COP26 signals phase-down of coal with increased ambition to keep 1.5 degrees alive

As world heads for 2.4 degrees of warming, diluted climate pact disappoints and pledges raise skepticism

Alok Sharma, president of COP26, shed tears at the end of the summit in disappointment of the resulting pact among nations. UK Government, Flickr
16 November 2021
16 November 2021

The 2021 U.N. Climate Change Summit, COP26, in Glasgow has raised both hopes and doubts that government and business leaders will deliver on pledges that could significantly reduce coal power and halt deforestation in order to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels this century.

The two-week event, which involved almost 200 countries and more than 40,000 registered participants, ended with a compromise agreement, the Glasgow Climate Pact, that – for the first time – calls on parties to phase “down” their use of unabated coal power and to phase out inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels.

In late-night negotiations over the weekend, India and other nations succeeded in diluting the language in the Pact’s text to prevent a complete phasing “out” of coal, which accounts for 46 percent of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. Vulnerable countries, in particular, disapproved of the amendment but endorsed the final language in order to preserve other aspects of the pact.

“May I just say to all delegates, I apologize for the way this process has unfolded and I’m deeply sorry,” COP26 President Alok Sharma said after the negotiations. “I also understand the deep disappointment. But I think, as you have noted, it is also vital that we protect this package.”

The Pact also stresses the urgency of enhanced ambition and action this decade. Nations are encouraged to increase their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement ahead of next year’s at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, whereas these plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions were formerly only expected to be updated by 2025.

Scientists say carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and to net zero by 2050, in order to achieve the 1.5-degree target. Human activities have already caused around 1.1 degrees of global warming.

Even with all the pledges made in Glasgow, global greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 will still be around twice as high as necessary for the 1.5-degree limit, according to the Climate Action Tracker monitoring tool. The world is heading for at least 2.4 degrees of warming it said in its annual global update, which was released at the conference.

COP26 Highlights:
Parties agree to phase down unabated coal power and end inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.
More than 140 countries agree to halt deforestation by 2030.
Over 100 governments aim to reduce methane emissions by at least 30 percent this decade.
More than USD 130 trillion in private capital is committed to net zero.
USD 1.7 billion is pledged for Indigenous Peoples and local communities.
Paris Rulebook is completed after six years of discussions.
China and the U.S. agree to cooperate on Paris Agreement goals.
India announces net zero emissions target by 2070.

Points for optimism

Tuntiak Katan, a leader of the Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA), spoke on forests at the summit. Karwai Tang/ UK Government
Tuntiak Katan, a leader of the Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA), spoke on forests at the summit. Karwai Tang/ UK Government

COP26 produced a slew of agreements that suggested a level of ambition unseen at previous summits. Coalitions of various sizes resolved to end deforestation by 2030, reduce methane emissions by at least 30 percent this decade, reduce coal power, scale up nature-based solutions, accelerate the shift to sustainable agriculture and land use and make zero-emission vehicles the norm by 2030 as part of the transition to clean energy.

After six years of negotiations, another achievement was the completion of the Paris Rulebook, a set of guidelines on how the Paris Agreement is implemented. Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which provides a framework for countries to exchange carbon credits through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as a mechanism to reduce emissions, was the outstanding piece of the Agreement awaiting consensus on how its ambiguous text will work in reality.

While the final agreement on this article was negotiated to help countries ensure ‘ecosystem integrity,’ avoid double counting of emissions reductions and safely channel funds from developed to developing countries, it also allows fossil fuel companies to continue offsetting their emissions – a disincentive for actually reducing emissions, which remains critical.

The summit also saw China and the U.S. – the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases – announce that they will boost cooperation on climate action in order to keep the goals of the Paris Agreement within reach.

Climate finance pledges lent some credence to the summit’s headline announcements, with more than USD 130 trillion in private capital committed to transforming the global economy to net zero emissions through the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, supported by over 450 companies.

However, low-income countries called on wealthy nations to honor previous commitments and compensate them for loss and damage from the effects of climate change. In 2009, the developed world announced a collective goal to mobilize USD 100 billion per year by 2020 to help poorer nations finance adaptation measures. This pledge is not expected to be met until 2023.

