COP26 Ends With Promises, But Not Nearly Enough Progress

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By Tina Gerhardt

The UN climate conference’s agreement acknowledges several key issues for the first time—but doesn’t do enough to address them.

As COP26 drew to a close with the Glasgow Climate Pact, a 10-page document, the results were… mixed. In many ways, its results signal a tale of two globes.

While delegates from the Global South lauded the inclusion of fossil fuels, they criticized the last-minute change, requested by India and supported by China and the United States, to water down the call for a phaseout of coal to a “phasedown.”

While the Global South hoped that the G20 nations, responsible for 80 percent of emissions, would make cuts, they didn’t—and nations whose pledges are not in line with the Glasgow Climate Pact, stipulating 45 percent cuts based on 2010 levels by 2030 to keep global warming below 1.5°C, will have to return to the table to submit more ambitious pledges next year.

While the Global South fought intensely for more funding to address the effects of climate change it is already experiencing, and funding starting in 2025 will be doubled, the Global North still has to pay the promised $200 billion per year that was to start in 2020 and run through 2025.

While the Global South fought for more funding and won acknowledgment of the “loss and damage” developing nations have already suffered, funding for loss and damage was not included.

The big picture is that the Global North still refuses to recognize the impact of its historical emissions and present-day climate change, which, combined, demand a phaseout of fossil fuels—but with a focus on global equity. That acknowledgment would mean leading the way with a fossil fuel phaseout and paying in full the pledged funds to aid developing nations both with adaptation and loss and damage—with an apology. COP26 did not deliver any of that, though it made some headway on key issues.

But because of the delay in substantial action on a global level, leaders now have to grapple simultaneously with two issues: preventing global temperatures from increasing, while addressing already ongoing and increasing damages unleashed by the climate crisis.

Here’s a closer look at what COP26 achieved—and didn’t.

EMISSIONS REDUCTIONS

The aim of COP26 was to keep the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5ºC alive. But COP26 President Alok Sharma himself conceded after the negotiations concluded that “we have kept 1.5 degrees within reach, but its pulse is weak.”

Heading into COP26, a report published by the United Nations Environmental Programme stated that nations were on track for global warming to increase to 2.7°C.

Current commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report released by Climate Action Tracker, will lead temperatures to rise to 2.4°C. So there is some progress, but not enough and not quickly enough. This decade is the one for action.

While the low commitments in terms of greenhouse gas emissions reductions were, well, a low, the Glasgow Climate Pacts calls for nations to put forward new commitments, called Nationally Determined Contributions in UN-speak, next year at COP27 in Egypt.

It bears repeating that the G20 nations are responsible for 80 percent of global emissions but only the reduction by 55 percent (based on 2010 levels) of the EU’s emissions by 2030 meets the targets put forward by both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Glasgow Climate Pact.

FOSSIL FUEL

The Glasgow Climate Pact marks the first time that fossil fuels are mentioned explicitly in a final declaration coming out of the UN climate negotiations. Specifically, the pact calls for “the phase-down of unabated coal power and the phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, recognizing the need for support towards a just transition.”

Still, while UN Secretary General António Guterres has called for “no new coal by 2021” and COP26 President Alok Sharma demanded that COP26 “consign coal to history,” the Glasgow Climate Pact merely calls for the phasedown, not phaseout, of coal. An agreement to phase out coal was signed, but of the five largest producers—China, India, the US, Australia and Indonesia—only Indonesia signed on. And the “unabated” modifier leaves the door open for carbon capture systems, which, critics argue, enable countries to keep polluting.

At a closing stocktaking, US Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry referred to subsidies as “the definition of insanity. We’re allowing to feed the very problem we’re here to try to cure. It doesn’t make sense.” But his statement does not mesh with US policies. US subsidies to the fossil fuel industry are roughly $20.5 billion per year, according to Oil Change International, with 20 percent going to coal and 80 percent to oil and natural gas. Global fossil fuel subsidies were $5.9 trillion or 6.8 percent of GDP in 2020, according to the International Monetary Fund.

If anyone doubts whether or not the movement to phase out fossil fuel subsidies can work, a recent article published by Bloomberg points out that the cost of developing oil and gas is now four to six times as much as developing renewables; a decade ago, the costs were equal.

But the industry is not going down without a fight. Global Witness pointed out that there were more fossil fuel lobbyists in attendance than the number of delegates from any single nation. Nnimmo Bassey, Nigerian environmental activist and former executive director of Friends of the Earth International, said in a press conference, “It’s like inviting the alcohol lobby to an Alcoholics Anonymous convention.”

FUNDING FOR DEVELOPING NATIONS

Developing nations have long been fighting for developed nations to pay up owed moneys and to increase future funding, in order to help developing countries address the impacts of the climate crisis they are already experiencing and have been for the past decade. In 2009, developed nations were promised $100 billion per year to be paid annually between 2020 and 2025. The complete funds have yet to materialize, and many representatives of developed nations called for full funding at COP26.

