Written evidence submitted by Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics and Political Science (COP0001)


30 April 2020

Bob Ward, Policy and Communications Director, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics and Political Science

Rebecca Byrnes, Policy Analyst, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics and Political Science

1.      What should the Government be aiming to achieve at COP26?

The 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was originally scheduled to take place in Glasgow, Scotland, between 9 and 19 November 2020. On 1 April 2020, the UNFCCC secretariat announced that COP26 has been postponed until 2021.

The priorities for the UK Presidency of COP26 should include:

More ambitious nationally determined contributions to the Paris Agreement

COP26 will also serve as a meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement, which includes three key commitments in Article 2 (UNFCCC, 2015):

In relation to climate change mitigation, Article 4 of the Agreement also commits Parties to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible”, and to “achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century” (ie net zero emissions).

Article 4 requires Parties to “prepare, communicate and maintain successive nationally determined contributions that it intends to achieve”, every five years. Furthermore, each Party’s successive “nationally determined contribution” (NDC) will “represent a progression beyond the Party's then current nationally determined contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition”.

Parties submitted “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) ahead of the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the UNFCCC in Paris, France, in 2015 and are expected to provide revised NDCs ahead of COP26. The UK Presidency of COP26 should seek more ambitious NDCs from all Parties, and particularly rich countries, across the three sets of commitments explicitly identified in Article 2 of the Paris Agreement, as well as the other key areas (eg loss and damage, technology, capacity-building, etc).

The INDCs included pledges to reduce or limit annual emissions of carbon dioxide, or all greenhouse gases covered by the Kyoto Protocol, by 2025 or 2030. It is widely recognised that collectively the INDCs are not consistent with the temperature goal expressed in Article 2 of the Paris Agreement. The ‘Emissions Gap Report 2019’, published by the United Nations Environment Programme in November 2019, concluded that even if current unconditional NDCs are all fully implemented, there is a 66 per cent chance that this will result in warming of up to 3.2°C above the pre-industrial level global temperature by the end of this century. The report’s authors calculated that the gap between all unconditional NDCs and a pathway that would limit warming to no more than 1.7-1.8°C this century, with a 50 per cent probability, will be about 15 billion tonnes of carbon-dioxide-equivalent in 2030. For a pathway that limits warming to 1.5°C, with a 66 per cent probability, by the end of the century, the gap in 2030 is forecast to be 32 billion tonnes of carbon-dioxide-equivalent.

It is widely expected that the pledges for limiting or reducing emissions in 2025 and 2030, contained in the revised NDCs submitted ahead of COP26, collectively will still not be consistent with the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement. However, it is very important that the UK Presidency continues to encourage countries to increase the ambition of their mitigation commitments in their NDCs.

Many countries have now set targets for reaching net zero emissions of greenhouse gases. For instance, the Government of Chile announced in September 2019 that 66 Parties to the UNFCCC were “demonstrating genuine leadership either by having developed plans to achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, by having identified this target as a long-term national goal, or by advancing consultations on a long-term strategy for climate-neutrality in line with the Paris Agreement”. The UK Presidency should encourage Parties to embed these commitments within their revised NDCs.

Although COP26 has been postponed until 2021, the UK Presidency should not relax its pressure on all Parties to increase their ambition. The UK Presidency should work particularly closely with the largest emitters to encourage them to be more ambitious. If the mitigation pledges in the revised NDCs are recognised to be inconsistent with the temperature goals, there may be actors within and outside the UNFCCC negotiations that declare this multinational process to have failed. The UK COP26 Presidency should make every effort to prevent a collapse in support for the Paris Agreement and the UNFCCC, which would likely have catastrophic consequences for international climate action and would make it far more difficult for the world to avoid dangerous climate change that threatens the lives and livelihoods of billions of people around the world.

At COP21 in Paris, France, countries agreed that revised NDCs should be submitted 9-12 months before the relevant summit. Originally, COP26 was due to be held in Glasgow between 9 and 19 November 2020. However, very few countries submitted revised NDCs by 9 February 2020. Countries are now dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, and may not be able to complete the process of revising their NDCs immediately, particularly as COP26 has been postponed until 2021. The Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC wrote an open letter on 23 April 2020 to remind Parties of the requirement to submit revised NDCs during 2020 (Espinosa, 2020). However, the Parties may not be as ambitious as they could be in their revised NDCs if they do not have enough time to complete the necessary analysis and are worried about the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. The UK Presidency of COP26 should be sensitive to these unforeseen and unprecedented challenges. Many governments, particularly in poor and vulnerable countries, may be overwhelmed by the necessary response to the COVID-19 crisis and could benefit from capacity-building and technical support in the updating of their NDCs. Some governments may still not be able to revise their NDCs by the time that COP26 does take place, and the UK Presidency of COP26 may need to work with Parties to agree how later submissions could be accommodated.

