-plus countries are here. There are giant ones, like China, also tiny ones, like Antigua and Barbuda. Also, thousands of protesters in the streets who say this diplomacy has been going on way too slowly.

KWONG: Dan, it's so cool you're here. This is the 26th COP, which stands for Conference of Parties. That would be parties to several climate agreements, including one signed in Paris in 2015. What does it feel like to be at this COP?

CHARLES: It's discombobulating. There are so many people. There are 30,000 people who are registered for this thing. There are pavilions putting on events constantly all day long. There are press conferences - more press conferences than you could ever try to attend. You know, it's overwhelming.

KWONG: Gosh, it's like a climate policy Disneyland. What's been the most striking thing to you so far?

CHARLES: So at the very beginning, all these world leaders showed up and took a turn at the podium to talk about what they'd been doing - right? - to cut greenhouse emissions, fight climate change. There weren't too many surprises. Most of this had been submitted in writing over the past year. But still, on the face of it, it added up to something pretty amazing. Dozens of countries said, we are on a path to completely eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, net greenhouse gas emissions. A lot of them are saying they will do it in 30 years. China says in 40 years, India in 50.

You know, if you believe that they will do exactly what they say they will do, climate change would really start slowing down. The International Energy Agency put out a report last week and said if that happens, instead of the planet heating up by about 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, compared to preindustrial times, it would only heat up by, say, 1.8 degrees C. That's still a lot, but not nearly as bad.

KWONG: Yeah, it all sounds kind of hopeful.

CHARLES: Super hopeful. Unfortunately, that is not the end of the story. This may be a case of watch what they do, not what they say.

KWONG: Yeah. Well, today on the show, will the diplomats follow the science on climate change, and will the nations of the world follow through on their pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions? This is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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KWONG: OK, Dan, so I know during COP21 a few years ago, the big goal was the Paris Agreement. And the COPs that followed didn't have necessarily, like, as big of questions and agendas on the table. So where are we with COP26? At least, like, going into the meeting, where was climate diplomacy?

CHARLES: So this is probably - almost definitely the most important COP since Paris. So the Paris Agreement was all these countries said, we will collectively cut greenhouse emissions enough to keep planetary warming well below 2 degrees C and ideally keep it to 1.5 degrees. It was up to countries to come up with their voluntary contributions for getting there. And in the meantime, you know, this big international group of scientists, the IPCC, did these reports laying out exactly what it would take. And basically, it means cutting greenhouse gas emissions to zero by about 2050. And to get there, you want to be, like, cutting in half by 2030, which I'll remind you is less than 10 years away.

KWONG: Eight years away.

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KWONG: Yup.

CHARLES: So we have countries that are promising to do that - you know, the European Union, the United States, Russia, Australia. So at this COP, this is where all the countries come back together and say, OK, we've made our promises. Where do we stand? Are we going to get to that Paris goal?

KWONG: Yeah. OK, so this is a big conference as a check-in of where we're at with these goals. Have these countries said how they're going to get their emissions down to zero in just 30 years?

CHARLES: So that is the problem. Most of the time, not really. So, OK. A prime example is Australia. That's one of the worst. I mean, they've put out this promise that said, we will be net zero in 2050 but absolutely no details about how practically they would get there.

Other countries do have plans. The European Union does. I mean, the U.S. kind of has a plan but hasn't been able to put it into action. You know, the Biden administration, for instance, you know, had this proposal that would've pushed electric utilities to cut their carbon dioxide emissions year after year, but it didn't get through Congress. You know, these are big changes that are being proposed, and they're running into a lot of roadblocks.

KWONG: Yeah. These are aspirations that are, like, unprecedented in a lot of ways. So ahead of the conference, there have been these promises that may or may not pan out. What has happened at the conference itself so far?

CHARLES: Right. So the first week, there were a lot of things that happened that were orchestrated by the host country, the United Kingdom.

KWONG: OK.

CHARLES: These really had very little to do with the formal negotiations. But, you know, like, day after day, there was this kind of drumbeat of new announcements that were made. There was, for instance, the Global Methane Pledge. All these countries, more than a hundred countries, have promised to cut their methane emissions by 30% over the next decade.

KWONG: Wow.

CHARLES: And methane's a big deal. It's the second most important greenhouse gas. There were announcements where a bunch of countries said that they are going to stop financing new coal plants. And, in fact, and many of them said they're going to start shutting down their coal plants. There was a big announcement where more than a hundred countries said they're going to stop deforestation - notably, Brazil signed on - and there was also billions of dollars behind that pledge.

