British Columbia declared a state of emergency following record rainfall that resulted in widespread flooding of farms, landslides and the evacuation of residents. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
While addressing the 26th UN Climate Change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, during the final hours of the event, COP26 President Alok Sharma was overcome with emotion. China and India had just proposed a last-minute change to the final text of the agreement, known as the Glasgow Climate Pact, so that the call to “phase out” unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies was watered down to “phase down.”
Delegates from other countries, from Switzerland to Cuba, deplored the move, but ultimately adopted the text in the interest of time, as the conference was running more than 24 hours late by that point.
“I apologize for the way this process has unfolded and I am deeply sorry” said Sharma, who earlier in the week had told reporters he was sometimes called “No-drama Sharma.” He then added: “I also understand the disappointment, but, as you’ve noted, it is vital we protect this package,” his voice quivering towards the end of the sentence.
Specific mentions of fossil fuels had eluded previous UN climate agreements, and the Glasgow Climate Pact was meant to mark a landmark achievement despite two rounds of revision diluting and complicating the simple “phase out of coal and fossil fuel subsidies” sentence featured in the document’s first draft. Sharma and the U.K. government had a clear goal for COP26—to keep the spirit of 1.5 alive, a reference to COP21’s milestone Paris agreement, which called for global action to prevent temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius, above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.
To do so, it’s crucial to reach net zero emissions by 2050—meaning that for every amount of greenhouse gas emissions, an equal number is removed from the atmosphere—and, to be on track to reach that goal, scientists think global emissions should be halved by 2030. Earlier this year, a report from the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicated that global temperatures have already risen by 1.1 degree Celsius on pre-industrial levels.
“We have kept 1.5 degrees alive. But, its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action,” Sharma said. It’s a statement that doesn’t hide the disappointment the conference organizers must have felt as the event that was dubbed the “most important COP since Paris” just couldn’t fully deliver on its ambition. COP26 was neither success nor failure—absolute concepts that don’t reflect the complexities of high-level international negotiations—but a mixed bag of progress on some issues, disappointment on others, and a whole lot of pledges.
COP26’s Key Agreements And Pledges
The U.K. Presidency had four key objectives summarized as “coal, cash, cars, and trees”—in other words, ending coal power generation (a pledge now endorsed by 46 countries with a deadline set at 2040), providing the long promised $100 billion annual support towards developing countries’ green transition (a goal that was meant to cover the period 2020-2025 but not materializing until 2023 at least, and whose future beyond 2025), supporting electric vehicles and a phase out of gasoline and diesel-powered motor vehicles by 2040, and reversing deforestation in an attempt to protect existing nature-based solutions to capturing emissions.
The bilateral agreement between the U.S. and China on climate change action, including a cut in methane emissions—the subject of a multilateral agreement produced at COP26 to which China refused to take part—was also a remarkable development.
Some of these agreements are imperfect—the one about deforestation, for instance, pledged to “halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.” It appeared a success as it involved Brazil, home to the world’s largest rainforest who’s been losing trees at record pace this year, but Brazilian senators soon clarified that their commitment would only extend to illegal deforestation. Campaigners have long indicated that the line between legal and illegal deforestation in the country is often blurred due to amnesties affecting illegally deforested areas.
Others are deprived of key players. A campaign to phase out oil and gas in the next 30 years promoted by Denmark and Costa Rica, for instance, lacked the support of COP26’s host country, the U.K., which is considering the development of a new coal mine and an offshore oil field.
Pledges submitted by countries to reduce their emissions remain insufficient to achieve the 1.5 degrees Celsius target. The most optimistic scenario drafted by the International Energy Agency (IEA), in which all nations follow through with their pledges, puts the world on course for a 1.8 degrees Celsius increase in global temperatures by 2100. The non-profit group Climate Action Tracker confirmed the IEA calculation, but indicated that a more realistic outcome for those pledges is a 2.4 degrees temperature rise—and a 2.7 degrees on the basis of current policies.
A report this week by the Paris Reinforce consortium, which comprises 18 research institutions, adds nuance to those figures, finding that current policies put the world on course for between 2.3 to 2.9 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100, while climate pledges lead to warming of 2.2 to 2.7 degrees over the same period.
Some countries are already feeling the impact of rising global temperatures and several developing countries, some of which are already facing rising sea levels eating into their territories and extreme weather events devastating lives and livelihoods, branded a rise of 2 degrees Celsius in global temperatures as a “death sentence.” Developing countries and civil society campaigners were disappointed with the failure to create a robust mechanism to disburse financial aid towards loss and damage in the face of climate change.
Sir David King, chair of Climate Crisis Advisory Group (CCAG), an independent group of 15 experts from 11 countries that released their own assessment of COP26’s outcome this week, called the failure to reach an agreement on that front a “fundamental breach of trust.” He said in a press statement: “What we have at hand is a fundamental breach of trust between rich and poor nations, with catastrophic consequences for the world. Without a recalibration from developed nations on how they approach their relations with poorer countries, change at the scale and pace required to ensure global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is nigh on impossible.”
The Path Ahead
On a positive note, delegates were able to finalize a deal around carbon markets that was left unfinished in Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, paving the way for building a system to price and trade carbon globally. COP26 also saw unprecedented commitments from the private sector to reaching net zero goals and supplying the trillions of dollars needed to fund the transition.
“All actors in the financial sector have stepped on board to redirect the standards on where investments go. It sends a signal,” Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, told Forbes during COP26.
Another sign of progress Rockström witnessed in Glasgow is an overall agreement that limiting emissions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement is a must. “This is the first COP where we do not debate any longer the direction we’re moving at, we’re debating the speed,” he said.
It’s not just the speed—the way to achieve those emissions reduction remains under discussion. Nuclear power and hydrogen—which can be “green” when produced via renewable energy, but is dubbed “blue” if derived from fossil fuels—were offered big platforms at COP26 in the form of pavilions and participation at keynote speeches and panel sessions, more so than producers of solar and wind energy.
Forms of transportation that don’t traditionally feature fuel engine combustion, such as trains or bicycles, weren’t even considered in the program, which instead focused on electric vehicles, airplanes, and shipping—sectors that present huge decarbonization challenges, which nonetheless shouldn’t detract from discussing existing low-carbon modes of transportation.
Overall, lacking from the discussions at COP26 was the understanding that reaching net zero emissions requires more than just a switch from one energy source to another, but a reinvention of current modes of production and consumption. This was noted by Guy Grainger, global head of sustainability services at real estate services company JLL, who would have liked more focus on the circular economy, at least in his sector. “The circular economy has got a huge role to play in the built environment, but [it] actually hasn’t been talked about enough yet. I’m hoping that that will come,” he told Forbes.
One of the few people who addressed the need for more radical change was fashion designer Stella McCartney. “Fast-fashion [brands] obviously need to reduce what they produce,” she told Forbes. She explained that she, too, has gone through the process of reducing her product range, adding: “I want to show my industry that you can have a business model in working in a cleaner, more sustainable way.”
COP26 is now over, but the mission to prevent the worst consequences of climate change continues. No doubt the issues that created disappointment in Glasgow will be discussed with even more urgency next November, at COP27 in Egypt.
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