An ambitious UK “nationally determined contribution” to the Paris Agreement

The UK negotiated as part of the European Union leading up to and at COP21 in Paris, France, and was a Party to the intended nationally determined contribution (Latvian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, 2015). The UK was a Member State of the European Union when the Paris Agreement came into force on 4 November 2016, and has individually ratified the Agreement. As the UK is now no longer a Member State of the European Union, it is intending to submit its own NDC. In a written answer on 14 February 2020 to a Parliamentary Question, Kwasi Kwarteng, Minister of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, stated:

“Following our departure from the EU, the UK will be bringing forward its own, increased NDC well ahead of COP26. The UK NDC will be built on the foundations of well-established UK analysis and policy development for domestic climate change mitigation, used to set the UK’s fifth carbon budget (2028-32) and described in the Clean Growth Strategy. In its Net Zero advice, the Committee on Climate Change was clear that the Clean Growth Strategy continues to offer the right framework for the ambitious action needed to deliver net zero.”

This suggests that the UK’s NDC will include a commitment to reduce the UK’s annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2030 in line with the Fifth Carbon Budget, which was legislated by Parliament in June 2016. The Fifth Carbon Budget is set at 1725 million tonnes of carbon-dioxide-equivalent for the five-year period between 2028 and 2032. This equates to annual average emissions for the period that are 57 per cent lower than in 1990 using the accounting methodology of the Climate Change Act 2008, or 61 per cent lower than in 1990 in terms of absolute emissions (Committee on Climate Change, 2015).

Since Parliament passed the Fifth Carbon Budget, the Climate Change Act has been amended so that the statutory target for UK annual emissions of greenhouse gases is now to reach net zero by 2050 instead of a reduction of at least 80 per cent compared with 1990. While the Fifth Carbon Budget is not incompatible with the 2050 target for net zero emissions, it is unlikely to be consistent with the most cost-effective path. Hence, the Committee on Climate Change should review the adequacy of the Fifth Carbon Budget, and if necessary should recommend that it is reduced, in the advice to the Government about the Sixth Carbon Budget for the period 2033-2037, which is due to be published in December 2020. The UK’s NDC should take into account any potential tightening of the Fifth Carbon Budget, and should explicitly include the commitment to net zero emissions by 2050.

The UK’s NDC should also include strong commitments across a range of other climate actions, including adaptation and resilience (drawing on the UK climate change risk assessments and national adaptation plans and programmes) and alignment of the UK’s finance sector with the Paris Agreement. The UK should also explicitly express its support, including through finance, for developing countries to implement their NDCs, and should emphasise the inter-relationship between climate change mitigation, adaptation and economic development.

The timely publication of the UK’s NDC, if it is ambitious, could galvanise other countries into submitting strong NDCs.

A focus on implementation of “nationally determined contributionsand ‘the real economy’

While it is critically important for the UK Presidency of COP26 to encourage greater ambition in the revised NDCs, it should also promote and highlight actions to implement NDCs, particularly by non-Party actors, including the private sector and sub-national policy-makers. It is action within the so-called ‘real economy’, rather than by national governments, which will largely determine whether NDCs are implemented. There are many examples of companies, cities and communities which are already undertaking strong action to tackle climate change, and often with greater ambition than some of the Parties that participate in the UNFCCC processes. The UK Presidency of COP26 has appointed Nigel Topping to the important role of High Level Climate Action Champion, and should provide sustained and high-level support for his efforts to help drive action from businesses, investors, organisations, cities, and regions on climate change, and to coordinate this work with the Parties to the UNFCCC. The engagement by non-Party actors may encourage Parties to be more ambitious.

