COP26 in Glasgow Ends with Many Compromises and Little Ambition
The negotiations at the COP26 have eventually led to an agreement. However, world leaders have again missed the opportunity to commit to significantly cut emissions during the current decade and to reach climate neutrality by 2050.
By Elisa Calliari
Traduzione: Rossella Marsala
If we had to pinpoint a place and date where the problem of climate change began, it would be ‘Glasgow, 1769’. It was here that James Watt invented the coal-fired steam engine that started the industrial revolution and resulted in the consequent warming of the planet. And it is in Glasgow that the British prime minister Boris Johnson decided to host COP26, the twenty-sixth Climate Change Conference, which closed last Saturday at 10 pm with the now traditional one day delay.
The key objective of the Conference was to increase ambition in fighting climate change in terms of mitigation (cutting emissions) and adaptation (avoiding and minimizing negative impacts on people, the economy and ecosystems), while increasing the financial commitments of developed countries to accompany the transition towards low-carbon and resilient societies.
The Paris Agreement (2015) aims to keep the increase in global average temperature well below 2°C, doing everything possible to keep it to 1.5°C by the end of the century. To do so, urgent measures are needed: the global average temperature has increased by 1.1°C compared to the pre-industrial period, with devastating effects that we are already experiencing today.
The first week of COP26 was punctuated by a series of political commitments to reduce emissions, such as the one related to halting deforestation by 2030, cutting down methane emissions of 30% by 2030, or phasing out coal power. Some assessments released during the negotiations suggest that these measures, together with the commitment of some countries to reach the so-called ‘carbon neutrality’ around the second half of the century (i.e. a zero balance between the gases emitted into the atmosphere and those we manage to remove), could reduce the temperature increase to 1.8°C by 2100. But there are two problems. The first is that the pledges on deforestation, natural gas, and coal are commitments made outside of the mechanisms of the Paris Agreement, and thus voluntary and non-monitorable. When considering, instead, the climate action plans under the Paris Agreement (the so-called ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’) that almost all states submitted before COP26, the aggregate effect of emission cuts would result in a more worrisome 2.4°C increase.
The second problem is that in both cases they are a long way from the +1.5°C target that would avoid the greatest risks of global warming. To increase ambition, the Glasgow Climate Pact adopted at COP26 requires states to submit stronger climate action plans by 2022, to assess their aggregate effect annually (so to correct course, if needed), and urges them to accelerate the use of renewable energy sources, to gradually reduce the use of coal as an energy source and to eliminate ‘inefficient’ fossil fuel subsidies. The latter is an important political signal because no COP decision has ever mentioned – and sanctioned – fossil fuels before. However, the language remains weak because it leaves room for some countries, such as India, to continue subsidizing fossil fuels based on unspecified efficiency criteria. Instead, a key mitigation achievement was the definition of the final rules for international carbon markets, which allow for trading emission reduction results between states, and which had been dragging on since 2018.
The Glasgow Climate Pact recognizes the centrality of adaptation and calls on developed countries to more than double the funding granted to developing countries, recognizing that most of the financial resources (whose volumes are still largely insufficient) are still directed to mitigation projects. On climate finance, more generally, important steps were taken for the definition of a new collective goal for 2025, aimed at going beyond the current goal of mobilizing 100 billion dollars per year for developing countries until 2020 – which was anyway systematically unmet. Finally, a particularly important and controversial issue was that of loss and damage, i.e., the impacts of climate change which is impossible or too costly, both in human and material terms, to adapt to. This is one of the most divisive issues among states, because it has historically been linked to demands for financial compensation from the most vulnerable countries.
In their closing speeches, all countries emphasized that they were not fully satisfied with the Glasgow agreement, that it could and should have been more ambitious, and complained about the lack of transparency and inclusivity in the process led by the British presidency. They described it as a necessary compromise. The IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Sixth Assessment Report on the Physical and Scientific Basis of Climate Change, published in August and mentioned by the Glasgow Climate Pact, was labelled a ‘code red for humanity’. A warning of how compromises, which are so necessary in politics, might become meaningless in the face of the climate crisis we are confronting.