COP26 scorecard: Summit leaves the heavy lifting for later

Yves Herman/Reuters
Delegates – including representatives of member states and observer organizations – gather during the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 13, 2021. COP26 is the third meeting of the parties to the 2015 Paris Agreement.

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The COP26 climate summit that ended over the weekend will likely be remembered for its setbacks as much as for its successes in charting humanity’s course to avert catastrophic planetary warming later this century.

The negotiations yielded little that moved the world on from the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement; this weekend’s Glasgow Agreement called on governments to set more ambitious targets for decarbonizing their economies next year.

Why We Wrote This

If the results of COP26 were underwhelming, they reflected the difficulties that the world is facing today when it is called on to pull together.

But on the sidelines of the conference, governments, businesses, and banks did launch a flurry of green initiatives – to cut emissions of methane, for example, combat deforestation, and focus investments more on climate-friendly projects.

These sorts of pledges “can boost momentum,” says Harjeet Singh of the Climate Action Network, even though he feels that “COP26 failed to respond to the urgency of acting on climate change.”

United Nations chief António Guterres was disappointed with the summit’s results too. In the end, he said, they simply reflected “the interests, the contradictions, and the state of political will in the world today.”

The United Nations climate change conference known as COP26 will likely be remembered for its setbacks as much as for its successes in charting a course for humanity to avert catastrophic planetary warming later this century.

A tussle over the compromise deal reached Saturday night in Glasgow was often bitter; it left representatives from some poor and vulnerable countries seething at the intransigence shown by richer countries on issues like compensation for the ravages of an unstable climate. An eleventh-hour dust-up about the future of coal only added to the disquiet.

Regretting that more had not been achieved, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres acknowledged that the final agreement “reflects the interests, the contradictions, and the state of political will in the world today.”

Why We Wrote This

If the results of COP26 were underwhelming, they reflected the difficulties that the world is facing today when it is called on to pull together.

But COP26 was also noteworthy for an unprecedented flurry of green initiatives on the sidelines of the main negotiations in a city once synonymous with heavy industry and pollution.

Pledges by governments, companies, and banks to cut emissions of methane, combat deforestation, move away from coal, and make greener investments offered potential models to build on; if they are indeed met, they should help to slow atmospheric warming. More countries also set 2050 as their target date to achieve net-zero carbon, meaning that any emissions after that date would be offset by technology. 

Alastair Grant/AP
Climate activists hold a demonstration through the venue of the COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 12, 2021. Negotiators from almost 200 nations were making a fresh push to reach agreements that would allow them to call this year's U.N. climate talks a success, and then added an extra day of talks.

 

Climate activists remain wary of headline-grabbing promises made outside the consensus-based U.N. process, which actually monitors actions. And some of the announcements at COP26 depend on progress on the very issues that bedeviled official negotiations, such as climate finance for adaptation. But their galvanizing effect on countries that are forging coalitions to clean up industry is positive, say analysts. 

The pledges were “a complement to, not a replacement for, multilateral negotiations,” says Bob Ward, director of policy at the Grantham Research Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics.

These sideline initiatives could prove helpful in lighting a path forward for countries that, under the Glasgow Agreement, will be asked again next year to set more ambitious targets for decarbonizing their economies, says Mr. Ward. Voluntary national pledges “are a floor to people to act. Once they start taking actions, they realize that they’re not as difficult or expensive as they seem.”

Yet as climate scientists pored over the promises made in Glasgow, doubts remain over whether the United States, the second largest emitter after China, will follow through. President Joe Biden came to COP26 promising decisive action while engaged in a drawn-out fight at home over passing legislation to support his climate agenda.

“For America to regain the trust of the world on climate, and persuade others to follow its lead, President Biden and Congress must build on the important, but initial, down payment in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and show that we are serious about delivering on our commitments,” Nathaniel Keohane, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a U.S. think tank, said in a statement.

Negotiations bog down

As host of the climate conference, the U.K. government had lined up major announcements in the first week of talks. These included a methane-reduction pledge by over 100 countries that the U.S. and European Union spearheaded, designed to cut emissions of the potent heat-trapping gas by 30% by 2030.

