COP26 in Focus: Key Takeaways
This week’s news was replete with COP26 analyses as journalists dissected The Glasgow Climate Pact and tried to piece together what the summit means for the climate emergency.
A COP half full
With a series of promising agreements coming out of Glasgow’s COP26 on methane, deforestation, Chinese-American cooperation, and India’s net-zero emissions pledge, there was much to celebrate in terms of progress made towards global climate action. As put aptly by Christiana Figueres, “COP26 had to reset the pace of transformation to be commensurate with the increasing urgency we face... Compromise was inevitable. Yet still, COP increased the speed of action.” But is the pace we find ourselves at post-COP fast enough?
COP26 negotiations overran by a day, but culminated in all 197 countries signing The Glasgow Climate Pact; the most progressive international climate treaty since the Paris Agreement. The resulting document is the first international pact to mention the “phase-out” of fossil fuel subsidies. Save India’s objections, the pact would have also agreed to completely “phase-out” coal-fired power generation.
Notably, the pact included improvements on carbon accounting, which is essential to measure progress toward commitments. It also called for nations to return to COP27 in Cairo with more ambitious climate pledges and an annual check in on progress of each nations’ emissions commitments. Nevertheless, the pact’s climate financing commitment remained a sore spot. Wealthy countries have historically failed to fulfill their $100bn/per promise to fund developing countries’ emission cuts, and the pact remained unsuccessful in establishing a “damage and loss” fund for the countries worst affected by climate change.
The strength of the COP media spotlight was on display with France’s u-turn to join the declaration to end funding for coal projects abroad, after pressure from NGOs and French media. In another encouraging step, wealthy nations invested $8.4 billion for South Africa to close its coal plants and transition to a clean energy economy over the next five years.
1.5C Alive... but on life support
So was COP26 a success? Well, to quote one reporter, “COP26 has achieved more than expected but less than hoped.” This sentiment of mixed feelings seems to be shared by most involved.
Firstly, COP president Alok Sharma called the event a “fragile win” and apologized while holding back tears for the way the process unfolded, referring to India’s eleventh-hour change in wording from coal “phase-out” to coal “phase down.” Then the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in his closing speech, called the event “an important step but not enough,” adding that “1.5C was on life support.” He also had a message for all the youth, indigenous, and women leaders of the “climate action army,” calling on them to “Never give up. Never retreat. Keep pushing forward.”
COP26 did yield some progress; however, emissions did not get curbed anywhere near what is necessary. We need to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030 to reach 1.5C and avoid climate catastrophe, but aggregate greenhouse gas emission levels are estimated to be 14% above the 2010 level in 2030.
Dirty games at COP
When the news was filtering in that the COP26 agreements would not meet the 1.5C ambition of the Paris Agreement and would actually be closer to 2.4C, Mary Robinson, former Irish Prime Minister and leader of the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice, made an impassioned plea for countries to do more. She specifically pointed to Saudi Arabia, who she says is playing “dirty games” at COP, changing wording and removing any details about gender equality or human rights.
This experience was shared by Greenpeace observers who thought the Saudis were moving to cripple the COP26. At repeated COP’s, they have tried to manipulate language not to include 1.5C. While Saudi Arabia tried to spin it another way, claiming they saved the deal, their positions are in keeping with their ambition to increase daily oil output from 12 million barrels to 13 million barrels by 2027.
Countries doing it for themselves
With so many headline grabbing agreements at COP, some of the smaller-size treaties from maverick progressive countries went unnoticed.
One such treaty was the Denmark and Costa Rica-led Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA), which now has eight countries and regions worldwide and aims to set a 1.5C-aligned date for ending fossil fuel production. The BOGA is an essential alliance to reach the 1.5C goal, as we can only burn 42% of current oil reserves and 41% of gas reserves. Unfortunately, however, none of the large oil-producing nations have joined in signing this treaty.
Another was an agreement on green agricultural reforms through the Sustainable Agriculture Policy Action Agenda, for which 40 countries have signed up. The agenda means signatories will take urgent action to implement sustainable farming methods, which address 25% of global emissions. But again, unfortunately, the signatories account for only 10% of global agricultural emissions.
Business leaders took the bull (or highland cow) by the horns during COP26. Big announcements like the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) and the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) show that companies and their investors will continue to decarbonize with or without government policy.
GFANZ aligned financial services companies managing more than $130 Trillion (30% of all global assets) on a net zero carbon future. The announcement of the new ISSB will establish the global common language for measurement and accountability of climate commitments across the world.
And there was even more from the private sector:
Over 300 companies signed up to the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism, a promise from travel companies, hoteliers, and others to meet net zero by 2050 and half emissions by 2030.
Almost 40 companies representing $85 billion across their built environment portfolios signed up to the Net Zero Carbon Building Commitment, which pledges them to decarbonize their buildings to net zero by 2030.
Four of the world’s largest retail giants H&M Group, Ingka Group (IKEA), Kingfisher plc, and Walmart, joined forces to accelerate the retail sector’s decarbonization under the UN’s Race to Zero.
The Climate Pledge co-founded by the world’s third-largest company Amazon, commits the now over 100 signatories to regular carbon reporting, carbon elimination, and carbon offsetting to reach net zero by 2040, ten years ahead of the Paris Agreement.
However, as highlighted in Fast Company, commitments without accountability are meaningless. The coming wave of carbon disclosure mandates, the convergence of disclosure standards and cutting-edge carbon accounting technologies will go a long way towards solving this issue. My interview with Climate Action helps outline how companies can take full accountability - through reliable measurement.
Good COP, bad COP?
Ultimately, COP26 was a small step forward when a full-blown sprint was needed. Its commitments have understandably brought mixed feelings, especially given its pledges do not promise the sweeping changes necessary to ensure we remain at 1.5C. Nevertheless, considering pre-Paris warming was expected to be closer to 4.0C, it keeps our pursuit of 1.5C alive. This time next year, Cairo will host COP27. Time will tell whether it can fill in the gaps which COP26 missed.
As always, please comment, share, and subscribe. Also, here are a few other headlines that you may have missed:
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