The promise by governments and donors to provide USD 1.7 billion to help protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities was a “welcome reprieve,” according to Omaira Bolaños, director of Latin America and gender justice programs at the Rights and Resources Initiative, who says community land rights have historically not been a priority of international climate financing institutions.

Less than 1 percent of total climate financing from the past decade has gone to land tenure and forest management projects led by Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants and local communities, despite research showing that forests legally owned and governed by communities exhibit lower rates of deforestation and store more carbon. Yet Bolaños views this funding, too, with caution.

“The language used in these pledges and the draft COP26 Glasgow agreement is non-binding, non-committal and absent of any clear action paths forward,” she says. “Without clear and actionable commitments by governments to follow human rights–based approaches to conservation and forest governance, the goal to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will stay out of reach.”

Ambitions for ecosystems

Climate strikers within the COP call for more concrete action from governments. Friends of the Earth International
Climate strikers within the COP call for more concrete action from governments. Friends of the Earth International

There has, however, been little praise of the summit’s outcomes and instead more demands that policymakers and business leaders fulfill their new and preexisting promises made on paper. In light of the new pact to end deforestation by 2030 – the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use – critics have been pointing to the failed New York Declaration on Forests, signed by countries in 2014 as a commitment to halve the loss of natural forests by the end of that decade.

“The assessments on the New York Declaration on Forests and the targets identified there show that none of them are on track to be achieved,” says Stephen Leonard, a climate lawyer and policy adviser specializing in forests and ecosystems. “So why would we expect to achieve a halting of deforestation by 2030? I’m fairly skeptical on this.”

More than 140 countries have so far endorsed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, accounting for almost 91 percent of the world’s forests, which serve as vital carbon sinks and biodiversity hotspots.

The Forests, Agriculture and Commodity Trade (FACT) roadmap was another key development, serving as a framework for uncoupling supply chains and deforestation, involving 28 producer and consumer countries that represent 75 percent of global trade in key commodities.

Another promising signal came during the World Leaders Summit, which brought together heads of state for the first two days of the summit, when the LEAF Coalition announced that it had exceeded its target of mobilizing USD 1 billion in private commitments to finance the reduction of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

Blah blah blah?

Fridays for Future protesters marched in the streets in Glasgow with some 100,000 other activists. Fraser Hamilton, Flickr
Fridays for Future protesters marched in the streets in Glasgow with some 100,000 other activists. Fraser Hamilton, Flickr

In the absence of consensus, coalitions of the willing also lacked key nations in the respective pledges. Only 11 national and subnational governments have signed on to the Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance, which seeks to phase out oil and gas production to align with the Paris Agreement goals. Some of the world’s biggest coal-dependent countries – including Australia, China, India and the U.S. – were missing from the coal agreement, while Australia, China, India and Russia abstained from joining the Global Methane Pledge.

Doubts have also been raised about President Joe Biden’s ability to deliver on U.S. pledges by enacting his USD 555 billion climate agenda in Congress. Democrat Joe Manchin, who holds a swing vote in the 50-50 Democrat-controlled Senate and represents the coal-reliant state of West Virginia, has blocked passage of Biden’s spending bill until now.

“Joe Manchin has kept the U.S. from being a useful contributor to the solution,” says Bill McKibben, a co-founder and senior advisor at the international climate campaign 350.org. “I’m not optimistic about stopping short of 1.5 degrees – the pledges have been modest at best, and the plans for implementation far more modest than that.”

While speeches and negotiations were taking place inside the COP, young people took to the streets of Glasgow to urge immediate action to address the climate crisis, joined by a wave of public support that brought about 100,000 protesters out to demonstrate.

 Disillusioned over the procrastination of government and business leaders, Fridays for Future leader Greta Thunberg – who boycotted the COP itself – lambasted the delegates for their “blah, blah, blah” response to climate change, while activists from YOUNGO, the Children and Youth Constituency to the UNFCCC, delivered to the COP Presidency a youth statement signed by 40,000 young people demanding change.

“Carbon dioxide emissions are forecasted to jump in 2021 by the second-biggest annual rise in history,” Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan youth activist, said in her speech at the summit. “So, I hope you can understand why many of the activists who are here in Glasgow, and millions of activists who could not be here, do not see the success that is being applauded within these halls.”


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