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November 23, 2021
COP26: Keeping hope alive?

The United Kingdom hosted the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in partnership with Italy from October 31 to November 12, 2021.

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This year marked the 26th annual global climate summit, where world leaders come together to discuss and negotiate agreements to tackle climate change challenges.

“Back in 2015, at COP21, for the first time ever, something momentous happened: every country agreed to work together to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees and aim for 1.5 degrees, to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate and to make money available to deliver on these aims,” states COP26 Negotiations Explained, a summary document created from the conference.  

The main number, repeated again and again at this year’s conference, was 1.5 degrees.

Net-zero pledges are keeping hope alive that global warming can be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“A total of 49 countries plus the EU have pledged a net-zero target,” reports UNEP. “This covers over half of global domestic greenhouse gas emissions, over half of GDP and a third of the global population. Eleven targets are enshrined in law, covering 12 per cent of global emissions.

“If made robust and implemented fully, net-zero targets could shave an extra 0.5°C off global warming, bringing the predicted temperature rise down to 2.2°C.  However, many of the national climate plans delay action until after 2030, raising doubts over whether net-zero pledges can be delivered. Twelve G20 members have pledged a net-zero target, but they are still highly ambiguous. Action also needs to be frontloaded to make it in line with 2030 goals.”

“We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees alive. But its pulse is weak, and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action. I am grateful to the [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)] for working with us to deliver a successful COP26,” states COP26 President Alok Sharma in the conference summary document. “From here, we must now move forward together and deliver on the expectations set out in the Glasgow Climate Pact and close the vast gap which remains. Because as Prime Minister Mia Mottley told us at the start of this conference, for Barbados and other small island states, ‘two degrees is a death sentence.’ It is up to all of us to sustain our lodestar of keeping 1.5 degrees within reach and to continue our efforts to get finance flowing and boost adaptation. After the collective dedication which has delivered the Glasgow Climate Pact, our work here cannot be wasted.”

To have a chance at limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, worldwide emissions must decrease by at least 45% by 2030. This gives us only 9 years to change the trajectory that is currently predicted to rise 14% in that time frame, reports NPR.

Agreements reached

Under the Paris Agreement’s “ratchet mechanism,” countries are to submit new “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) every 5 years, with each new submission containing increasingly more ambitious emissions reduction pledges, Carbon Brief says.

NDCs

Approximately 151 countries “responded by submitting new or updated ‘nationally determined contributions’ (NDCs) to the UN – including China, just days before COP26 started,” Carbon Brief continues. “Others, including Algeria, Iran and India, had stopped short. India announced new targets at COP26 but has so far refused to formally submit them to the UN.”

“More than 100 countries signed a pledge at the summit to cut methane emissions 30% by 2030,” NPR says. “The potent greenhouse gas has 80 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide when first emitted into the atmosphere.  Another coalition of countries agreed to halt deforestation by 2030, including the heavily forested nations of Brazil and Russia.

“China, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, held firm to its plan allowing emissions to rise until 2030, eventually declining to net-zero by 2060.  But in a surprise announcement, the U.S. and China agreed to work together to ‘strengthen and accelerate climate action and cooperation’ in the near-term.”

“It's the first time China and the United States have stood up — the two biggest emitters in the world — and said, ‘We're going to work together to accelerate the reduction,’” U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry told NPR.

Moving to a faster track

“The key deliverable of COP26 has been to alter the pace and to accelerate the ambition-raising process to limit warming to 1.5C degrees, which requires drastic improvements in emission targets for 2030 in particular by major emitting countries,” urged a statement released by the government of Bangladesh for the presidency of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) following the conclusion of UNFCCC COP26 in Glasgow. “All countries are now requested to return in 2022 to ensure national climate targets (in Paris Agreement NDCs) are aligned with 1.5ºC, which is a life-or-death threshold for the most vulnerable. Ambition-raising to close the gap for 2030 will now be a continuous process with annual high-level ambition-raising round tables and a UN Secretary-General convened summit of world leaders in 2023.”

Rather than agreeing to continue raising the amount of emissions its country will cut, China was one of several delegations “that pushed back on that idea, urging that countries be given ‘space and time’ to decide on and implement their climate plans,” NPR adds. “In the end, the final agreement held as firmly as a consensus agreement can on speeding up progress, saying it ‘requests’ countries ‘revisit and strengthen’ their plans by 2022. Some climate experts say, while it's not binding, it at least keeps political pressure on major emitters in the near-term.”

Show me the money (or not)

The Paris Agreement created three core goals: adaptation, mitigation, and finance. As part of the adaptation goal, it was agreed that the impacts of climate change must be addressed, but this also requires money.

“Developing countries have become frustrated that this has not been progressed, which has been made more urgent with rapidly increasing changes to the climate, and the impacts already being acutely felt,” states COP26 Negotiations Explained.

Delegations from these countries stated they are suffering from a situation they did little to create and suggest that wealthier countries compensate them for those damages.

