Copping out at CoP26
The 26th Conference of Parties (CoP26) ended in grave disappointment at the state delegations who weakened the commitments needed to save the planet from multiple climate disasters. This CoP, the supreme governing body of international agreements on climate change action, finally took place in Glasgow, Scotland, on 31 October–13 November 2021, after being delayed by one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The most egregious offenders at this CoP were the representatives of the big coal-burning economies of China, India and Australia, as well as the oil- and gas-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates and their oil-and-gas industry lobbyists, the largest contingent at CoP26.
Amid slow progress and after extending the CoP26 climate negotiations an extra day, 197 countries adopted an outcome document that, “reflects the interests, the contradictions, and the state of political will in the world today,” according to the UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
Guterres added, “It is an important step, but is not enough. We must accelerate climate action to keep alive the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees,” calling this time to go into ‘emergency mode.’
Ending fossil-fuel subsidies, phasing out coal, putting a high price on carbon, protecting vulnerable communities, and delivering the $100 billion climate-finance commitment were among the CoP26 achievements that states failed to deliver.
Holding back tears, CoP26 President Alok Sharma (UK) apologized for “the way the process has unfolded,” acknowledging that some delegations would be “deeply disappointed” at the weak language of the final agreement.
Also offering a positive spin on the CoP26 outcomes, Mr. Guterres told young people, indigenous communities, women leaders and all those leading the charge on climate action: “I know you are disappointed, but the path of progress is not always a straight line. Sometimes there are detours. Sometimes there are ditches. But I know we can get there. We are in the fight of our lives, and this fight must be won. Never give up. Never retreat. Keep pushing forward.”
What Was A greed?
Under the UK presidency and with the support of the UNFCCC Secretariat, delegates reached agreements that strengthen ambition in the three pillars of collective climate action: adaptation, mitigation and finance. The outcome document, known as the Glasgow Climate Pact, calls on the 197 country parties to report their progress toward more climate ambition next year, at CoP27, set to take place in Egypt.
In the meantime, the package finally adopted is a global compromise that reflects a delicate balance among the interests and aspirations of the diverse parties. The wide-ranging set of decisions, resolutions and statements that make up the outcome of CoP26, politely asked governments to:
Adapt by adhering to a work program to define the global adaptation goal and identify collective needs and solutions to the climate crisis already affecting many countries. The Santiago Network, formed at CoP25 under Chile’s presidency, was further strengthened by elaborating its functions to catalyze the technical assistance of relevant organizations, bodies, networks and experts to avert, minimize and restore loss and damage in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change (Decision 2/CMA.2, para. 43) [no AR]. And the group of countries that ratified the Paris Agreement (CMA) approved the two registries for nationally determine contributions (NDCs) and Adaptation Communications, which serve as channels for information flowing toward the Global Stocktaking that is to take place every five years, starting in 2023.
US climate envoy John Kerry called the Glasgow text “a powerful statement” and assured delegates that his country would engage constructively in a dialogue on loss and damage and adaptation, two of issues that proved most difficult for the negotiators to agree upon.
Mitigate climate change updating their plans with tighter deadlines to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GGE). However, in a last-minute change to the pact, China and India degraded language in an earlier draft about “the phase-out of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels.” As adopted, that language was revised to only “phase down” (only reduce) coal extraction and use.
Finance climate-change action: On the sensitive question of financing from developed countries in support of climate action in developing countries, the Glasgow text emphasizes the need to mobilize climate finance “from all sources to reach the level needed to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, including significantly increasing support for developing-country Parties, beyond US$100 billion per year.”
1.5 Degrees, but with ‘a weak pulse’
With every announcement made during the conference, participants and observers expected that the implementation “plans and the fine print” would follow. Meanwhile, COP26 President Alok Sharma stated that delegations could say “with credibility” that they have kept 1.5 degrees within reach, “but its pulse is weak.” Barbadan Prime Minister Mia Mottley said that, for Barbados and other small island states, “two degrees is a death sentence.” Sharma explained to delegates that the goal of keeping the level of global warning within 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit (≈2 Celsius) would survive only if governments kept their promises.
The ‘Least Worst’ Outcome
Early in CoP26, during the conference`s final stocktaking plenary, many countries lamented that the package of agreed decisions was not enough. Some called it disappointing, but overall, said they recognized it was balanced for what could be agreed at this moment in time and given their differences. Nigeria, Palau, The Philippines, Chile and Turkey acquiesced, saying that, despite the many imperfections, they broadly supported the text.
Maldives’ top negotiator reflected: “It is (an) incremental step forward, but not in line with the progress needed. It will be too late for the Maldives. This deal does not bring hope to our hearts.” New Zealand’s head negotiator said “The text represents the ‘least worst’ outcome.” In other pesoptimistic words, it could have been worse.
Other CoP26 Achievements
Beyond the political negotiations and the Leaders’ Summit, CoP26 convened some 50,000 participants online and in-person to share innovative ideas, solutions, attend cultural events and build partnerships and coalitions.
One of the most-encouraging developments was that leaders from over 120 countries, representing about 90% of the world’s forests, pledged to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030, the end date for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The United States and the European Union initiated a pledge to curb methane gas emissions by 2030, to which more than 100 countries agreed.
More than 40 countries, including such major coal users as Poland, Vietnam and Chile, agreed to shift away from coal, one of the biggest generators of CO2 emissions.
Private-sector representatives actively participated also, with nearly 500 global financial services firms agreeing to align $130 trillion (i.e., ≈40% of the world’s financial assets) – with the Paris Agreement’s goals, including limiting global warming to the ideal 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Meanwhile, the United States and China surprised many with a joint pledge to boost climate cooperation over the next decade. In their declaration, the two rival states announced they had agreed to take steps on a range of issues, including methane emissions, transition to clean energy and decarbonization. They also reiterated their commitment to keep the 1.5C goal alive.
Regarding green transport, more than 100 national governments, cities, states and major car companies signed the Glasgow Declaration on Zero-Emission Cars and Vans to end the sale of internal combustion engines by 2035 in leading markets, and by 2040 worldwide. At least 13 nations also committed to end the sale of fossil fuel powered heavy duty vehicles by 2040.
Many other encouraging commitments emerged, including one by 11 countries to create the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA). Ireland, France, Denmark, and Costa Rica joined others, as well as some subnational governments, to launch this unprecedented alliance to set an end date for national oil and gas exploration and extraction.
A How Far We’ve Come, So Far Yet to Go
In 1992, the HIC delegation contributed to the UN-organized the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro, in which the original UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted. In that treaty, states, nations and peoples agreed to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere” and to prevent destructive human activity that interferes with the climate system. Today, that treaty has 197 ratifying parties.
After the UNFCCC entered into force in 1994, the UN has been convening almost every country on earth for global CoPs, every year. At this point, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa, concluded that “Negotiations are never easy…this is the nature of consensus and multilateralism.” Civil society has discovered that such compromises—sometimes at our peril—are among the hazardous outcomes of multi-stakeholderism that treats all parties with equal weight, including those with divergent public, plural and private interests. For some at CoP26, the negotiations were a matter of and death. Other, more-powerful parties were there to give new meaning to the expression ‘copping out.’
Photo: Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (standing near left), and Alok Sharma President for CoP26 (seated center), at the closing of the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Source: UN News.