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How to police a COP
Sensemaker audio

How to police a COP

How to police a COP

The United Nations’ Climate Change Conference is underway in Glasgow. Whatever it agrees, how do we measure it?


Hi, I’m Nimo, and this is the Sensemaker. . 

One story, everyday, to make sense of the world. 

Today, the conference aimed at saving the planet has started.  Supposing a deal is done,  how can we know that countries do what they say they’ll do? 


The cop 26 climate summit in Glasgow may be short of one very important guest when it gets underway on October 31st: Chinese President Xi Jinping.


Yesterday marked the first day of COP26, the United Nations conference tackling global warming. And as predicted, China’s President Xi Jinping was a no show.

That’s despite China being the world’s biggest producer of greenhouse gases, accounting for 28 per cent of global emissions. 

But many world leaders are in attendance and the summit has a heightened sense of urgency – even though it’s been pretty tricky getting here in the first place. 

We are now less than two months away from the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow but there are still very many questions about whether it should even be going ahead because of the ongoing pandemic. 

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Climate experts are telling us bluntly we have to act decisively and immediately to achieve what was agreed at the last major summit in Paris in 2015.  And at Glasgow, we must go further and faster.

The truth of the matter is that we’re already seeing huge impacts of climate change. We’re already seeing devastating impacts all over the world and those impacts are likely to get much worse if we do not do anything and that means world leaders putting their money where their mouth is and actually implementing those mitigating climate action proposals.

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Especially as a recent report by the UN has shown that current climate targets don’t go far enough.

The UN says countries’ current plans to cut emissions won’t stop global warming and predicts temperatures will rise by at least 2.7 degrees this century.

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The conference is an intense affair. 

More than 20,000 people from around the world, including presidents, prime ministers, diplomats, scientists and campaigners, have descended on Glasgow to figure out how to cut carbon emissions and radically reduce demand for fossil fuels. 

It’s the largest gathering of world leaders ever to take place on British soil.

So, if Xi Jinping is a no show, can COP26 really be a success? And what happens once it’s all over? 


Now, Xi Jinping isn’t the only leader not to make an appearance.

Now the Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided not to attend the global climate summit in Glasgow.

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But in about 12 days time, COP will come to an end and let’s suppose they’ve signed a deal.  We can but hope.  Like every such summit, the delegates will be beaming at the press, each one of them quietly angling to be front and centre of the photos.  

They will leave Glasgow claiming they’re one step closer to saving the planet.  And they’ll be basking in the notion that they’re the ones who’ve pulled it off. 

But hold on a moment.  Supposing a deal has been reached, who is going to implement it and how?  And who is going to verify the pledges that have been made?  


In 2015 nearly 200 countries, including China and Russia, pledged to cut their emissions. 

The world’s two biggest polluters, China and the US, have both ratified the Paris climate change agreement. President Xi Jinping and Barack Obama announced the move on Saturday.


And here is where it gets complicated: different countries use different measurements to monitor emissions. 

China has pledged to reduce carbon emissions intensity, which is a measure of the amount of carbon released per dollar of economic activity.

Which means that if economic growth goes up faster than emissions go down, then China can still say it’s technically hitting its targets whilst total emissions are still going up. 

However, other countries like the UK use absolute emissions as a measure, which is the total greenhouse gas emissions over time. 

So one thing to look out for in Glasgow: will all countries commit to using the same methodology to measure emissions?

There are also some technological solutions that are in the works that should help the calculations. 

Some of the world’s largest emitters in Europe and Asia are working on adding sensors to commercial planes that can measure CO2 and methane every time they take off and land.

And an American consortium called Carbon Mapper is behind an initiative to launch  satellites that will locate emissions of greenhouse gases. 

Prototypes could be launched by 2023 – with more to follow in the next decade.There are already satellites that measure greenhouse gases, but they don’t reveal where they are coming from.  

So in the meantime, while we wait for the tech to catch up, who is verifying what? 

Currently, the main way to get data is through countries measuring their own emission levels and self reporting.  And the findings are reported to the UN and presented at summits like COP. 

So what it boils down to is: do we trust countries to report accurately? 


It’s a critical question because with other agreements – covering financial issues, for example, or nuclear missiles – there are mechanisms and well established auditing processes in place that hold countries to account.    

The same level of scrutiny isn’t afforded to climate treaties – not yet, anyway. 

In the financial world, there are standards that companies have to adhere to and crucially, they have to declare data on commonly agreed terms or categories. 

But in the world of climate change, terms and categories are bewilderingly complex.

There’s also the issue that signatories to UN agreements aren’t always held to account if they violate them. Climate treaties generally aren’t enforceable in international law.  

It’s more effective to hold countries in their own courts, using their own local law.  Take the Netherlands. 

I’m extremely happy that this highest court in the Netherlands has confirmed that climate change is a real severe problem and that the government should do what they have declared for more than 10 years is necessary.


There, climate campaigners successfully took their government to court, alleging that it was failing to protect its citizens from the climate crisis.  As a consequence, legally binding targets were set. 

Meaning that this all might depend on countries setting legal limits nationally. 

Ultimately, at some point soon we need to create a credible and verifiable process when it comes to measuring emissions, a process which is recognised by the courts. Might Glasgow be that point?  Let’s see.  If it isn’t, the consequences could be grave.

Today’s story was written by Nimo Omer and produced by Imy Harper.