Quo vadis climate change? – A brief look at the main takeaways from the 26th Conference of the Parties in Glasgow

What is a COP?

In 1990, the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) assessment report was released. It highlighted that global warming is due to rising CO2 emissions and called for a global treaty on climate change. After two years of discussions, this treaty, called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), was formed, and adopted by signatories of the Convention, almost 200 countries known as the “parties” which meet every year for the Conference of the Parties (COP), the supreme decision-making body of the Convention. 

The first COP meeting was held in Berlin, Germany in March 1995. At the end of each COP, the parties must decide whether they will adopt the revised Convention. Thus, there are currently 197 parties to the Convention, however, the COPs not only gather government leaders from around the world but also negotiators, businesses and civil society groups (NGOs) for ten to fourteen days of talks, to the effect that between thirty and forty thousand people were expected to attend the 26th Conference of the Parties in Glasgow for two weeks in early November 2021.

Why is the COP26 the “most important COP since Paris (2015)”?

The Paris Agreement has been a landmark agreement in multi-lateral climate change cooperation because, for the first time, a binding decision between all states was made to combat climate change and mitigate its negative effects. The main objective of the agreement is to intensify the necessary actions, and crucially, investments to respond to the threat of climate change by keeping global temperature rises below 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. 

Although the current COVID-19 pandemic has inhabited our minds since the start of 2020, climate change is still ongoing around the world at probably unprecedented speed. In this context, COP26 is regarded as an opportunity to conduct an economic recovery in accordance with the ambitious 1.5 degrees Celsius trajectory. In the US, the COVID-19 fiscal policy intervention mechanism was advertised on the backdrop of build back better. Most importantly, COP26 occurs three months after the 6th IPCC’s assessment report release, in which it was warned that, meanwhile, there is a higher than 50% probability of reaching the 1.5 degrees Celsius target before 2040. Given that no COP was held in 2020 due to the pandemic, countries need to update their plans for reducing emissions, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), in 2021.

These reasons made the run-up to this year’s summit in Glasgow a critical moment in the world’s multilateral ambition to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

COP 26, what have we achieved?

Overall, the results of COP26 were largely met with disappointment and frustration. On the one hand, the absence of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and Russia’s Putin had put in question the multilateral ambition of the Convention, on the other hand, COP26 was preceded by disappointing results of the G20 in Rome. The economic backdrop of this year’s COP did not contribute to an optimistic stance either, with global energy supply shortages derailing an economic recovery from COVID-19, continued inflation fears in developed countries which would further intensify the political dilemma that any climate change policies will uncover, as well as the ongoing fight against the spread of COVID-19 and global vaccine shortages. These issues certainly claimed the attention of politics and policy makers in the past 24 months.

The main topics of discussion that filled the first half of the week were: 

  • For the first time, the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping global temperatures within a maximum increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial times has been recognised. Only six years ago, the Paris Agreement had set a target of 2°C and the fact that the COP has acknowledged to include a much stricter reference point is one of the most important achievements of COP26. This outcome is by no means a foregone conclusion, as country leaders are called upon to update their national plans to achieve this goal, at COP27 in Egypt next year. Moreover, for the first time in United Nations‘ history regarding a climate conference, the reduction of fossil fuels was mentioned. 
  • The second achievement – perhaps the most ‘underwhelming’ of all – was the agreement to phase out the use of coal as an energy source and to stop economic and financial subsidies for fossil fuels. While the first draft of the agreement, which was circulated in the first week of the conference, detailed that “phasing out coal use and fossil fuel subsidies”, the final compromise, enforced by some strong interventions from India and China, saw a subtle, yet consequential change of replacing “phase out” with the phrase “phase down”. The difference between the two terms, although only formal, bears substantial repercussions. China and India account for around 40% of the global emission of carbon dioxide. Without their efforts and actions, it is difficult to proceed in the right direction and the multilateral nature of the Convention can be interpreted as hypocritical.
  • If the word “eliminate” had remained, states would have been required to adopt policies clearly aimed at replacing fossil fuels with other energy sources. This would require them to account for their usage publicly, especially at COP27 and the forthcoming COPs. Instead, since it is only a matter of committing to a “reduction”, all that is needed to respect the agreement is to reduce their use without any targets. Even a small reduction of 1% is sufficient.  It is unfortunately highly likely that such a decrease cannot effectively slow down global warming.