The UK Presidency of COP26 should seek the public and private finance sectors to play a strong and prominent role as a contribution to the alignment of the global financial system with the Paris Agreement. This could, for example, mean that the UK regulators make the recommendations of the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures mandatory instead of voluntary. The UK Presidency should also seek a clear opportunity at COP26 for engagement by the Coalition of Finance Ministers for Climate Action. The former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has been appointed as the Prime Minister’s Finance Adviser for COP26. He has also been appointed as United Nations Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance. Lord Stern of Brentford, the Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has been asked by the UK Presidency to lead on the role of the multilateral development banks in COP26.

The UK Presidency should also focus on other actions that improve the credibility of NDCs. This could include, for example, a declaration or commitments by Parties to pass or modify domestic policies and legislation to ramp up domestic climate ambition. The UK was the first leading economy to create legal climate targets and has now set a target for reaching net zero emissions, so should have the credibility and authority to initiate such efforts.

However, it is vitally important that the UK Presidency of COP26 is seen to ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talk the talk’ on climate action. The Government must be more effective in its implementation of domestic climate change policies, and lead by example. It is of particular concern that the most recent progress report to Parliament in July 2019 by the Committee on Climate Change concluded, for instance, that the UK is not on track to meet the Fourth and Fifth Carbon Budgets. It is essential that the UK Government takes the necessary steps ahead of COP26 to ensure that the UK’s emissions are falling in line with the carbon budgets and a cost-effective pathway towards the target of net zero emissions by 2050. It also needs to improve its strategy for adaptation in England, following the advice of the Committee on Climate Change.

Engagement with Parties about their economic recovery packages from the COVID-19 pandemic

Many countries are likely to introduce economic recovery packages as they emerge from the public health emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the economic rescue packages should be primarily aimed at preventing the collapse of economies and to direct resources to supporting the public health response, economic recovery packages should be designed to stimulate economic activity. These recovery packages should take into account a key lesson of the pandemic about the vulnerability of the world to global threats, and should seek to ‘build back better’. This will mean prioritising investments that will not only create jobs, but also generate growth that is strong, sustainable, inclusive and resilient (Bhattacharya and Stern, 2020). Investments in companies, organisations and institutions that are not committed to the transition to zero-carbon and climate-resilient economies would lock in exposure and vulnerability to the future risks of climate change. The UK Presidency should engage with Parties to ensure that their economic recovery packages are consistent with ambitious climate action and support implementation of their NDCs.

Support for developing countries

The UK has a strong international reputation for providing support to developing countries, both through International Climate Finance (eg its large investments in the Green Climate Fund) and through its commitment to investing 0.7 per cent of its gross national income in Official Development Assistance. The UK Presidency should ask developing country Parties to clearly articulate their needs for financial and technological support and should encourage rich countries to respond positively and constructively. Many developing countries have pointed out that a lack of access to technology and prohibitive costs of capital are two of the biggest barriers to zero-carbon and climate resilient growth.

The UK Presidency should emphasise the links between climate change mitigation, adaptation and economic development, and the importance of tackling climate change in realising the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

A key issue at COP26 will be whether rich countries have honoured their commitments that were made at COP16 in 2010 in Cancún, Mexico, to mobilise financial support for developing countries from public and private sources, reaching US$100 billion by 2020. While this sum is small relative to the trillions of dollars that need to be invested in the transition to a zero-carbon and climate-resilient global economy, it is widely regarded as a critical measure of the commitment of the rich countries to international climate action. This support helps developing countries to make the transition to zero-carbon economic development and growth and to adapt to those impacts of climate change that cannot now be avoided. The latest analysis published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in September 2019 concluded that rich countries had mobilised US$58.6 billion in 2016 and US$71.2 billion in 2017. It may be difficult to make significant progress at COP26 if developing countries are not convinced that rich countries have honoured their commitments on financial support. The UK Presidency should support efforts to ensure that the US$100 billion commitment is met.

The UK Presidency should also provide its support for the start of the negotiations on a post-2020 goal for financial support, including a consideration of whether there should be explicit targets for adaptation and ‘loss and damage’.

A focus on nature-based solutions to climate change and the link with biodiversity

The Rt Hon. Alok Sharma, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, has been appointed by the Prime Minister to be the President of COP26. He drew attention to the importance of nature-based solutions to climate change in a major speech in March 2020, and highlighted “safeguarding ecosystems, protecting natural habitats and keeping carbon out of the atmosphere”.

The UK Presidency of COP26 is well-placed to help Parties to explore how both climate change mitigation and adaptation can be increased through nature-based solutions, such as the rehabilitation of land and an end to deforestation. The UK Government should ensure that the review that the Chancellor of the Exchequer commissioned in March 2019 of the economics of biodiversity, led by Sir Partha Dasgupta, examines the overlap with climate change. The interim report of the review was published on 30 April 2020.