“At the summit, Scotland offered the first contribution for a loss and damage fund, two million pounds (approximately $2.7 million U.S.), a sign that many thought could pave the way for more nations to join in,” NPR says. “Developing nations argued, at the very least, a COP26 agreement could establish a fund, or ‘facility’ in [UN] jargon, with details to be worked out in the years to come. But, in negotiations, the idea ran into a brick wall. Wealthier countries, including the U.S., didn't support it.

“Instead, the final compromise is that discussions, named the ‘Glasgow dialogue,’ will begin between nations about how loss and damage funding might work.  Countries also agreed to provide more ‘technical assistance’ for loss and damage issues by supporting the Santiago Network, a UN entity created in 2019 to provide advice and guidance for developing countries to minimize damage from climate change.”

More than a decade ago, wealthy countries, including the United States, agreed to provide $100 billion to finance renewable energy and cleaner transportation projects, as well as climate impact projection projects such as seawalls.

“In 2019, countries hit about $80 billion in climate finance,” notes NPR. “Much of that funding came in the form of loans, instead of grants, which developing countries say further strains their climate efforts as they struggle to repay them.”

However, the majority of that funding has been utilized to reduce emissions, which has caused a lack of funds to prepare for future climate impacts.

“The U.S., Japan, Norway, Sweden and others announced new climate finance pledges this year, but the $100 billion goal is still elusive and likely won't be met until 2022 or 2023,” NPR continues. “That amount is also far below the need. A U.N. report estimates that funding for climate adaptation should be five to 10 times greater than what's being spent now.

“To help fill that gap, negotiators from a group of African nations tried to focus countries on a climate finance goal beyond $100 billion. In early drafts, the agreement included a number: at least $1.3 trillion annually by 2030, with half dedicated to adaptation projects.

“In the final compromise, countries agreed to begin a two-year work plan ending in 2024 to settle on how climate finance will ramp up to meet the needs of the most vulnerable nations in the future. In the meantime, developed countries agreed to collectively double funding for climate adaptation projects by 2025.”

"It is inexcusable that developed countries failed to meet their commitment to deliver $100 billion annually starting in 2020 even as they provide hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies for fossil fuels each year," says Ani Dasgupta, president of the World Resources Institute, in a statement.

The fossil fuel elephant in the room

By now, the writing on the wall is clear: Everyone knows that fossil fuels are the biggest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Global industry knows. Worldwide governments know.

Our reliance on fossil fuels permeates our entire human existence in developed countries.

“Demand for oil, coal and natural gas has skyrocketed world-wide in recent weeks as unusual weather conditions and resurgent economies emerging from the pandemic combine to create energy shortages from China to Brazil to the U.K.,” an October 17, 2021, Wall Street Journal article reports. “The situation has laid bare the fragility of global supplies as countries drive to pivot from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy, a shift many investors and governments are trying to accelerate amid concerns about climate change.”

“The transition figures to be challenging for years to come, energy executives and analysts say, due to a stark reality: While fossil fuel investment is falling, fossil fuels account for most energy—and green energy spending isn’t growing fast enough to fill the gap. … To meet global energy demand, as well as climate aspirations, investments in clean energy would need to grow from around $1.1 trillion this year to $3.4 trillion a year until 2030,” according to the International Energy Agency in The Wall Street Journal.

Still, with all the known facts regarding the connection between GHGs and fossil fuels, world leaders, particularly in coal- and oil-producing countries, strenuously object to any mention of phasing out these energy sources.

And, during COP26, many developing countries argued for the use of fossil fuels in making improvements in their countries.

"How can anyone expect that developing countries can make promises about phasing out fossil fuel and coal subsidies?" says Bhupender Yadav, India's cabinet minister for environment, forest, and climate change, according to NPR. "Developing countries still have to deal with their development agenda and poverty eradication."

Scientists say at least 60% of oil and gas reserves and 90% of coal reserves must remain underground by 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, NPR adds.

“As early drafts of the COP26 agreement were released, climate activists were thrilled to see that it urged countries to ‘accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels.’ In negotiations, the U.S. spoke out about ending subsidies for oil and gas at home,” NPR continues.

"That's the definition of insanity," Kerry says. "We're allowing [it] to feed the very problem we're here to try to cure.

“In later drafts, the language was tweaked to reference phasing out ‘unabated’ coal power and ‘inefficient’ subsidies. That opens the door for some coal power to remain, if its emissions are captured before reaching the atmosphere. … In a last-minute move, India sought to further weaken the wording by changing the ‘phase-out’ of coal to ‘phase-down.’ Other countries reluctantly conceded in order to prevent the entire agreement from falling apart.”

"It hurts deeply to see that bright spot dim," says Tina Stege, climate envoy from the Marshall Islands, in NPR. "We accept this change with the greatest reluctance. We do so only, and I really want to stress only, because there are critical elements of this package that people in my country need as a lifeline for their future."

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