COP26 Summary - Was it a Success?

COP26 Summary - Was it a Success?

COP26 finally concluded after months of debate and anticipation about whether this could be the climate conference that put the world back on track to tackle global warming. After being rescheduled twice due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the pressure to achieve a tangible outcome was high, both for the UNFCCC process and for the UK as hosts. The resulting agreement was forged in spite of disagreements, last-minute nerves about terminology, and three of the main leaders not being present in person. But was it a success or a failure? We take a look at some of the key takeaway messages to untangle the complexity of what was decided.

For more information on the UNFCCC and how the COP process works, please take a look at our primer blog post.

Key issues

1. Keeping the 1.5°C warming target alive

The most important post-COP question is whether the 1.5°C global warming limit from the Paris Agreement is still achievable. The answer is yes, barely. The IEA, UNEP, and Carbon Action Tracker concluded that if the net-zero pledges and 2030 commitments are upheld then we are on course for between 1.5°C and 1.8°C warming. The difficulty is going to be in ensuring countries stick to their pledges and enabling less developed countries to move away from coal use. It is still a global problem that requires a global solution, and although the US / China announcement that they are going to work together to cut emissions helped, there is still a sense that not all nations are equally committed yet.

 

2. Accelerating the COP process

One of the big successes of COP26 was gaining agreement from parties that they would submit Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) on an annual basis instead of at five yearly intervals. The original Paris Agreement required each of the 191 countries to set their own new and more ambitious NDC commitment towards reducing their national emissions every five years from 2020. This is a big win for the COP process as it ratchets up the pressure on the countries involved, and despite some reservations from China on submitting renewed NDCs in 2022, it did pass. This agreement is particularly important for keeping the COP process itself relevant and accelerating momentum in decarbonising. Again, it does rely on cooperation from the nations that agreed because NDCs are not legally binding, although their compliance with the framework is.

3. Action on coal

This proved to be the most contentious issue at COP, with key coal users such as China and India insisting on a last-minute amendment to the agreement text committing to ‘phase-down’ rather than ‘phase-out’ coal. This has been taken by many green campaigners to be a watering down of the agreement and reduced Alok Sharma to tears. It marks a significant change to the UNFCCC, however, as this is the first time that fossil fuels have been named as the main cause of excess carbon emissions, and the primary target for reducing emissions. With China’s commitment to reach peak coal before 2030, and an international finance deal to help South Africa move away from coal as a blueprint, there is only one direction of travel for coal and that is phasing out.

 

4. Article 6, carbon trading

This was one of the most obscure parts of the agreement but marks the first time that a framework for accounting for carbon deficits between countries has been agreed upon. This means that countries with carbon sinks can channel private finance to preserve and expand their carbon stores, and countries with less rich carbon sinks can offset some of their unavoidable emissions. There is undoubtedly going to be a need for further refinement of Article 6 but this is a positive first step towards attaching a monetary value to carbon.

5. Deforestation

The agreement on reversing deforestation was the earliest and least contentious result of COP26. More than 100 world leaders agreed to end and reverse deforestation by 2030, including those of Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia, covering 85% of the world’s forests. Indonesia did later question the agreement saying they could not halt deforestation at the expense of development. With deforestation rates in Brazil still rising, it remains to be seen whether this commitment is achievable, but the agreement will provide added scrutiny.

6. Methane

More than 100 countries signed up the global methane pledge, which is seen as a quick win for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The pledge aims to cut global methane emissions by 30% by 2030, which could play a significant role in reducing global warming. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases and is responsible for a third of current warming from human activities. It is seen as a lower priority than carbon dioxide because it does not persist in the atmosphere, however, but cutting emissions could buy us time to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.  

7. Finance

There were two streams of finance discussed at COP26, namely funding for mitigation, to enable developing countries to invest in technology to meet their NDC commitments, and funding for climate change adaptation (i.e. funding given to countries who are going to bear the brunt of climate change effects). To assist in climate change mitigation, wealthier nations committed to providing $100bn per year by 2020 as part of the Paris Agreement, but this target is still not being met. There is an expectation that it will be reached in 2022, but critics have said that $100bn a year should be the floor and not the ceiling for this funding. COP26 saw a doubling of mitigation finance commitments from the UK and Canada, and increased contributions from the US, Spain, and Japan.

There were specific commitments for adaptation funding from the US, Australia, and Norway. The wealthier nations were reluctant to include binding text regarding loss and damages related to climate change in the agreement, however, as this could run into trillions of dollars. It is expected that adaptation finance will need to be increased in future COP meetings.

What happens next?

The next COP will take place in Egypt in November 2022, and with the increased frequency of NDC submissions, the pressure will be mounting on governments to plan and deliver significant emissions reductions. Much of the Glasgow Climate Pact language is still erring on the vague side, with countries being encouraged to take action rather than being required. Considering that the IPCC estimate was for 4°C of warming prior to the Paris Agreement, and that now estimates have dropped to 1.8°C based on the Glasgow Climate Pact commitments, the process is working. But whether parties can stick to their commitments, and whether they can act quickly enough is going to determine the future outcome for humanity and the planet.

 

Overall whether this UNFCCC meeting was a success or not depends on your perspective. For green campaigners it was a disappointment due to the watering down of language within the agreement and how that will slow down action. Analysis from the green media seems to indicate that the outcome is mostly positive, and any dilution of the key commitments due to messaging is more a question of semantics rather than an indication of lack of compliance. Some politicians hailed the meeting as a success, although governments from developing nations were incensed at the lack of progress on securing climate finance. There can only be one direction of travel from here, however much the fossil fuel lobbyists tried to derail the process, and so far the COP process appears to be still working.

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