As a result, COP26 president Alok Sharma was noticeably moved on Saturday night, stating that he was ‘deeply frustrated’ by the ‘weakness’ of this latest achievement.

Aside from these frustrations, there have been discussions on funding:

It was decided to double international funding for adaptation actions, especially in countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. A work programme was also approved to establish the Global Goal on Adaptation, aimed at defining indicators to monitor countries’ adaptation actions. The discussion was particularly heated when negotiating the “Loss and Damage” as there was a strong push for negotiations on dedicated financial instruments to support countries in minimising loss and damage caused by climate change. The conclusions envisage the launch of a “dialogue” on this issue, to be concluded by 2024, and to set up a fund for warning systems. Currently, 5 trillion dollars are invested in the oil and gas industry however, countries are going to relocate 1 trillion dollars from this fund into renewable energies. For the moment, this is just a tentative step as the relocation has not been finalised. During COP26, the World Resources Institute (WRI), in partnership with the International Solar Alliance (ISA) and Bloomberg Philanthropies, launched a Solar Investment Action Agenda.  The aim of this investment is to accelerate solar investment and reach ISA’s goal of mobilizing $1 trillion in solar by 2030. 

What do the aforementioned disappointments from COP26 imply going forward?

During the conference two of the most eagerly anticipated expectations were not realized: a) the renewal of targets for 2030, to respect the 1.5°C global warming level, and b) the acceleration on the phase-out of coal. We have therefore analysed different setbacks from the initial expectations.

1 – Without strong actions by governments, the world is heading for 2.4 degrees of warming

First, despite the media announcements of different governments, the practical actions of several countries in complying with the 1.5 °C global warming target are weak. A study from “Climate Action Tracker” shows that without changing their 2030 target, countries will bring the Earth’s temperature to a level of 2.4 °C above the pre-industrial level. However, Australia has declared that it won’t change its target for at least another year. If countries follow Australia’s behaviour, experts declare that the global temperature rise would be close to 3 °C. In the graph below, we can see the impacts of temperature estimates based on the current and forecasted policies of governments.

Figure 1: Global temperature increase by 2100, “Climate Action Tracker” (updated in November 2021) 

Only 6% of the countries have implemented an acceptable policy, while a remarkable 73% are considered to have inadequate targets. There is a remarkable gap between the COP26 pledges in achieving the 1.5 °C targets and the 2030 target proposed by countries.

Figure 2: Global temperature increase by 2100, “Climate Action Tracker”, updated in November 2021. 

2 – Long-term climate goals signal weak credibility given conflicting short-term actions 

The most worrying setback is that governments are focusing on the short-term while worsening their long-term positions. In fact, several countries that claim to have net-zero emissions targets are planning to invest in more fossil fuel production in the short-term. A study conducted by the University of Sussex in collaboration with the “Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative”, circulated during COP26, highlighted how the group of wealthy fossil fuel producers and exporters UK, U.S, Canada, Norway, and Australia called “Fossil Fuelled 5” are heavily investing (more than $150 billion) in the consumption and production of fossil fuels since the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic, despite their pledges to “build back better”. As we can see in the graph below, Coal, oil, and gas production must fall globally by 69%, 31%, and 28% respectively between now and 2030 to keep the 1.5°C target alive. 

Table 1: gap between fossil fuel production and reduction required, “The Fossil Fuelled, comparing rhetoric with reality on fossil fuels and climate change”

“Net-zero” targets set for 2050 and beyond could end up allowing several countries to continue emitting more greenhouse gas emissions in the meantime and the short-term, with the expectation that those emissions will be soaked up somehow in the next few years. These distant commitments are full of loopholes, and most importantly, do not focus on the urgent need to stop production and consumption of fossil fuels in the immediate term.