The UK Presidency of COP26 should encourage Parties to recognise ways of mutually reinforcing NDCs and a potential ‘Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework’, which is due to be agreed in Kumming, China, at the 15th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. COP15 was due to be held in October 2020 but has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The UK Government should work with the Government of China to ensure that Parties at both COP26 and COP15 explore the opportunities to act on both climate change and biodiversity.

The UK Presidency of COP26 should ensure that countries are aware of the links between climate change, biodiversity and the emergence of new infectious diseases. For instance, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services warned (Diaz et al., 2019):

Nature is the origin of most infectious diseases (negative impact), but also the source of medicines and antibiotics for treatment (positive contribution) (well established). Zoonotic diseases are significant threats to human health, with vector-borne diseases accounting for approximately 17 per cent of all infectious diseases and causing an estimated 700,000 deaths globally per annum (established but incomplete). The deterioration of biodiversity and ecosystem functions, and the consequent disruption of benefits to people, has both direct and indirect implications for public health. Emerging infectious diseases in wildlife, domestic animals, plants or people can be exacerbated by human activities such as land clearing and habitat fragmentation (established but incomplete) or the overuse of antibiotics driving rapid evolution of antibiotic resistance in many bacterial pathogens (well established).”

An update of the UNFCCC process

With the majority of the so-called ‘Paris Rulebook now agreed, notwithstanding some small but important exceptions (eg Article 6 on the role of market mechanisms), the UNFCCC is entering into a new phase during which the main focus should be on promoting implementation of NDCs. The UK Presidency should work with the UNFCCC secretariat and other Parties to make space in the relevant agendas for the exchange of experiences about the development and implementation of climate policy, the scaling up of domestic action, and strategies for overcoming barriers to ambition.

In addition, the UK Presidency and the UNFCCC secretariat should explore greater utilisation of technologies to allow potential remote participation in COP26, drawing on innovative solutions developed and experience acquired during the COVID-19 pandemic.


2.      If this is not possible, what would be a realistic but successful outcome?

The UK Presidency of COP26 should aim for ambitious outcomes across a range of issues. Although Parties are currently focused on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the postponement of COP26 gives the UK Presidency more time to work towards success. The UK Presidency should not be limited by historical conceptions of what might be considered ‘realistic’ in terms of outcomes. Global priorities and norms are likely to shift as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and might create space for greater collaboration within the UNFCCC framework. There are many outcomes that could be achieved, even if the full ambitions are not realised, which would provide important steps towards increased ambition and collaboration beyond COP26, such as:


3.      What is needed to put the conference on track to deliver this?

The UK Presidency of COP26 should work with all Parties to ensure that the economic recovery packages from COVID-19 are consistent with strong and ambitious climate action. Recovery packages that reflect weak commitments on climate action are likely to make it more difficult to reach ambitious outcomes at COP26.

Importantly, the UK needs to lead by example by, for instance, putting itself clearly back on track to reach its Fourth and Fifth Carbon Budgets and the target of net zero emissions by 2050. It should also explicitly align its economic recovery package from COVID-19 with its goals for climate change mitigation and adaptation.


4.      What diplomatic efforts should the Government undertake, to ensure that countries substantially raise their ambition?

While the COVID-19 pandemic will provide a challenge to preparations by Parties, the UNFCCC secretariat and the UK Presidency, the postponement of COP26 offers the opportunity to still seek ambitious outcomes. The need for sustained diplomatic outreach to Parties remains as clear as ever. This includes broad outreach by the UK Presidency, with high-level support and participation from across the Government, to build support for ambitious climate action, including a stronger set of NDCs.

The UK Presidency should work closely with the Government of Italy, as co-hosts of COP26. It is also critical that the UK Presidency works constructively with both the European Union and China to encourage them to demonstrate leadership through their revised NDCs and through their other actions on climate change. The planned summit between the leaders of the European Union and China, scheduled to take place in Leipzig, Germany, in September, will be an important opportunity to demonstrate leadership on climate change and to set an example to other countries. In November 2014, President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama jointly announced the main mitigation targets that would be contained in their countries’ respective INDCs, which helped to build momentum for success at COP21 in Paris, France, a year later (Office of the Press Secretary, 2014).

