COP26 Ends With Nobody Really Happy

Six years ago, as the Paris Agreement was signed and the hammer fell, negotiators assembled at the huge conference center on the outskirts Paris. They were greeted with applause, and left Paris feeling optimistic. For the many people who traveled from all over the country to celebrate, bars were set up in the streets. Notably, the mood was different at the end of COP26 Glasgow.

On Saturday, COP26 ended. Delegates unanimously accepted the Glasgow Climate Pact. The update of the Paris Agreement, which targets fossil-fuel subsidies and coal-fired electricity, was approved by delegates. These new agreements represent giant steps forward in international climate discussions—but few delegates were ready to celebrate openly. In statement after statement during the closing sessions, negotiators from countries around the world suggested that they were accepting the text in the “spirit of compromise” while lamenting that the deal did not go far enough. “The text represents the least-worst outcome,” James Shaw, New Zealand’s climate minister, told his counterparts on Friday.
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Last summer, I wrote that a confluence of events including the U.S. presidential election, the massive spending on COVID-19 recovery measures and the impending Glasgow talks would make 2020-2021 most decisive years yet in the fight against climate change, during which the decisions made would determine whether the world will exceed the 1.5°C temperature rise mark that scientists say will trigger the worst effects of climate change.

We can now look back at the past two years after COP26 is over. Unfortunately, what has transpired isn’t exactly reassuring. According to the International Energy Agency, while governments spent $16 trillion to recover from COVID-19 and 2% went to clean energy projects. The U.S. presidential election replaced a climate-change denier with a president committed to addressing the issue—but much of his climate agenda has been hampered by politics.

The conclusions of the COP also contain mixed messages. One, all countries seem to agree that fossil fuels will not be the future. On the other, they have struggled to explain how the necessary transition to renewable energy will occur—both in terms of the technicalities of emissions reduction and how it will affect people and communities. “Is [the agreement] enough to hold global warming to 1.5°?” Shaw said. “I honestly can’t say that I think that it does, but we must never, ever give up.”

The negotiations at COP26 were never going to get the world to keep warming to 1.5°C on their own. The central purpose of this conference is that it was required by the Paris Agreement for countries to submit domestic climate pledges at the Glasgow COP. The hope was that this year’s conference would serve as a shared target, to galvanize countries to do their own work figuring out how to reduce emissions domestically in the period between the Paris and Glasgow conferences. In the weeks before Glasgow, however, it was clear that these efforts were not successful. A report from the United Nations climate change body released in October ahead of the conference found that the commitments made ahead of COP26 wouldn’t come close to getting the world to meet the 1.5°C target; the UNFCCC projected that they would mean the globe was likely to see an average temperature rise of up to 2.7°C above preindustrial levels. A slew of announcements during the conference—from vague net-zero commitments to toothless deforestation promises—brought that number down in theory, but many analysts remained unconvinced that all of these pledges will actually result in real policy.

And so the talk in Glasgow turned towards the fact that the 1.5°C target was, as United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described it, on “life support.” Ultimately, the negotiators agreed to a measure calling for countries to strengthen their climate commitments and align them with the 1.5°C by next year. They also signed off on language that explicitly states the need to phase down fossil fuels—the first time that’s happened at any of these international events. According to the Glasgow Pact, fossil-fuel subsidies as well as coal-fired energy are two targets which would be helpful in meeting the global temperature rise target.

If you’re wondering why countries would do that next year when they didn’t this year, you’re not alone. Given the already deep urgency of climate change, it’s hard to imagine what more could move the needle. Greenpeace International’s Jennifer Morgan says the youth and activists will continue to put pressure on governments. “After this meeting, 1.5 is still barely alive,” says Morgan. “What would give me confidence is the people-power that exists around the world—and that is just growing…. it’s a chance to hold governments accountable to the promises that they have made on the world stage.”

It’s also true that as the COVID-19 pandemic eases, governments will have additional space—fiscal and otherwise—to delve more deeply into the nuts and bolts of climate policy. Some encouraging signs of new programs emerged at Glasgow over the past few weeks, while some formal negotiations were taking place. These might encourage some countries to move further. For example, negotiators from the U.S., U.K., Germany, France and the European Union announced they are working on an $8.5 billion deal with South Africa to help it transition away from coal—that partnership that could serve as a model for other countries.

It would take a larger effort to build trust for the rich to be able to gain support from their counterparts in less fortunate countries. The final days of talks in Glasgow were dominated by a call for rich nations to make sure that poor countries have adequate funds to adapt to climate change and pay for financial damages and losses caused by increasing droughts and floods. Representatives of less wealthy and more vulnerable countries made it clear that the historical emission of richer countries has largely fuelled their wealth accumulation, while placing other areas at risk from the consequences of these emissions. Last deal also includes calls to double the financing for adaptation, as well as promises to further work on loss and damage.

International climate negotiations are often criticized by those who believe that it doesn’t matter if the goal is to reduce global emissions. Real action happens in response to economic factors—at manufacturing plants, in offices and with consumers—or at the very least in response to laws or rules. It’s true of course that the negotiators who gathered in Glasgow have no direct power to intervene on the ground in other countries, but collectively setting the direction can’t hurt.


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