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COP26 summit opens as ‘our last best hope’ to address climate change

Countries commit to ending deforestation by 2030, pledge more finance

Sir David Attenborough speaks at the Opening Ceremony of COP26 in Glasgow. Karwai Tang, UK Government
2 November 2021
David Henry
2 November 2021
David Henry

Around 120 world leaders at the UN climate summit COP26 in Glasgow have unveiled their latest commitments to a more sustainable future, with most pledging to end deforestation this decade and cut their methane emissions in order to help meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius this century.

More than 100 countries backed the deforestation declaration, accounting for about 86 percent of the world’s forests, which serve as vital carbon sinks and biodiversity hotspots. Brazil – home to the Amazon rainforest – will be among the signatories, along with Canada, China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and the U.S. Almost USD 20 billion in public and private funds was earmarked for this purpose.

In his speech, President Joe Biden announced a global pledge to reduce methane emissions by at least 30 percent this decade. A coalition of more than 90 governments, led by the U.S. and the E.U., aims to stem emissions of the second-most-abundant greenhouse gas from landfills, agriculture, livestock, and oil and gas drilling. China, India and Russia have not signed on to the agreement.

Postponed last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) began shortly after the release of a report showing that the world is on track for a 2.7 degrees Celsius increase in global temperatures by 2100, well above the 1.5-degree limit that scientists recognize as key to preventing dangerous warming.

This prompted many leaders to call for COP26 to focus on mechanisms for the implementation of commitments and to break previous patterns of ambition without concrete action.

Nature-based solutions, which seek to mitigate and adapt to climate change by harnessing the benefits of ecosystems and landscapes, were also given more attention than in past COPs.

“The rapidly changing climate is sounding an alarm to the world to step up on adaptation, to address loss and damage, and to keep 1.5 (degrees) alive,” COP26 President Alok Sharma of the U.K. said in the opening plenary. “And we know that this COP – COP26 – is our last, best hope to keep 1.5 in reach.”

U.S. President Joe Biden and Mohammad Shtayyeh, Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, at a COP 26 opening reception in Glasgow. COP26
U.S. President Joe Biden and Mohammad Shtayyeh, Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, at a COP 26 opening reception in Glasgow. COP26

Net-zero emissions

Leaders arrived at the Scottish Event Campus, where the summit was held, under pressure to announce firmer plans to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and to unveil more ambitious pathways to reducing greenhouse gases this decade. Several key participants, such as Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, did not attend the summit in person.

India, the fourth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, announced plans to reach net-zero emissions by 2070, which is 10 years later than China’s target of 2060 and 20 years after that of the U.S. Prime Minister Narendra Modi included a pledge that India would generate 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 and reduce total projected carbon emissions by 1 billion tons by the end of this decade.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and António Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN at the World Leaders Summit. COP26
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and António Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN at the World Leaders Summit. COP26

Weak commitments

Before COP26 began, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the U.K. – which is hosting the event in partnership with Italy – expressed doubt that the summit would be a success due to weak commitments from world leaders at the G20 meeting in Rome on the weekend.

Only 12 members of the G20 nations – which together account for 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions – had promised to reach net-zero by 2050, and barely half of the group had submitted improved plans on how to cut carbon emissions since the Paris Agreement in 2015, he said.

The opening plenary on 31 October featured speeches from COP25 President Carolina Schmidt of Chile, COP26 President Sharma, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa, IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee, UN General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid and Indigenous people’s representative India Logan-Riley.

Prime Minister Johnson later opened the COP26 World Leaders Summit, where national statements were delivered by heads of state and government over the following two days.

“Our addiction to fossil fuels is pushing humanity to the brink,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in his address.We face a stark choice:  Either we stop it – or it stops us. It’s time to say: enough.”

The failure to find consensus among wealthy nations has highlighted the inequities of climate change, which affects the developing world disproportionately in the form of droughts, food and water scarcity, disease, rising sea levels and other impacts. A range of participants from the Global South took the podium to plead for immediate action.

“Sub-Saharan Africans are responsible for just half a percent of historical emissions; the children are responsible for none but they are bearing the brunt. We are the adults on the Earth right now and it is our responsibility to ensure that the children have food and water,” Elizabeth Wanjiru Wathuti, a youth climate activist from Kenya and founder of the Green Generation Initiative, said in her speech to world leaders.

Some 20,000 people and 120 world leaders have convened in Glasgow for the summit. COP26
Some 20,000 people and 120 world leaders have convened in Glasgow for the summit. COP26

Climate finance

A key failure discussed at the summit involved climate finance for developing countries and the unfulfilled goal of mobilizing USD 100 billion per year by 2020 to help vulnerable nations mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. Almost USD 80 billion had been provided by the end of 2019, and the target sum probably won’t be reached until 2023, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The COP26 presidency has asked Canada and Germany to lead the drive to reach this target, supported by new announcements of funding at the summit. These included a USD 3 billion package of guarantees to the World Bank and African Development Bank for climate-related projects in India; GBP 3 billion from the U.K. government for green financing over five years; and more than GBP 210 million from the Private Infrastructure Development Group for green projects in five developing countries.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said his government would increase its climate funding by 50 percent by 2025, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for the introduction of global carbon pricing and announced a new partnership with South Africa to help the country reduce its dependence on coal.

Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley told COP 26 participants that the world’s central banks had engaged in USD 25 trillion of ‘quantitative easing’ – the purchasing of bonds and other financial assets to release money for economic stimulus – over the past 13 years. This figure dwarfs the required annual increase of USD 500 billion in sustainable investments over 20 years to finance the transition to a greener future, she said.

“If working apart we are powerful enough to destabilize our planet, surely working together we are powerful enough to save it,” Sir David Attenborough said in a rousing speech. “In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed a terrible decline. In yours, you could and should witness a wonderful recovery. That desperate hope – ladies and gentlemen, delegates, excellency – is why the world is looking to you and why you are here.”

*COP 26 runs for two weeks and will conclude on 12 November.


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