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COP26: Key outcomes from a ‘fragile win’

The Paris rulebook has been finalised, the focus has been put on cutting emissions this decade, but developing countries are left dissatisfied on finance
COP26 President Alok Sharma fights back tears as he apologises to delegates for the last-minute watering down of the Glasgow climate pact’s language on eliminating coal power (Image: Jane Barlow / Alamy)
COP26 President Alok Sharma fights back tears as he apologises to delegates for the last-minute watering down of the Glasgow climate pact’s language on eliminating coal power (Image: Jane Barlow / Alamy)

After running over by a day, negotiators at COP26 finally reached agreement on a “Glasgow climate pact” on 13 November.

The two weeks of tense talks had focussed on ambition to keep the 1.5C warming limit within reach, delivering finance for adaptation and loss and damage, and action on phasing out fossil fuels. In a statement, UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres called the final negotiated agreement “a compromise”, that leaves us “still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe.”

“This is a fragile win,” said Alok Sharma, UK president of COP26. “We can now say with credibility that 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.”

The Glasgow conference had been preceded by stark scientific warnings on the urgent need to cut emissions this decade. This urgency has been reflected in the final decision text that recognises the need to reduce “global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net zero around mid-century”, and for countries to take “accelerated action in this critical decade”.

Given that countries had updated their climate plans, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), ahead of the conference, major increases in ambition during the two weeks were always unlikely. This is why the UK presidency also pursued a strategy of galvanising collective action across key sectors by 2030. The strategy succeeded in getting the talks off to a positive start with a flurry of sectoral deals in the first week on halting and reversing deforestation and land degradation, phasing out coal, and controlling methane emissions. In the second week, further commitments were made on electrifying vehicles and phasing out oil and gas.

The sectoral deals were largely welcomed. But it’s the commitment to “revisit and strengthen the 2030 targets in their nationally determined contributions” ahead of next year’s conference that will ensure that countries, particularly developed ones, face consistent pressure to take rapid, large-scale climate action this decade.

This important outcome will keep the focus on the 2020s, preventing countries from relying on weak long-term targets. Several countries have committed to net zero pledges – notably India, which set a 2070 target during the conference – and these now cover 90% of global emissions. However, developing countries and civil society groups have called out many of these pledges, particularly those from Australia and Saudi Arabia, as a distraction because they lack credible policy detail. Developing countries have also argued that by delaying action until later in the century, such policies unfairly shift the burden of reducing emissions onto them.

“We are not equally responsible for the ambition gap,” said Bolivia’s chief negotiator, Diego Pacheco, who represents the Like-Minded Developing Countries (LMDC) Group. “Developed countries have overused their domestic carbon space, and now they are using the carbon space of developing countries.”

Farewell to fossil fuels?

To anyone outside the arcane processes of UN climate talks, it may seem inconceivable that fossil fuels had gone unmentioned in negotiated “cover texts” for decades.

“This process that we designed to make world governments take collective action on the climate crisis has had almost nothing to say about the predominant cause of the climate crisis, which is the production and combustion of fossil fuels,” said Catherine Abreu, executive director of Destination Zero.

Yet the inclusion of language on phasing down unabated coal power and phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies has been heralded as a significant victory. This is despite the fact that the coal agreement was watered down with the inclusion of the word “unabated” – meaning it won’t cover power plants that use technology to capture their carbon emissions. And then, in the final moments of the negotiations, coal “phase-out” was changed to “phase-down” at the insistence of India’s environment minister, Bhupender Yadav. The language on fossil fuel subsidies had already been weakened from an earlier draft, by the inclusion of the word “inefficient”, at the request of oil exporting nations and the US.

John Kerry, the US climate envoy, insisted the commitment to phase down coal did mark a turning point.

“Big countries that have been dependent on coal have signed on to phasing down. Now, does that mean it’s phased down? No, that’s the follow up. That’s the accountability. That’s the reporting,” he said.

Others were less sanguine, particularly on the language for fossil fuels. “We’ve seen it before. We’ve seen it in the G20 for 12 years… and we’ve seen no progress on eliminating those subsidies since we’ve had that language,” said Abreu.

Every dollar that we invest in fossil fuel projects, it is one less dollar for renewables or for the conservation of nature
Andrea Meza Murillo, minister of environment and energy of Costa Rica

Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace, described the language on fossil fuels as “weak and compromised but its very existence is nevertheless a breakthrough, and the focus on a just transition is essential”.

