COP26 Was Not the Success It Could Have Been
Despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s speech following the conclusion of Climate COP26, it has not been a “truly historic achievement” and the Glasgow Climate Pact is certainly not a “game-changing agreement”. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres noted of COP26: “It’s an important step, but it’s not enough. It’s time to go into emergency mode.”
Prof. Johan Rockström gave a very useful update to government representatives at COP26, highlighting 10 new insights in climate science:
- Stabilizing at 1.5°C warming is still possible, but immediate and drastic global action is required.
- Rapid growth in methane and nitrous oxide emissions put us on track for 2.7°C warming.
- Megafires – climate change forces fire extremes to reach new dimensions with extreme impacts.
- Climate tipping elements incur high-impact risks.
- Global climate action must be just.
- Supporting household behaviour changes is a crucial but often overlooked opportunity for climate action.
- Political challenges impede the effectiveness of carbon pricing.
- Nature-based solutions are critical for the pathway to Paris – but look at the fine print.
- Building resilience of marine ecosystems is achievable by climate-adapted conservation and management, and global stewardship.
- Costs of climate change mitigation can be justified by the multiple immediate benefits to the health of humans and nature.
In 2015, the Paris Climate Agreement set the ambition to keep global warming to 1.5°C and well below 2°C. Analysis by the Climate Action Tracker suggests that real world action is currently taking us to a world that is 2.7°C warmer, but with the new targets and pledges to 2.1°C, and if we are being really optimistic and governments deliver on all their pledges and agreements to 1.8°C warming. The Earth has already warmed by 1.2°C.
For illustration, a 2°C warming will mean 1 billion people living in potentially fatal heat and humidity conditions, and the IPCC report notes that: “Coral reefs would decline by 70-90 percent with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all (> 99 percent) would be lost with 2°C.”
The two weeks of Climate COP26 saw massive crowds descending on Glasgow and a flurry of big announcements in the first few days. The programme began with two days of the World Leader’s Summit, followed by days dedicated to Finance; Energy; Youth and Public Empowerment; and Nature before the week came to a close on Sunday for a rest day. Week two focused on Adaptation, Loss and Damage; Gender; Science and Innovation; Transport; Cities, Regions and Built Environment; and the Closure of Negotiations. It was the first time that Nature has had its own day, though it was muddled with agriculture and land use which could and should have had its own day – and watered down the coverage for both issues.
Over 120 heads of state attended the World Leader’s Summit and gave high-level speeches about their country’s commitments and calls to action. India submitted a pledge to reach net-zero by 2070, and outlined some key steps to get there, including getting 50% of its energy supply from renewables by 2030. Brazil formalised its pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and China by 2060. Countries covering more than 70% of global emissions have now set net-zero emissions targets.
I can recommend the speeches given by Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, and Sir David Attenborough. And if you have an hour to spare then also watch former US President Barack Obama.
Pledges and Declarations
Over the two weeks there were many multilateral pledges and declarations made during and alongside the main sessions of the COP itself.
Over 40 leaders joined the Breakthrough Agenda, a 10-year plan to work together to create green jobs and growth globally, making clean technologies and solutions the most affordable, accessible and attractive option before 2030.
There was also a wave of new financial pledges, including the USA and Canada contributing to the Adaptation Fund for the first time, and other announcements including from Spain, Denmark, Japan and Norway. The UK and Italy (COP host countries) also increased their climate finance. Scotland also became the first ever country to commit funds to Loss & Damage with a pledge of £1 million (which later doubled to £2 million!).
One factor of COP26 that is breathing hope into the implementation of commitments is the backing of the finance sector. On Finance Day, 450 financial organisations, who control $130 trillion, agreed to direct finance away from fossil fuel-burning industries and back renewable energies. However, there is concern that this will not materialise without ways for regulators to increase the risk and the cost of lending to carbon intensive industry.
UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that the United Kingdom will commit £100 million to the Taskforce on Access to Climate Finance, making it quicker and easier for developing countries to finance they need, and also supporting a new Capital Markets Mechanism, which will issue billions of new green bonds in the UK, to fund renewable energy in developing countries.
