To understand what was achieved at the COP26 climate summit it’s helpful to look at the goals that were brought to the table at the outset of the summit.
Two hundred countries were asked to come forward with their most ambitious 2030 emissions reductions targets to align with reaching net zero by 2050 and to keep global warming to well below 2C and to aim for 1.5C.
It was understood that in order to deliver on these targets, countries would need to: accelerate the phase out of coal; curtail deforestation; speed up the switch to electric vehicles and encourage investment in renewables.
Countries were also expected to work together to enable and encourage countries affected by extreme weather events linked to climate change to protect and restore ecosystems and build defences, warning systems and resilient infrastructure and agriculture to avoid the loss of homes, livelihoods and even lives.
For these first two goals to work, developed countries must make good on their promise to mobilise at least $100bn in climate finance per year by 2025. International financial institutions need to play their part too. It was also considered important to look at ways to work towards unleashing the trillions in private and public sector finance required to secure global net zero.
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Developing countries have been promised that climate finance will be increased in the next 5 years to $500bn. Developing countries would like more of the cash spent on adaptation rather than emissions cuts. This is important because most of the climate finance currently available goes to funding emissions-cutting projects, such as renewable energy schemes, in middle income countries that could often be funded easily without help, because they turn a profit. But the poorest countries who need money to adapt to the impact of extreme weather struggle to obtain any funding at all. It was agreed to double the proportion of climate finance going to adaptation which was an important first step.
450 financial institutions who between them control $130tn, agreed to back “clean” technology, such as renewable energy, and direct finance away from fossil fuel-burning industries. This initiative is an attempt to get private companies to work towards meeting net zero targets and to for them to commit to providing finance for green technology.
Some environmental organisations believe that this initiative amounts to little more than a PR exercise without a greater commitment to ending fossil fuel finance.
Reaffirming the Paris Agreement
Working together was regarded as the only way that we could rise to the challenges of the climate crisis.
It was considered imperative that those at COP26 work together to finalise the Paris Rulebook (the detailed rules that make the Paris Agreement operational) and accelerate action to tackle the climate crisis through collaboration between governments, businesses, and civil society.
It was agreed that the current national plans on cutting emissions by 2030, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), are insufficient to limit temperature rises to 1.5C. According to analysis published during the talks if we continue as we are the current NDCs would lead to a disastrous 2.4C of global heating.
Unfortunately, only one major emitter, India, produced a new NDC at the talks which leaves much work to be done to get more of the major emitters on board.
However, it was agreed that the question of revising NDCs would be on the agenda for next year’s COP, to be held in Egypt, and for the one following in 2023. Up until now, under the 2015 Paris agreement, nations were only required to return every 5 years to set new NDCs. Countries have been asked to republish their climate action plans, with more ambitious emissions reduction targets for 2030, by the end of next year.
Setting a roadmap for revisions next year, rather than several years away is one positive outcome from the talks.
Leaders from more than one hundred countries, representing about 85% of the world’s forests have promised to stop deforestation by 2030. Trees can absorb vast amounts of carbon dioxide, one of the key greenhouse gases adding to global warming. Ending deforestation is seen as a vital way to tackle climate change. However, previous initiatives haven’t stopped deforestation though this one is better funded. It is also unclear how the pledges will be policed or monitored.
Coal is the biggest single contributor to climate change. Although progress has been made in reducing its use, it still produced about 37% of the world’s electricity in 2019. It is the dirtiest fossil fuel, and the International Energy Agency has said that if it is not rapidly phased out the world has no hope of staying within 1.5C of global heating. To hit the target, at least 40% of the world’s existing 8,500 coal-fired power plants must be closed by 2030 and no new ones built.
More than forty countries including major coal users such as Poland, Vietnam and Chile have agreed to shift away from coal. A milestone has been reached at this COP as for the first time the Glasgow Climate Pact has made a direct reference to phasing out fossil fuels. The phrasing of the commitment in the final text of the pact was hard fought. India insisted on changing the final phrase from “phase out” to “phase down” despite pleas from other developing countries. Some of the world’s most coal-dependent countries, including Australia, India, China, and the US, haven’t signed up. And the agreement doesn’t cover other fossil fuels such as oil or gas. However, the first step has been made towards ending coal’s grip on the energy industry.
More than one hundred countries have agreed to a scheme to cut 30% of current methane emissions by 2030. Methane, as one of the most potent greenhouse gases, is currently responsible for a third of human generated warming. Most methane is produced from cattle production and waste disposal. Though the big emitters, China, Russia, and India haven’t joined the scheme it is hoped that they will later.
One of the most surprising announcements made during COP26 came from the US and China. They made a joint declaration to “recall their firm commitment to work together” to achieve the 1.5C temperature goal set out in the 2015 Paris agreement. As the world’s two biggest CO2 emitters, an agreement between the US and China is seen as critical in keeping the 1.5C temperature rise threshold within reach. Steps were agreed on methane emissions, the transition to clean energy and decarbonisation. Despite China being reluctant to tackle its domestic coal emissions in the short term, China does appear to recognise the need for urgent action. Organisations such as Greenpeace though welcoming the joint declaration warned that both countries needed to show greater commitment to reaching climate goals.
By and large, any commitments made by countries at COP26 will have to be self-policed. Only a few countries are making their pledges legally binding. It is hoped however that as momentum builds towards net zero, it will encourage countries to keep up.
The real value of meetings like COP26 is to try and encourage every country to stay involved. There would be little point in imposing sanctions on countries who don’t keep to their pledges as this could see them withdrawing from international agreements completely.
Though COP26 has by no means solved the climate crisis, it has turned out much better than many people had expected. Broadly speaking the conference can be seen as a success as the ultimate aim of ‘keeping alive’ the Paris Agreement global warming goal of 1.5C has been achieved. This does of course rather depend on what happens in the next year or two and all the way up to 2030.
Improving the short-term carbon cutting actions that are so important to hitting that target has become a lot easier with the Glasgow Climate Pact. Hopefully, those nations that are not doing their bit to hit 1.5C will come back with plans to increase cuts up to 2030 at next year’s COP, in Egypt.