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U.N. Climate Conference President On 'Last Best Chance' To Combat Global Warming


Can one global summit change the fate of the world? Well, in just over a month, leaders will meet in Scotland for a U.N. climate change conference known as COP26. It might be the last best chance for the world to agree on the kinds of dramatic steps that scientists say are necessary to avoid catastrophe. Alok Sharma is president of COP26, and he joins us from here in Washington, D.C. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ALOK SHARMA: Thank you so much, Ari - great to be on the show.

SHAPIRO: You've said that this year's summit is the world's last best chance of getting it right and preventing climate disaster. So what does getting it right look like? How do you define success?

SHARMA: Well, I think the first thing to say is, reflecting on this point that this being our last best chance, it's important to recognize why that is. You know, the whole aim of COP26 is for countries to come forward, for world leaders to come forward and play their part in limiting global warming. I mean, look in the states, what's happening in terms of wildfires, what's happening in terms of flooding. You see what's happening in China in terms of flooding. You see the same thing in Central Europe. I mean, it is something that is challenging millions of people around the world, and that's why we need to get to grips with this.

SHAPIRO: And so explain what you mean when you say countries need to play their part because at the Paris Climate Summit in 2015, almost every country in the world signed onto an international treaty to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But in the years since then, countries have overwhelmingly failed to follow through on their commitments. So how do you make sure, even if you get the words you're looking for, that they translate to actions?

SHARMA: So I think you make a really valuable point here, which is that what we want coming out of COP26 is to be able to say with credibility that we have kept the goals of the Paris Agreement alive, this 1.5 degree limit still within reach. And to do that, what we're asking every country to do is to come forward with ambitious plans to cut emissions in the near term by 2030 but then align those with net-zero emissions from their economies by the middle of the century. You made the point that, actually, countries have made commitments. But what progress have we seen? The latest estimates suggest that we are anywhere in the range of 2.4 to 2.7 degrees global warming. So there's been some progress.

SHAPIRO: Which is still catastrophic for the planet.

SHARMA: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: There's such a narrow window to accomplish what you're talking about. And China, the No. 1 emitter in the world, is planning to continue building coal-fired power plants, at least through the end of the decade. You've said it's unclear whether President Xi Jinping will even attend the summit. Can this work if China, the biggest emitter in the world, is not fully on board?

SHARMA: So you're absolutely right that there is a very narrow window in which to act. If we don't get this right now, the goal of limiting global warming slips from our grasp. You know, I've been having conversations with the Chinese counterparts. I was in China a few weeks ago, and I made the point to them very clearly, which is that President Xi Jinping has said that China will peak its emissions - carbon emissions before 2030, that it will reach carbon neutrality before 2060. They've said that they will phase down the use of coal from 2026. The question is, where are the detailed policies that go with those commitments? And I hope that China will set this out. But I am continuing to push on this issue of coal - not just China but all countries.

SHAPIRO: So China is the No. 1 emitter in the world. The No. 2 emitter is the U.S. You're here in Washington, meeting with members of Congress. The U.S. has been inconsistent on this. Former President Trump pulled the country out of the Paris accord. Republicans and some moderate Democrats oppose President Biden's most ambitious climate plans. And so do you see the U.S. providing the kind of leadership necessary to avoid global catastrophe?

SHARMA: Well, I think we are seeing the leadership from this U.S. administration and the fact that President Biden - one of the first executive orders he signed was to rejoin the Paris Agreement. I think that sends a real message to the world that the U.S. is back. I welcome the commitment that was made yesterday by President Biden in terms of additional finance to support developing nations. And I think that sort of leadership matters.

SHAPIRO: This conference was postponed a year because of the pandemic, and many developing countries still don't have enough vaccine doses to safely send representatives to Scotland in November. These are some of the countries that are experiencing the impacts of climate change first and hardest. So why move forward with an in-person gathering when some of these key stakeholders, like island nations in poorer countries, cannot safely be there?

SHARMA: Well, I'm confident that many of them will be there in person. And in fact, you will have seen some of the messaging that has come out from the most climate vulnerable countries saying that this thing must happen in person because they want to sit at the same table with the big emitters, the big developed nations and look them in the eye. And you talk about vaccines. You know, we made an offer to every accredited delegate around the world who's coming to court that we would support them with vaccinations. And we're doing that right now, Ari. So we're going to ensure that this is a safe event. We've got a whole range of measures that we're putting in place. But ultimately, this is a negotiation amongst almost 200 parties. And that's why we need to do this physically.

SHAPIRO: Alok Sharma is president of COP26, the U.N. Climate Conference happening in Scotland in November. Thank you, and I'll see you there.

SHARMA: Thank you so much, Ari - look forward to seeing you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.