However, in 2009, at Climate COP15 in Copenhagen, developed country Parties committed, in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation, to a goal of mobilising jointly US$100 billion a year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries. That pledge has not been realised, and is not likely to be met before 2023 and isn’t without conditions.
A major side deal announced during the World Leader’s Summit was the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land use which pledges leaders to end and reverse deforestation by 2030. Over 140 countries signed on representing all major forest basins and some major players that haven’t signed on to deforestation pledges previously, including Brazil. The declaration was issued alongside a pledge for £14 billion of new funding to combat forest loss over five years, supplied by 12 countries including the UK and private organisations. It was pleasing to see redesigning agriculture as a recommendation in the solutions. But we must remember that we have had deforestation pledges before, such as the 2014 New York Declaration that hasn’t met its milestones.
As the incoming COP26 Presidents, the UK launched the Forest, Agriculture and Commodity Trade (FACT) Dialogue with Indonesia as co-chairs. This government-to-government dialogue brings together the largest producers and consumers of internationally traded agricultural commodities (such as palm oil, soya, cocoa, beef and timber) in order to protect forests and other ecosystems while promoting trade and development. By flipping the global commodity market in favour of sustainability, the Dialogue hopes to protect forests, and other key ecosystems, while meeting the sustainable development goals and support economic development.
Of course the world’s forests need protecting and restoring, but so do many other habitats including peatlands, grasslands and the marine environment in particular.
Over 35 countries, many subnationals, 11 car manufacturers and others have committed to rapidly accelerating the transition to zero emission vehicles to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. They will work towards all sales of new cars and vans being zero emission globally by 2040, and by no later than 2035 in leading markets. Major car manufacturing countries that have not signed up include Germany, Japan, South Korea and the USA. Major manufacturers Volkswagen, Toyota, Renault-Nissan and Hyundai-Kia have also not signed the declaration.
The UK further pledged that all new heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) in the UK will be zero-emission by 2040.
This electrification of vehicles is welcome, but misses crucial benefits that could be gained from financing and supporting public transport and active transport.
Another global partnership announced in the initial stages of COP26 was the Global Methane Pledge. Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas and has not, at this stage, been as widely addressed as carbon dioxide. The pledge saw over 100 countries agree to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030. Scientists believe this could help the world avoid 0.3°C of warming by 2050. The pledge was initially launched in September by the USA and EU but promotion at the COP, however, did not manage to secure major countries such as China, India and Russia.
There are however concerns that the methane pledge will focus on leaking fossil fuel infrastructure and preventing biodegradable waste from being sent to landfill, whilst letting the emissions of agriculture (particularly meat and dairy production) slide under the radar.
There was a less hopeful outlook for the pledge on coal, where more than 40 countries and more subnationals and other organisations have committed to shift away from coal (in the 2030s for major economies, and the 2040s for everyone). However, major coal-using countries including China, India, Russia and the USA have not signed up. China and India also watered down the wording on the phase out of coal in the final Glasgow Climate Pact (see below).
Fossil Fuels Phase Out
During COP26, Costa Rica and Denmark launched the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA). BOGA is an international coalition of governments and stakeholders working together to facilitate the managed phase-out of oil and gas production. The coalition aims to elevate the issue of oil and gas production phase-out in international climate dialogues, mobilise action and commitments, and create an international community of practice on this issue. Other signatories include France, Greenland, Ireland, Quebec, Sweden and Wales. The UK Government declined to join the Alliance.
Ministers of Education and Environment came together at COP26 to pledge to integrate climate change and sustainable development into learning in an event co-organised by the UK Presidency, Government of Italy, UNESCO and youth partners MockCOP and Youth4Climate. Twenty-three countries committed to putting climate at the heart of their national curriculums.
The UK Department for Education also launched its first ever draft Sustainability & Climate Change Strategy.