The UK Presidency needs to engage strongly with developing country Parties in particular and ask them to articulate their needs. The UK Presidency should signal to these countries that COP26 will seek to make significant progress on key issues such as increasing access to technology and reducing the cost of capital.

The UK Presidency should continue to engage with the Government of the United States, which is the world’s second largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases, after China. Although the Trump Administration has initiated the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement, which will be completed on 4 November 2020, it will still be a Party to the UNFCCC and entitled to participate in COP26.

The UK Presidency of COP26 should challenge the Trump Administration about its lack of support for domestic and international action on climate change. When President Trump announced in June 2017 that he intended to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, he cited reasons that were demonstrably inaccurate and misleading (Ward, 2017). No other countries have followed his example but the UK Presidency should call out the Trump Administration when it makes false claims about the science, economics, ethics or politics of climate change.

The UK Presidency should seek ways for non-Party actors from the United States, such as members of the ‘We Are Still In’ Coalition, to participate in COP26. In the event that the Trump Administration reverses its decision about the Paris Agreement, or President Trump loses the election to a candidate who does support the Paris Agreement, the UK Presidency should seek the active participation of the Government of the United States in COP26.

The UK Presidency should take into account that, in addition to abandoning a leadership role on international climate action, the Trump Administration has also suffered a significant worsening of its political relationship with the Government of China. Even if Mr Trump leaves the White House in January 2021, his successor may not be able or willing to immediately improve the relationship with the Government of China. Hence a change of President in the United States will not necessarily mean a resumption of the joint leadership on international climate action with China that was developed during the Obama Administration.

The UK Presidency could co-convene with the Government of Italy a series of virtual roundtable events with representatives from the major negotiating blocs of the UNFCCC, civil society and the private sector, to identify opportunities to collaborate and identify common positions that can advance negotiations during COP26.

The UK Presidency should engage with Party governments beyond environment ministries to promote the benefits of climate action, including the implementation of NDCs, by a wide range of policy-makers. In particular, the Coalition for Finance Ministers for Climate Action will present important opportunities for Her Majesty’s Treasury to engage with other finance ministries.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and its network of embassies and consulates across the world, should be enthusiastic advocates for the importance of COP26, and should also highlight examples of the UK Presidency leading by example on both climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as its investments in climate action overseas.


5.      What can the Government do to prevent countries’ broader priorities around growth and poverty, as well as COVID-19, from undermining the effort to raise ambition?

The UK Presidency should promote a strong narrative that presents the transition to zero-carbon and climate-resilient economies as the growth story of the 21st century. It should point out that the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the world’s exposure and vulnerability to global threats. The economic recovery from the pandemic is an opportunity to ‘build back better’ and to protect the world from other global risks, including climate change. The UK Presidency should also warn of the huge risks that would be created by economic recovery packages which hinder or undermine the transition to strong, inclusive, sustainable and resilient growth, and which therefore make the world more exposed and vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

In order to substantiate this narrative, the UK must be seen to ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talk the talk’ by ensuring that its economic recovery package promotes strong climate action and is consistent with an ambitious NDC.


6.      What risks and uncertainties should the Government be contingency planning for, and what would sensible contingencies look like?

There is still great uncertainty about when COP26 will be able to take place in the UK. It is not yet clear when the pandemic will be under sufficient control worldwide to allow Parties to gather in the UK. The UK Presidency should explore a range of options, including the potential for hosting COP26 with a reduced number of participants, and with remote participation by some or all Parties. The UK Presidency should consider whether COP26 should be hosted at a remote location away from major centres of population where the risks of epidemic remain. It should also take into account that some Parties will not be able to participate fully in COP26 if they are still dealing with public health emergencies or serious economic consequences that arise from efforts to manage the risks of COVID-19.

While the Paris Agreement requires updated NDCs to be submitted in 2020, the UK Presidency should explore with the UNFCCC secretariat and other Parties whether it is desirable or feasible to accommodate later submissions by some Parties.

There is also a risk that international processes, such as the UNFCCC negotiations, suffer a loss of support as a result of the pandemic. These risks may be exacerbated by actors, such as the Trump Administration, that are hostile to the Paris Agreement or international collaborations in general.


7.      What actions could the UK Parliament take to provide a meaningful and useful contribution to COP26, both in the run-up to, and during, the conference?

The UK Parliament could:


July 2020



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