The first week of UN climate negotiations produced big pledges on coal and fossil fuel financing – but they face obstacles.
COP26 was touted as a “make or break'' moment for fighting climate change with scientists warning time is running out to prevent global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius. Nearly 30,000 delegates, journalists, civil society representatives and activists descended on Glasgow this week either to hash out deals or to hold their leaders to account.
If the main goal of the conference is to “keep 1.5 alive,” we look at some of the key issues discussed and ask whether pledges can help achieve that goal.
1.5 not alive and kicking
In order to keep the 1.5 goal alive, the UN said, the world should reach net zero emissions by 2050. According to the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries were due this year to submit their “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs), or their plans to cut carbon emissions. These are revised every five years and should be incrementally ambitious.
So far, experts say that goal remains out of reach.
New analysis looking at the climate pledges made at COP26 estimates they are more likely to limit global warming than the previous ones. According to one study published in the journal Science, the chances of reaching the 2 degree goal now stand at 34 percent, while the 1.5 goal remains a distant dream with only a 1.5 percent chance it will be fulfilled. Another number crunch by the University of Melbourne said global temperatures were likely to rise to 1.9 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
China, whose president Xi Jinping did not attend the leaders’ summit earlier this week, had previously announced a goal to reach net zero by 2060, while India’s prime minister Narendra Modi told the conference his country is looking to achieve net zero by 2070, a move some commentators have billed as “diplomatically necessary.”
The International Energy Agency (IEA) said the new pledges, alongside new commitments to slash methane emissions, could limit global warming to 1.8 degrees “if met in full and on time”.
“Ambitions count for little if they are not implemented successfully. Tracking and accountability will be critical to ensure countries and companies are following through on their promises,” wrote Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director.
Net zero was diplomatically necessary to avoid the laggard tag. But analysis said India could not rule out risking the anti-poverty agenda if we locked in a rapid (2050) low carbon transition. Then the oft used ‘China plus ten’ for India rule likely played into a 2070 decision— Navroz Dubash (@NavrozDubash) November 2, 2021
At the end of day one of the conference, the UK government announced that 127 countries had signed up to a deforestation pledge that commits to “halt[ing] and revers[ing] forest loss and land degradation” by the end of the decade. The pledge is backed by $19 billion in public and private funds to protect and restore forests. It was supported by countries that collectively account for 85 percent of the world’s forests including Indonesia, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But just a day after it was announced, one of its main signatories, Indonesia, said it didn’t actually sign up to “end deforestation” by 2030, as claimed by some headlines, and that the UK had misrepresented the pledge.
Indonesia’s environment minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said on Twitter that stopping development in the name of zero deforestation would go against the country’s social and economic goals.
Greenpeace criticised the pledge as “a green light for another decade of forest destruction,” as the deal is also not legally-binding.
“There’s a very good reason Bolsonaro felt comfortable signing on to this new deal,” said Carolina Pasquali, Greenpeace Brazil’s executive director.
“Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 9.5% in 2020, driven by Amazon destruction – the result of deliberate policy choices by the Bolsonaro government,” she said, adding that Brazil was unlikely to follow its pledge with policy.
“Indeed, [Bolsonaro] is currently trying to push through a legislative package that would accelerate forest loss.”
On day two of the conference, 105 countries signed up to the Global Methane Pledge. Led by the US and the European Union, it commits countries to cut back on emissions of greenhouse gas by 30 percent by 2030 compared to levels in 2020. Methane is the second most significant greenhouse gas in terms of impact on global warming, and it’s most harmful in the first twenty years after it reaches the atmosphere.
While the pledge is welcome, critics point out that following through with it will be a challenge as methane emissions have been vastly underreported.
Ending financing for fossil fuel projects abroad by 2022
This is arguably the most significant agreement that came out of the conference, and has been welcomed by campaigners and civil society groups as a step in the right direction.
More than 25 countries and international financial institutions have signed up to the pledge, including the UK, the US, Canada, Italy, a number of developing countries, and the European Investment Bank. They aim to “end new direct public support for the international unabated fossil fuel energy sector by the end of 2022, except in limited and clearly defined circumstances.”
“It's actually a groundbreaking announcement,” said Ipek Gencsu, a research fellow on climate and sustainability at the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI).
“It's the first time that countries have collaboratively committed to phasing out financing for all fossil fuels,” Gencsu says. “The announcement this week including oil and natural gas financing basically signals that it's also the beginning of the end for those.”
Gencsu points out that the current signatories of the agreement are responsible for at least $18 billion in public finance for oil, gas and coal every year. The agreement says that finance will be mobilised towards clean alternatives.
However, it remains non-binding, and critics have highlighted that large fossil fuel financiers like Japan and China did not sign up.
"With around 20 governments already on board, it is now vital that others sign up at these talks, including some of the largest funders of overseas coal, oil and gas who are notably absent,” said Oxfam's climate policy lead Nafkote Dabi.
“With this kind of commitments, there's always a time lag and there's always a lot of politics involved,” Gencsu comments, “we saw a similar process with coal.”
The agreement also allows for exceptions, while it targets “unabated” emissions – both of which need to be more clearly defined.
“It sets a precedent,” she adds, “that it's not just about coal and then making some vague announcements and commitments around climate goals. It's really very real that in the short term, we have to get serious about gas and oil as well.”
End of coal?
Consigning coal to history has been the UK government’s rallying cry for this COP. In the last few months, a flurry of announcements have come through about phasing out coal use, including one from China that it will stop financing coal power plants abroad.
On Wednesday night, it was announced that 190 countries and organisations had signed up to a commitment to end all new investment in coal-fired power. The plan would see coal phased out in major economies in the 2030s, and in the rest of the world by the 2040s. Signatories include coal-reliant economies such as Poland and Vietnam.
Major players including India, China and Australia did not sign up.
While this is another welcome announcement and an issue climate campaigners have spotlighted for years, they point out that promises will have to be translated into action. Some issues that need to be addressed in order to achieve those targets, they say, are not even on the agenda of the negotiations.
“All these commitments after these two weeks of negotiations will also mean nothing if there remains the possibility for transnational corporations to sue governments when governments finally take the rightful climate action,” Dorothy Guerrero, head of policy at the UK-based campaign group Global Justice Now, told TRT World from Glasgow.
Guerrero, whose family back in the Philippines was displaced twice by heavy rains and floods in the northern province of Bulacan, refers to the Energy Charter Treaty, a little-known international agreement that allows companies to sue governments for energy policy changes that could affect their future earnings.
A German energy company, RWE is suing the Netherlands for €1.4bn ($1.6bn) over its plans to phase out coal. The treaty protects €344.6bn ($398bn) of fossil fuel infrastructure in the EU, the UK and Switzerland.
Guerrero’s organisation is part of the COP26 Coalition of civil society groups and activists that will be marching through the Scottish city on Saturday, with rallies also expected across the UK and beyond.
“So on the one hand, there's all those very promising pledges and commitments inside the negotiations. But then outside you will have this reality that corporations, especially fossil fuel corporations, are still very, very powerful.”