But the U.S. did not sign on to a U.K.-led statement by more than 40 countries promising to stop building new coal-fired power plants and phase out coal-fired electricity generation over the next few decades, with developing countries afforded a slower transition. A separate agreement would channel aid from the U.S. and European countries to South Africa’s electricity sector so it could replace polluting coal plants with renewable sources.

Daniel Leal/Reuters
Alok Sharma, Britain's president for COP26 and Conservative cabinet minister (left lectern), and Prime Minister Boris Johnson (right) hold a news conference following the the U.N. Climate Change Conference inside the Downing Street briefing room in central London, Nov. 14, 2021.

Another deal was announced on cooperation to halt the destruction of forests and peatlands that store vast amounts of carbon. Brazil and Indonesia were among the signatories, and rich countries pledged money to tackle wildfires and support Indigenous communities. Critics, though, pointed to similar initiatives at previous climate summits that failed to stop deforestation.

“You get these promises over and over again. But emissions are still going up,” says Kevin Conrad, a negotiator for Papua New Guinea.

By the second week, the COP26 negotiations had bogged down in disputes over emissions trading, climate finance, and the world’s failure to cut carbon emissions sufficiently to keep global warming this century to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Dueling texts with language changes passed between negotiating rooms, dragging the talks into an extra day.

Delegates eventually agreed on a road map for implementing the 2015 Paris accord, one that both reflects the increased certainty among scientists of the dire risk of overshooting 1.5 degrees and focuses on the main human activity that raises that risk: the burning of fossil fuels.

For the first time, a U.N. climate agreement called upon governments to “phase down” coal power and subsidies for fossil fuels. The language watered down earlier drafts after India and China balked at a call to “phase out” coal, on which their growing economies currently depend. But it marks a break with past reluctance to single out an industry that wields vast economic and political power, including in the U.S.

Rich countries also agreed to raise more climate finance and to direct a larger proportion toward helping developing countries adapt to a hotter world. They had broken their 2009 promise to provide $100 billion a year in loans and grants by 2020, as the agreement acknowledges, and a new target date was set for 2023.

Some failures, some “boosters”

But repeated demands by countries such as Bangladesh for compensation from the largest historic carbon emitters – a form of reparations – ran into stiff resistance, including from the U.S. Little progress was made on how this might work or how to assess any liabilities.

This represents a failure at a conference that paid repeated lip service to equity and justice but left hard-hit communities with nowhere to turn, says Harjeet Singh, senior adviser to Climate Action Network International, a campaign group. “COP26 failed to respond to the urgency of acting on climate change and helping people rebuild their ravaged homes and farms,” he complains.

Other activists slammed the Glasgow Agreement as a sellout to oil companies and others who profit from business as usual. “What we have witnessed here is another trade show for corporate and government schemes to evade real solutions that reduce emissions at the source, while they resist winding down fossil fuels,” Adrien Salazar, policy director of Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, said in a statement.

Still, Mr. Singh said that while some of the sideline announcements in Glasgow lacked teeth, others seemed encouraging, including an initiative led by Denmark and Costa Rica to phase out oil and gas production. “I would call these boosters. They can boost momentum,” he says.

The challenge will be to turn these boosters, and the formal COP26 agreement, into action at a pace that reflects the urgency of the crisis.

The Earth can take current CO2 emission rates for only about another 10 years before the 1.5 degrees target becomes impossible to meet. Blowing out our carbon budget would both exacerbate future warming and make the pathway to zero emissions even steeper, climate scientists warn.

The Glasgow Agreement expressed “alarm and utmost concern” that every region was already seeing the impacts of 1.1 degrees of warming as a result of human activities, adding that “carbon budgets consistent with achieving the Paris Agreement temperature goal are now small and being rapidly depleted.”

The world has a hard road ahead, Mr. Guterres warned the conference. “Success or failure is not an act of nature. It’s in our hands,” he said in a videotaped closing statement. But, he added, “the path of progress is not always a straight line.”

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