The Glasgow Climate Pact
From a nature perspective, the latest available draft of the Glasgow Climate Pact is deeply disappointing. An early version of the draft included “recognizing the global interlinked crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, and the critical role of nature-based solutions and ecosystem-based approaches in delivering benefits for climate adaptation and mitigation”. By the time we have arrived at the latest draft, all we are left with is “Noting the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including forests, the ocean and the cryosphere, and the protection of biodiversity… when taking action to address climate change.” To add further insult, within this paragraph is also a phrase suggesting that “climate justice” is only important for “some” and not all people. So not only has nature-based solutions (NBS) been excluded from the Pact, there is therefore also no funding for NBS in the Pact.
The climate and nature crises are inextricably linked and cannot be addressed in isolation. CIEEM addresses this in our joint COP15 and COP26 position statement. Radical change is needed to tackle the twin crises of the climate emergency and loss of biodiversity in a socially just way.
There is still one further paragraph (para 38) that “[e]mphasises the importance of protecting, conserving and restoring nature and ecosystems to achieve the Paris Agreement temperature goal”, but there is far more focus on technological fixes throughout the document than nature.
Much covered in the media, there was a last-minute change to the final text by China and India from “accelerating efforts towards the phase-out of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” to “accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”. This is a weakening of the imperative to phase out all fossil fuels.
In the end, the Glasgow Climate Pact is just words on paper. It is not legally-binding and cannot be enforced. It is sadly up to citizens to pressure governments, and for governments to put peer pressure on each other, to achieve the goals of the Pact. National and subnational governments must now take the reins and act.
What Was Missing?
So what wasn’t covered in the main COP26 events or in the Glasgow Climate Pact?
There was little coverage of the marine environment, blue carbon and the interlinkages with fisheries.
Although agriculture was covered to some extent on the Nature day at COP26, there was little coverage of food. Addressing food waste and promoting a plant-based diet have a major role to play in reducing carbon emissions. We throw away about a third of all the food we buy, and meat and dairy production creates 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If the world is to meet its target of limiting global warming, shifts in diets will be necessary.
Although covered in fringe events, resource consumption and recycling was little covered at the main COP26 events. Given the global issues with plastic pollution, it was surprising that this was not covered.
I heard nothing on a global carbon tax.
And the elephant in the room was the lack of discussion on the root cause of climate change, namely the ongoing pursuit of unsustainable economic growth. Where were the discussions on doughnut economics – living within planetary boundaries whilst meeting society’s needs? Prof. Johan Rockström in his 10 new insights in climate science presentation (see video above) suggested that, in order to stay within the remaining global carbon budget in a socially just way, the richest 1% of people need to reduce their emissions by a factor of 30 and poorest 50% of people can increase their emissions by a factor of 3.
What was needed at COP26 was bold, system change, radical ambition – we got none of that, despite the pleading of small nations that are at risk now and have hardly contributed to carbon emissions.
The Role for CIEEM and Members
At CIEEM we will continue the work of our Action 2030 project and task group. We are leading the way in showing how a professional body can measure and reduce its own emissions, and we are working hard to provide the information and resources needed for members to carry out their professional roles in a more sustainable way. We have published a position statement on the carbon sequestration of different habitats (based on the work of CIEEM Fellow Penny Anderson) and are now working on guidance on sustainable resource use for ecologists.
We also have a role as a professional body and a charity to keep the pressure on governments to implement the pledges and declarations of COP26, and indeed to go further.
We’ll be following progress of the UK Presidency of COP26 over the next year as focus moves to COP27 in Egypt, where governments will again report on their progress.
At CIEEM, along with the work of our Action 2030 group, we are looking ahead now to Biodiversity COP15 in April-May 2022, and to ensuring that the link is made between the climate and nature crises, and driving for an ambitious post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that truly does deliver for people and planet.
I am grateful to my colleague Amber Connett ACIEEM, CIEEM’s Policy Officer, for attending COP26 on behalf of CIEEM, for providing feedback on events and decisions, and for drafting elements of the text above.
Jason Reeves CEnv MCIEEM
Head of Policy, CIEEM