A key test of future climate talks will be whether they can more fully incorporate oil and gas. The Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA), which was launched last week by 10 national and subnational governments, provides one pathway forward for countries serious about delivering a managed and just transition away from oil and gas production, although countries with much larger production will need to join in the coming years if it’s to see any significant impact.

Danish climate minister Dan Jørgensen explained that if national climate policies are to be credible then all countries must rapidly work to agree a fossil fuel phase-out and end new exploration and production.

“How can you defend wanting to be carbon neutral in 2050, as some countries want, but still be wanting to produce oil and gas and selling it to others? That, in our view, does not add up,” he said.

Andrea Meza Murillo, minister of environment and energy of Costa Rica, emphasised that a managed phase-out of fossil fuels is essential to freeing up resources for the clean energy transition.

“Every dollar that we invest in fossil fuel projects, it is one less dollar for renewables or for the conservation of nature,” she said.

Renewed focus on adaptation and loss and damage

A major sticking point coming into the talks was the failure of developed countries to keep their 2009 promise to deliver US$100 billion of climate finance per year to developing countries by 2020. Developed countries have now promised to achieve this by 2023 but the situation has eroded trust and left them open to accusations of wilfully ignoring the disproportionate impacts of climate change on the countries least responsible for causing it.

The Glasgow Pact includes an agreement to at least double adaptation finance for developing countries by 2025. A two-year work programme was also agreed that should provide a path to increasing adaptation finance after 2025.

As Joydeep Gupta explains in his assessment of the final stages of the negotiations, developing countries were left disappointed because developed countries blocked attempts to provide a financial facility to deal with irreversible loss and damage caused by climate change.

The Marshall Islands said: “We have a text that does not have everything everyone wants, but it has extremely important elements that do serve the planet… We have much left to do.” (Image: UNclimatechange / Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The Marshall Islands said: “We have a text that does not have everything everyone wants, but it has extremely important elements that do serve the planet… We have much left to do.” (Image: UNclimatechange / Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Delegates from countries vulnerable to sea-level rise spoke powerfully at COP26. “The difference between 1.5C and 2C is a death sentence for us,” said the Maldives. “We accept the incremental steps taken in Glasgow, but the progress is not in line with what is required.” (Image: UNclimatechange / Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The Marshall Islands said: “We have a text that does not have everything everyone wants, but it has extremely important elements that do serve the planet… We have much left to do.” (Image: UNclimatechange / Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In a tweet, Mohamed Adow, director of energy and climate think tank Power Shift Africa expressed confidence that the discussion on loss and damage was far from over.

“It feels bad that we have nothing to show for the hard work the [vulnerable countries] put in, but loss and damage is now up the political agenda in a way it was never before and the only way out is for it to be eventually delivered,” he said.

John Kerry later defended the US position arguing that “we supported creating a facility. We supported loss and damage”. Whilst he stressed the need to address issues of liability and move forward carefully, he acknowledged that support was necessary.

“Obviously, an increase in resources ultimately is going to be necessary for people on the front lines. We think that can be delivered more efficiently, probably through some existing channels,” he said.

Earlier in the final week, Catherine Pettengell, director at Climate Action Network UK, accused the UK presidency of focusing too much on mitigation, squandering time in which it could have been pushing for positive action on loss and damage. “Over the last two years it has been very difficult to get the UK to engage on loss and damage finance,” she said.

Meeting the emergency

Few are satisfied with the agreement reached in Glasgow. For civil society and climate vulnerable countries, existing commitments on finance and support are insufficient and the pace of emission reductions by developed countries is simply too slow. “It is time to go into emergency mode or our chance of reaching net zero will itself be zero,” concluded Antonio Guterres.

But it is also the case that by the standards of UN climate talks, important progress has been made in Glasgow. The Paris rulebook has been finalised, providing a path forward for trading carbon emissions under Article 6, and COP26 has kept the focus squarely on strengthening commitments and action this decade. The China–US bilateral relationship on climate was also given a boost by a new joint declaration that’s entirely focused on ambition this decade.

“We always knew that Glasgow was not the finish line,” said Kerry. “And anybody who thought it was doesn’t understand the challenge that we have.”

This article was first published on China Dialogue, The Third Pole’s sister site.