What does COP26 hope to achieve? – Expert Briefing

The UN climate change conference in Glasgow has four goals: setting ambitious emissions reductions targets, adapting to protect communities and ecosystems, mobilising climate finance, and working together to finalise the Paris Agreement rulebook.

The Science Media Centre hosted a briefing with climate experts to talk about these goals and what New Zealand can do to help achieve them.


  • Dr Jocelyn Turnbull – Radiocarbon Science Leader, GNS Science; and co-chair of the World Meterological Organisation’s Integrated Global Greenhouse Gas Information System (IG3IS)
  • Dr Pauline Harris – Senior Lecturer, Centre for Science in Society, Victoria University of Wellington; and co-author of He huringa āhuarangi, he huringa ao: a changing climate, a changing world
  • Dr Nicholas Cradock-Henry – Senior Researcher Social Science, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research; and Programme Leader, Resilience in Practice Model, Resilience to Nature’s Challenges
  • Associate Professor Nancy Bertler – Paleoclimatologist & Antarctic Science Platform Director, Antarctica New Zealand
  • Professor Tim Naish – Professor in Earth Sciences, Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington; global sea level researcher

The full briefing and an abridged transcript are available here.

What is the science informing the COP goals, and what can New Zealand do to achieve them?

Dr Jocelyn Turnbull:

“As a couple of my colleagues Ray Weiss and Euan Nisbet said a few years ago, trying to mitigate emissions without measuring them, is like dieting without weighing yourself. So one of the things at COP26 is to really think about the transparency framework and how we’re able to evaluate emissions and know that the commitments are happening. A particular note around offsets – tree planting and the land carbon sink – do we really understand what the consequences of these are and how should carbon credits be done?

“The fourth goal – working together to deliver – really stands out to me. It’s something that’s newer in thinking about climate. The earlier negotiations were really at the government level, and what’s become really obvious is that’s necessary, but not sufficient to get anywhere – and that actually we need buy-in throughout society. A lot of the policy actions need to happen at the local government level, so they need the right information to be able to take action. A lot of the emissions are happening in industry, they need the tools and the information to be able to get where they’re going. And of course we need to get right down to the level of individuals so that people understand what’s going in.”

Professor Tim Naish:

“There are two major tipping points that we’re messing with from the cryosphere perspective. One of them is the marine ice sheet, the west Antarctic ice sheet. And the other is the permafrost in the arctic. What the science shows us is if we overshoot the 1.5 or 2 degree targets, even if we come back, we could trigger those tipping points. If we go past 2 degrees – which we’re well on track to doing under the current pledges – then we will put a lot of methane in the atmosphere from the degassing of permafrost. We will lose the ice shelves around Antarctica and commit future generations to many metres of sea level rise that essentially becomes irreversible.

“I’m not sure this COP is so much about the science anymore, I think the science is in. I think the real pressure is around countries and governments committing to a pathway that will be effective and safe.”

Dr Pauline Harris:

Our report is a summary of observed and projected climate impacts. Now, that was the focus – but of course it impacts and is applicable to all Aotearoa as well. The report’s really unique because for Māori – we’re less human-centric in our thinking. It’s more of a holistic model where we’re a part of the environment and have different value weighting to the environment and all species on the planet. 

“A big part of that report was looking at the health and wellbeing of the environment. We looked at key research that will impact on our worldview, like certain species made extinct once we go over three degrees. We looked at the higher risk of invasive species, the impacts of kauri dieback and myrtle rust with increasing temperatures. Looking at already stressed systems in our environment. We’ve been polluting our environment for years. Putting stress on other species, reducing their biodiversity and their genetic capability to be able to survive and be more resilient. We know we humans need our genetic diversity so some people can cope better with Covid. What about all the other species that don’t have the genetic diversity to handle an increase in temperature, or foods changing, and moving habitats?”

Dr Nicholas Cradock-Henry:

“Until the last five or six years there has been less attention paid to how we’re going to adapt to the effects of climate change. There is a lot of science in adaptation, it’s about resilient systems. How can systems respond to shocks and stresses, how can they learn and respond. For the most part we have been aware of the types of changes we can expect. We’ve known for some time that eastern regions tend to get drier under most emissions scenarios, and the western parts of New Zealand tend to get wetter. Of course that will have implications for the frequency and intensity of drought and flooding, which has implications for transport infrastructure, agriculture and so on. So for a while we have understood a lot about the potential impacts, we are now getting a better handle on the potential adaptation responses. In the last few years we’ve seen a lot of work on coastal adaptation, debates on things like managed retreat, do we start buying up houses on the coast?”

Associate Professor Nancy Bertler:

“This COP is really all about nations putting forward their plans. While some nations have already identified carbon neutral by 2050 which is fantastic, very few nations have provided detailed information on how they would get there. So we cannot wait until 2030 to see if we have a reduction, we need a plan for what we do this year, what we do next year, and what we do every year until we reach carbon neutrality. This can’t be done in isolation by governments, they can’t put forward by themselves the visionary and bold measures that we need to achieve that. 

“This COP is where we will be judged by history, in the knowledge of the horse we’re about to let bolt. If we are able to make the visionary changes that are required, or if we stand back and let it happen. If not every person on this planet is touched by these changes, we haven’t done our job.”

Q&A discussion
(35:20 onwards)