COP26 also saw a hard push for a return to a 50-50 split between mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation refers to actions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for example, phasing out fossil out fossil fuels and shifting to renewables. Adaptation refers to actions that respond to the effects of the climate crisis, such as drought or sea level rise, and aim to protect against future impacts. For sea level rise, these measures could include managed retreat or elevating islands.

Although the monies the developing nations are to receive are supposed to be balanced 50-50, mitigation currently receives 75 percent of funding and adaptation receives only 25 percent. But given that developing nations, such as low-lying islands or drought-stricken countries in sub-Saharan Africa, are already impacted, they need the adaptation funds now to ensure their very survival.

Developing nations also called on developed nations to double the amount of funding they allocate, as the climate change impacts and the costs affiliated with them continue to intensify. One success coming out of COP26 is that the Glasgow Climate Pact includes their demand for increasing funds, doubling them from 2019 levels starting in 2025.

LOSS AND DAMAGE

Equally important to developing nations was funding for “loss and damage.” Loss and damage refers to impacts of the climate emergency that are so severe that they cannot be prepared for or adapted to. In recent years, Global South countries have emphasized that because of historical inequities in emissions, Global North countries bear the vast share of the responsibility for climate change. Loss and damage funds, also considered climate reparations, would address this responsibility and need.

The G77 + China, an alliance of 134 developing nations, and the Alliance of Small Islands States (AOSIS), uniting 49 nations, pushed hard for the creation of a “loss and damage facility” that would provide funds to Global South nations.

On Friday, a group of foundations offered $3 million in start-up funds to support the Glasgow Loss and Damage Facility. While this is welcome, it is shameful that the Global North could not acknowledge responsibility and show leadership by implementing and funding the facility.

The United States has consistently been opposed to addressing loss and damage. In 2015, then–Climate Envoy Todd Stern said, “There’s one thing that we don’t accept, and we won’t accept in this agreement, which is the notion that there should be liability and compensation for loss and damage.” Also in 2015, then Secretary of State John Kerry stated, “We’re not against it. We’re in favor of framing it in a way that doesn’t create a legal remedy, because Congress will never buy into an agreement that has something like that…. the impact of it would be to kill the deal.”

At COP26, Climate Envoy Kerry repeated his opposition to loss and damage funding at a press briefing after the Glasgow Climate Pact was signed. The US and EU fear being exposed to future financial liabilities.

Laurence Tubiana, chief executive of the European Climate Foundation and one of the three lead architects of the Paris Agreement, said, “Since the Paris Agreement and the 1.5C IPCC report, we have seen the climate crisis effect every year on every continent. No country will be spared. We need to see more support for loss and damage, and not just for technical assistance, from countries but also nonstate actors. We have a responsibility here—especially as climate impacts worsen.”

By Saturday morning, the reference to the facility had disappeared from the text, and developing nations and aligned organizations and activists were furious.

Tasneem Essop, executive director of CAN International, said, “The latest draft text from COP26 is a clear betrayal by rich nations—the US, the EU and the UK—of vulnerable communities in poor countries. By blocking the AOSIS and G77 + China proposal, representing 6 billion people, on the creation of a Glasgow Loss and Damage Finance Facility rich countries have once again demonstrated their complete lack of solidarity and responsibility to protect those facing the worst of the climate impacts. We urge developing countries to act in the interest of their citizens and stand strong in the face of bullies.”

Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, said, “Vulnerable countries cannot afford to leave COP26 with this current version of the text on loss and damage. Whether Glasgow delivers a proper finance facility is how this summit will be judged by the world’s most vulnerable countries and the millions of people facing climate devastation.”

In the final Glasgow Climate Pact, the word “facility,” a mechanism to actually start funding, had been replaced with “dialogue.” Developing nations pushed back vehemently, insisting that they do not need more dialogue but action.

Adow stated: “On the latest draft text, loss and damage funding is missing. It’s not an accident. The rich world [doesn’t] want to pay up for the damage they’ve caused. It’s important that developing countries don’t fall into the trap of an endless dialogue.”

At the informal stocktaking plenary on Saturday, Guinea, representing the G77 + China, slammed the removal of the “facility” and the replacement of it with “dialogue.” The G77 + China stated that they will accept “dialogue” in the text with the understanding that setting up a facility is the end goal.

That so much funding is needed by developing nations to address the impacts of climate change should in and of itself be a wake-up call to developed nations, which are themselves starting to experience the impacts of climate change, manifest in fires, hurricanes and floods.

The UN climate negotiations work by consensus, and in the end all nations signed on to the Glasgow Climate Pact. There was indeed some movement, but not nearly enough, on emissions reductions and funding. The heel-dragging in terms of both ambitious emissions reductions and actions to phase out fossil fuels that would achieve that goal frustrated many but have also fueled continued activism. Activists outside the halls of COP26 pushed hard for action, with two large protests, each of which had a much larger turnout than anticipated. And a movement is afoot to focus on ending fossil fuel plants and subsidies. It spans the majority of the globe, and it will continue unabated.

This story originally appeared in The Nation and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.


Lead image courtesy of Unsplash.


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