These things kind of had an effect on people's mood, I would say, at the conference during the first week and gave them the sense that, OK, you know, a lot of big movers and shakers are behind this. You know, things are happening.

KWONG: But I guess hanging over all of this is, collectively, with all these actions, can we really get to the Paris goal of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees?

CHARLES: Absolutely. And that is totally central. And that is also kind of on the agenda here. How do you do that? How do you get there?

I talked to Rachel Kyte, who's a former U.N. and World Bank official, a veteran of past climate negotiations. And she kind of laid out the big picture, was pretty guarded about how it's going.

RACHEL KYTE: Theoretically, we are in a better place today than we were a week ago. But bringing the finance, the technical capacity, the laws, the regulation into place in time to make a difference in the short term is extremely hard.

KWONG: Yeah, it is so nerdy on the science, these COP gatherings, and so heavy on the administration. I mean, this work is really intense. So what is the goal here? Like, what is still to be decided in Glasgow in the next few days?

CHARLES: So they have a big, long agenda list. Let me just sort of tick through some of the most contentious debates. So one is what kind of decision can we come out with which will somehow persuade companies to get more ambitious in their emissions cuts? And also, I should mention they're, you know, kind of providing finance to poorer countries to share the burden, so to speak. So there's a proposal to basically make all the countries come back quickly, like in the next year or two, to kind of upgrade their pledges to get - the phrase they use is keep 1.5 alive, sort of, you know, limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius because it does require really quick action or, you know, the world will blow right past that.

KWONG: Yeah. And I feel like it's a number people have really latched on to. Like, 1.5 is something that's entered the public consciousness at this point.

CHARLES: It is, absolutely. Like, everybody now says that is the goal. We've got to reach 1.5. Although, you know...

KWONG: OK.

CHARLES: ...To be very honest, it's an incredibly ambitious goal at this point. You know, some people would...

KWONG: Yeah.

CHARLES: ...Say it's not even maybe possible.

KWONG: I'm realizing that. OK, so keep 1.5 alive. What else?

CHARLES: Let me mention one thing in particular that everything else seems to hang on, and that is money - how to get the rich countries to do what they promised to do a decade ago and never did completely, which was deliver substantial amounts of aid to poorer countries to help them deal with climate change, adapt to it, compensate them, also, for the harm that's been done and also help them build clean energy systems.

KWONG: Yeah. Dan, you mentioned earlier that there are tons of protesters outside gathered in Glasgow. What do they have an eye on?

CHARLES: You know, there's been a lot of references to the protesters outside. And, you know, one of the things that the protesters have been saying is, we don't think you're really taking this seriously. You're getting up and making speeches, but we don't think that you're actually having an effect.

And so related to that is actually one of the formal items on the agenda, which is some countries want to establish kind of auditing systems or monitoring systems to make sure that some of these promises actually get kept because there is a lot of worry, even inside the conference, that the promises are empty. Rachel Kyte says, you know, it's kind of a version of greenwashing.

KYTE: Transparency is absolutely critical because, you know, outside of the conference room, you've got hundreds of thousands of people marching because they are terrified by greenwash and they're sick of greenwash. And the only way to drive greenwash out by government or by company is sunlight, sunlight that comes from transparency.

KWONG: Rachel doesn't sound super optimistic. I mean, even if they do work out the tricky diplomacy, the accountability is what makes all the difference. Like, that's what gets us to 1.5. So, Dan, I'm just going to ask, can this meeting really accomplish anything?

CHARLES: This is something that I've been puzzling over, you know, since I got here 'cause, you know, this meeting is such an event.

KWONG: Yeah.

CHARLES: You know, thousands and thousands of people have gathered here, presumably in the hopes that it makes a difference. But in the end, the product of these negotiations is, like, a document, right? It's words.

But here's the thing. There is no other place where leaders of countries, high-ranking diplomats actually come together and have to sort of face this common problem that they have. But, you know, I guess it is necessary, and I guess it has an effect.

KWONG: Well, Dan, thank you so much for calling in from Scotland, for stepping away from the mayhem to kind of put it in a bottle for us and ship it over to Team SHORT WAVE. It's been really interesting. And we wish you luck covering Week 2.

CHARLES: Thanks for having me.

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KWONG: This episode was produced by Eva Tesfaye, edited by Sara Sarasohn and fact-checked by Margaret Cirino. The audio engineer for this episode was Gilly Moon. I'm Emily Kwong. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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