COP26: a step forward, but please don't call it historic

COP26, Glasgow - FINAL DAY

Marco Magrini

The Conference of Parties is finally over. During the concluding plenary assembly, China called on developed countries to fulfil their commitments, including provision of financial resources. The Marshall Islands reminded everyone that the very survival of their country is at stake. Saudi Arabia said societal progress should not be impeded by emissions reductions. The UK pledged to reassess the impact of fossil fuel subsidies. And the USA committed to drastically reducing emission levels.

Oops, sorry – those were statements from COP1 (Bonn, Germany, 1995), not from the Glasgow conference that just ended.

On Saturday, the plenary assembly of COP26 – with some customary drama in extra-time – managed to agree on the Glasgow Climate Pact while echoing the same divisions, the same hopes and worries, the same compromises and vetoes, of 26 years earlier.

The Glasgow summit has delivered, maybe more than many observers had predicted. Boris Johnson promptly hailed it 'A historic progress'. In a few words, the Scottish treaty urges countries to raise their emission-cutting ambitions; asks for a ‘coal phase-down’ (a rather weird phrase imposed by India) and for a phase-out of those fossil fuel subsidies that are ‘inefficient’ (another watering-down). It demands a doubling of adaptation finance after 2025.

The loss and damage chapter, the main focus of developing countries, which are bearing the brunt of climate change without being responsible for it, was basically adjourned to COP27 in Sharm-El-Sheik, Egypt.

Following six years of negotiations, COP26 has also managed to set out the long-awaited rulebook for the Paris Agreement’s Article 6 – the one that governs carbon markets. Most of the open issues, like double-counting, have been resolved, yet some remaining ambiguities leave room for companies and countries to game the market, as happened with the previous regime.

Among the summit’s accomplishments we can also include the flurry of multilateral agreements (very rarely including the highest polluting countries) on forests, methane emissions, fossil-fuel subsidies and electric cars. Only time will tell if they were marketing stunts, or whether they will bring concrete changes.

In the end, the 2021 Glasgow Climate Conference was certainly a step forward. But, please, don’t call it 'historic'.

In order to be historic, COP26 would have needed to address the elephant in the room – temperature rise. Instead, the mantra-like aspiration of ‘staying within reach of 1.5°C’ in mean temperature increase, has been largely missed – at least for now. Taking into account the effect of every country’s Nationally Determined Contribution, plus every multilateral agreement – all promises yet to be fulfilled – an expert analysis estimates that we are currently heading towards a scary 2.4°C world. Before COP27, it was 2.7°C.

‘It is an important step in the right direction,’ said US envoy John Kerry, ‘yet not in the right measure.’ The Glasgow Climate Pact includes the quantitative and temporal targets recommended by the IPCC’s scientists. Article 22 recognises that ‘limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, including reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 relative to the 2010 level.’ But, for now, that target appears like a distant dream – by that time, emissions are actually poised to grow.

‘At least we finally agreed on the IPCC’s findings,’ said Farhad Bakhtiar, a COP veteran now advising the Ugandan government, ‘and on the need to nearly halve emissions on a relatively small timeframe.’ The trouble is, the timeframe is narrow and, as the situation progresses, both urgency and costs are due to grow, maybe exponentially.

A paper recently published in the journal Nature, assessed the amount of fossil fuels that would need to be left in the ground to allow for a 50% probability of limiting warming to 1.5°C. ‘By 2050, we find that 58% of oil, 59% of fossil methane gas, and 89% of coal must remain unextracted,’ it reads. And that is just to hit a 50% chance of 1.5°C. Higher degrees of certainty would require ‘more carbon to stay in the ground’. This is something that oil executives, their army of lobbyists in Glasgow and of course, fossil fuel-rich countries, don’t want to hear.

The toughest decisions have been deferred, yet the 2030 deadline is closer than it seems. ‘Please remember that, for us, the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C is a death sentence,’ implored Aminath Shauna, the Maldives' minister for environment, moments before the Glasgow Climate Pact was gavelled. ‘We have only 98 months left to halve global emissions.’

Years and decades have been squandered in this UN-driven process of diplomacy and compromise. Now, just 98 months are left for the world to sail away from the toxic haven of fossil fuels.

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