3 – The deal doesn’t include a fund for loss and damage

Finally, it is important to stress the setback relating to equitable financing. In 2009, rich countries promised $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing countries adapt to and fight against climate change. Rich nations have failed to meet their pledge which was originally set for 2023.

Table 2: Finance Gap between pledges of wealthy nations and real financing, “Politico Research”

One thing that makes COPs different from many other high-profile international engagements is the presence and relevance of small countries, which were expected to shuffle the cards of the negotiation, and to officially establish the loss and damage fund.

The loss and damage fund refers to the financial aid given to governments to better adapt societies and ecosystems to climate change. It can be regarded as a supranational intervention mechanism addressing the negative externality on small countries that free markets fail to solve (Coarse Theorem). It was widely expected that COP26 would put a significant focus on how to respond to the growing consequences of a warmer plate that is expected to cause loss and damage to millions, including the loss of lives, livelihoods, and ecosystems. Wealthy nations, which have historically emitted the most GHG, proposed a fund to help poor nations deal with loss and damage. However, delegates agreed to start only a “dialogue”, angering and frustrating many small countries who say that such reparations are long overdue. 

Conclusion

Climate activists will not be satisfied with the results of the 26th edition of the “Conference of the Parties” in Glasgow. While it was eagerly anticipated as an opportunity to conduct an economic recovery in accordance with the Paris Agreements’ 1.5°C trajectory after COVID-19 and the revised NDCs, COP26 has failed to resemble any build back better mentalities.

Numerous setbacks can be listed from the initial expectations. Beyond the nonrenewal of governments’ practical actions to comply within the 1.5°C maximal increase, recent studies highlight that without changes to policy or even worse, with short-term actions that are counter-productive, countries will bring the Earth’s temperature to a level of 2.4 °C in 2030.  Finally, the promised $100 billion per year for developing countries to fight against climate change has yet to be established and is at least four years behind schedule. Governments need to collectively pursue bolder policy measures if there is any hope in preserving the health of our planet for the future.

On the bright side, Glasgow’s conference recognized for the first time the Paris Agreements’ goal of keeping global temperatures within a 1.5°C increase over pre-industrial times (instead of a 2°C increase). 

Authors : Elena Corsini, Marco Cantonetti, Théophile Grand

Sources:

Deutsche Welle (www.dw.com). (2021). COP26: World leaders fail to honor climate pledge. DW.COM. https://www.dw.com/en/cop26-world-leaders-fail-to-honor-climate-pledge/a-59812348

Glasgow’s 2030 credibility gap: net zero’s lip service to climate action. (2021). Climate Action Tracker. https://climateactiontracker.org/publications/glasgows-2030-credibility-gap-net-zeros-lip-service-to-climate-action/

Hales, R., & Mackey, B. (2021, November 14). The ultimate guide to why the COP26 summit ended in failure and disappointment (despite a few bright spots). The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/the-ultimate-guide-to-why-the-cop26-summit-ended-in-failure-and-disappointment-despite-a-few-bright-spots-171723

History. (2021). IPCC. https://www.ipcc.ch/about/history/

Irfan, U. (2021, November 13). COP26: What the UN climate conference failed to accomplish. Vox. https://www.vox.com/22777957/cop26-un-climate-change-conference-glasgow-goals-paris

Ltd, U. I. C. E. (2021, October 25). This briefing aims to answer all your questions on COP26. Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit. https://eciu.net/analysis/briefings/international-perspectives/what-is-cop26-who-will-attend-it-and-why-does-it-matter

Sippy, P. (2021, November 15). What did Africa get from COP26? Quartz. https://qz.com/africa/2089481/what-did-africa-get-from-cop26/

The Fossil Fuelled 5. (2021). The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. https://fossilfueltreaty.org/fossil-fuel-5

United Nations. (2021). The Paris Agreement. https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/paris-agreement

Weise, Z., Hirsch, C., & Mathiesen, K. (2021, October 28). 5 expectations for the COP26 climate summit, in charts. POLITICO. https://www.politico.eu/article/cop26-climate-summit-expectations-in-charts/

Worland, J. (2021, November 17). Why It Feels So Hard to Understand What Really Happened at COP26. Time. https://time.com/6120266/cop26-takeaways/

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