The 26th United Nations Climate Change conference, a year delayed due to COVID and overrunning by a day, finally wound up with world leaders agreeing on a deal. Consensus means compromise, of course, and many are disappointed with what they see as the watering down, or outright omission, of key policies required to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.
We have a punchy sounding ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’, which calls on all nations to set new climate targets by the end of next year and phase down unabated fossil fuel usage and inefficient subsidies, but was the COP a success, or “a monumental failure”, as one Pacific Island delegate put it? Where Copenhagen COP15 was considered an utter let down, and Paris COP21 somewhat of a gamechanger, perhaps Glasgow COP26 sits somewhere in the middle. Perhaps expectations were unrealistically high, when vested interests run so deep. Is it down to individuals and communities, or must we look to business? The answer isn’t black or white, of course – unlike climate science, where there is no room for simply ‘making progress’ or ‘a step in the right direction’.
Many were rather pleased with a line about fossil fuels, stating that ’unabated’ coal power should be phased down as a priority and that ’inefficient subsidies’ for all fossil fuels should be removed. No specified dates were mentioned, and the original ‘phase out’ was amended after objections from China and India. It is hard to believe, but since the Kyoto protocol was signed in 1997 no COP decision has ever made a direct reference to phasing out fossil fuels. There were also positive announcements on forests, methane and clean technology. An unexpected agreement between the US and China to work together on cutting emissions has been broadly welcomed by leaders and climate experts. Other notable highlights include:
Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) are non-binding national plans highlighting climate actions, including emission reduction targets, policies, and mitigation measures governments aim to implement to achieve the global targets set out in the Paris Agreement. Current NDCs are inadequate to limit temperature rises to 1.5C, and according to analysis published during the talks would lead to a disastrous 2.4C of heating. It is a relief that countries have been asked to “revisit and strengthen” 2030 climate targets by the end of 2022. This new ’ratcheting mechanism’ will enable the public and other nations to scrutinise slow movers on climate action. The UK had already updated its NDC after exiting the European Union, targeting a 68% reduction in emissions by 2030.
Climate finance refers to local, national or transnational financing (drawn from public, private and alternative sources of financing) that seeks to support mitigation and adaptation actions to address climate change. Rich countries agreed in 2009 that poor countries would receive at least $100bn (£75bn) a year from 2020, from public and private sources, to help them cut emissions and cope with the impacts of the climate crisis. However, by 2019, only $80bn flowed – most of this going to emissions-cutting, profit-generating projects in middle income countries such as renewable energy schemes. The poorest countries, who need money to adapt to the impact of extreme weather, struggled to obtain any funding at all. In the end, the COP26 text agreed to double the proportion of climate finance going to adaptation.
Loss and damage refers to climate-induced impacts that are too destructive for countries to prevent or adapt to them – hurricanes and cyclones, for instance, or the inundation of low-lying areas by storm surges. 135 developing and emerging economies, including China, proposed a Loss and Damage finance facility, but this was watered-down by the US and EU. Such a facility would see developed nations offer compensation for certain climate impacts. Some African nations already see 10% of GDP equivalent spent on adaptation and damage repair annually. At the last COP, a database and communications and reporting system called the Santiago Network was established, but no funding mechanism for loss and damage. The issue will undoubtedly return to the talks next year.
Article 6 of the Paris Agreement is the section pertaining to carbon markets and how emissions reductions under NDCs can and should be accounted for. There was hope that Madrid COP25 would provide the missing piece on international carbon markets (the rule book for Article 6), but it didn’t. Glasgow also disappointed, however, in approving the Glasgow Climate Package, world leaders have made some key resolutions on Article 6. The final text states that ‘internationally transferred mitigation outcomes’ (i.e. carbon offsetting) should rely on ‘real, verified and additional’ emissions removal taking place from 2021 onward. There is a requirement for co-benefits in terms of adaptation and the economy, and for nations to put at least 5% of the proceeds into adaptation. Plans for a potential two-tier system, and to transfer existing forest credits into Article 6, were deleted from drafts, in a move welcomed by green groups.
COP26 proved the Paris Agreement is still alive, even if not kicking. Since its inception, the world has moved from a near -4C warming trajectory to a near 2C threshold of the ambition set back in 2015.
There is hope. However, if we take the foot off the gas (or to the contrary, unless it is an EV!) and allow world leaders to think COP26 was a success and ‘progress’ is sufficient, our future is in peril. There is no way to cherry coat it. If we hurtle past 2C, the consequences are unthinkable
While the finance and adaptation gaps represent a glaring injustice for the developing world, the emissions gap remains a devastating threat. To reach 1.5C it requires a 7% reduction in emissions each year. The same cut we had in 2020 during the pandemic. Promises ring hollow when the fossil fuels industry still receives trillions in subsidies or when countries are still building coal plants. If governments will not take the action required, we must hope that businesses will continue to step up to the plate.
Interestingly, one outcome of COP26 is a new UN-backed body being established to expose greenwash from companies pledging to cut emissions without credible – or any – plans to meet them. The body will propose clear standards to measure and analyse net zero commitments. Targets are great, but it’s meaningful action that matters. At Alfa Energy Group we will continue to support each and every one of our clients to achieve both.
To find out more about our net zero and wider sustainability solutions, visit: https://alfaenergygroup.com/uk/services/sustainability-consulting/