The parade of announcements last week from world leaders, finance figures and climate diplomats at the COP26 summit culminated in a weekend parade of protesters through Glasgow, Scotland. The message from the thousands carrying placards around the venue of the meeting is one most insiders would agree with: The progress is still not enough to avoid catastrophe.
It’s the stark reality of the climate fight. As governments, businesses and money managers increase their ambitions to cut emissions, even taken at face value and assuming maximum follow-through, the pledges being made at COP26 don’t add up to temperatures that remain below the increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius enshrined in the Paris Agreement.
“Keeping 1.5 alive” has been an unofficial motto of this year’s climate talks. It appears to be an item on the checklist that will remain unfulfilled. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some progress. Here’s a recap of what has been achieved as the climate summit heads into its second and final week.
Stronger national goals will curb carbon
As part of the Paris Agreement, countries agreed in 2015 to set out higher pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions every five years. This “ratcheting” mechanism made it possible for every nation to tackle global warming at the pace that seemed feasible in light of domestic politics and economic development.
New national commitments made at COP26 showed progress. Analysis conducted by the Energy Transition Commission in the middle of the summit estimates that commitments countries made during and in the lead up to the conference could reduce annual emissions by 9 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year by 2030. That still leaves about 13 billion tons a year that would need to be cut further to keep the world aligned for 1.5 C of warming.
A big group moves against methane
For the first time, the Group of 20 agreed that methane emissions contributed significantly to global warming and acknowledged the need for reductions. At COP26, more than 100 countries signed up for the Global Methane Pledge aimed at cuts of 30% by 2030.
The pact, however, wasn’t signed by some of the world’s largest methane emitters, including Russia, China and India. It was also a collective goal, which means not every country would be needed to meet the 30% cut, allowing some to sign up without doing much.
And, in any case, the target itself is weaker than what’s needed. The Global Methane Assessment from the United Nations Environment Program found that a 45% reduction in methane emissions would be needed by 2030 to be on track for the 1.5 C goal.
A triumph for trees
The forest pledge proved to be more popular. Countries home to the world’s biggest forests, such as Brazil, Russia and Canada, all signed up to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. All told, countries with 85% of the world’s forests agreed to the goal and some $19 billion of funds were committed toward it.
But as is typical of large agenda-setting global pledges, small squabbles emerged. Indonesia stepped into controversy by saying it didn’t quite agree to “end deforestation by 2030.” Instead, it promised to keep the forest cover steady — meaning any trees cut down will be replaced.
More than two dozen countries also committed to more sustainable agricultural practices. Emissions from that sector are notoriously hard to measure and even harder to cut. Ten new nations, including India, joined a global pledge to protect 30% of the oceans in their territories by 2030, which took the list of countries backing the commitment to over 100.
Disappointment for the anti-coal agenda
COP26 President Alok Sharma set a goal for the summit to “consign coal to history.” The dirtiest fuel still makes up the largest share of global emissions. Pledges to phase out coal did not gather the kind of momentum that had been sought, falling short of getting two dozen countries behind it. The big wins included Vietnam, Chile and South Korea. The U.S. and China refused to join.
Complaints about the pledge came soon after. Indonesia said any phase out of coal power plants earlier than their contractual end date will only happen if it could access the right financing mechanism. Poland argued that it should be treated as a developing country and be allowed to phase out coal in 2040 and not 2030.
Climate finance gets a private sector boost
Among U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s priorities for COP26 was securing more cash to help speed the global energy transition. Coming into the talks, developed countries had for years failed to secure the annual $100 billion promised by rich nations.
While the public financing is seen to be crucial to unlock much larger private sums, at the summit there were positive signs that private money might be preparing to move on its own. Former Bank of England Gov. Mark Carney led the formation of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, bringing together asset managers from around the world with $130 trillion under management to accept the goal of zeroing-out emissions by 2050. Big questions remain on how such commitments can be measured and policed.
Unfinished business for carbon trading
Going into week two, negotiators will get serious about creating an international carbon market. If there’s an agreement on the details of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, the market could enable countries and companies to trade carbon offsets. That could unlock as much as $1 trillion in financing for developing countries, according to the International Emissions Trading Association.
Negotiations on this tricky subject have ended up in failure at previous COPs. This year might be different, in part because Brazil has softened its stance on some of the unresolved issues. But tensions are high going into final days, with the U.S. and the European Union lining up on clauses that could make a global consensus hard.
So where do things stand at the end of the first week at COP26? The International Energy Agency found that if all national net-zero pledges — including the surprise move from India for 2070 — came to pass, then the world could well be on the path to keeping warming below 1.8 C. That’s 0.3 C lower than the IEA’s assessment of pledges published in October, but also 0.3 C higher than the Paris Agreement’s stretch goal.
Perhaps the best summation of the talks so far comes from the prime minister who is playing host and, occasionally, channeling climate activist Greta Thunberg: “All those promises will be nothing but blah, blah, blah,” Johnson warned in his opening speech on Nov. 1. That is, of course, unless the goals that have emerged from the talks become real afterward.
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