Could the next few days mark a change in the COP26 weather?

It would be a major understatement to say the UK government faces strong headwinds ahead of COP26. But the next few days could reveal our chances of a change in the weather. 

First up, the G20 meetings kick off in Venice on Friday. These nations account for close to 80% of the world's climate footprint, and yet just half of their emissions are covered by UN climate plans (NDCs).

Although the US, Canada, the EU and Britain have put forward net zero-aligned climate targets for the decade ahead, some G20 economies - as this handy table shows - are moving in precisely the wrong direction. 

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro plans to dramatically increase his country's emissions relative to promises made at the Paris Summit in 2015, driven mostly by continued destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Mexico's government has also shifted into reverse. 

India’s government signalled it may not review its climate plan for another two years, pre-occupied as it is with the savage impact of the pandemic. Other big G20 polluters like Turkey, South Korea and Saudi Arabia have so far offered nothing. Meanwhile, the South African government continues to build new coal-fired power stations against the advice of its own climate advisers, and despite adopting a long-term net zero target, although there are hopes of a faster pivot towards clean energy.

Most consequential of all, of course, is China. Responsible for a quarter of the planet's carbon footprint, and with huge influence over many other countries, too, through its overseas Belt and Road Initiative, the latest data suggests China's recovery from Covid-19 is proving filthy. Despite surprising the world last September with a Presidential promise to go net zero by 2060, and more recent pledges from Beijing to peak coal use by 2025 and overall emissions by 2030, a recent surge in CO2 reveals the rocky road ahead. 

Carbon Brief finds 70% of China's rise in emissions in the first quarter of 2021 was due to coal use. The analysis notes how, in response to the pandemic, China's policy-makers have "doubled down on the old playbook of stimulating the dirtiest and most energy-intensive sectors – construction, heavy manufacturing – to offset weakness elsewhere”.

If nothing materially new emerges from leaders at this month's meetings of the G20, it raises the prospect that China could once again face the blame for derailing the international climate effort just as it had picked up new momentum from the election of Joe Biden.

Many emerging economies will argue that the West has failed to do enough, waving in the air the failure to deliver on the $100bn-a-year promise made by Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and Gordon Brown at COP21 in 2009. It's conceivable this climate finance target will finally be hit this year after fresh money from Germany and Canada at the recent G7, although most experts think this will largely depend on President Joe Biden increasing America's contribution at the UN General Assembly in September. (It's patently obvious who Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab had in mind when commenting the other day that international climate finance is "the key missing ingredient" hindering an effective COP26.) The unprecedented extreme weather afflicting parts of the US West coast may be focusing attention on the East coast where Biden's team are deep in talks with Congress over the climate provisions of the President's Infrastructure Bill.

Another major development expected next Wednesday is the substance of the EU’s plan for meeting its target to more than halve the continent's emissions by 2030 - the so-called ‘Fit for 55 package’. One of the most eye-catching items will be a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism whereby the EU will start hitting G20 climate laggards like Russia with 10bn a year in taxes on certain goods exports produced in polluting ways, such as iron, steel and fertilisers. EU leaders have so far been near-absent from the pre-COP diplomatic go-arounds, so this announcement could mark the start of a more concerted effort. Right now, China seems to think Paris and Berlin are more focused on a potential new EU-China investment treaty than they are on keeping the Paris Agreement alive. 

Just as Brussels will hope its new package of climate laws - including a likely ban on petrol and diesel sales by 2035, and the extension of carbon taxes to gas heating and road transport - shows the EU still means what it says on climate, Johnson will want recognition for unveiling - before Parliamentary recess - further details of the UK’s net zero strategy. Key tests are whether the end to new combustion engine sales by 2030 goes into law, and a clear and robust plan to deliver clean heating in 600,000 households each year by 2028. Last week's hostile briefing to The Times showed last ditch manoeuvres may be under way by certain folks in government to weaken what's under consideration, but Johnson surely knows it’s never been more critical to be an exemplar of an advanced economy on track for a carbon-free future.

No pressure, then.