COP26: The Wins and Losses

Aditi Sinha, March 8, 2022

The centrepiece climate change event of 2021 is over, and an agreement has been reached. The Glasgow Pact managed to keep the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal alive, but just about. COP 26 president Alok Sharma called it a “fragile win”, and the world still remains far from being able to limit the devastating impacts of climate change.

Many concede that the negotiations were marked by obstacles that unfolded months before COP26 began. There was trepidation beforehand that developed countries would yet again fall short of fulfilling their decade-old promise to deliver $US100 billion each year to help poorer nations deal with climate impacts. Western media highlighted the absence of China’s Xi Jinping from the conference and criticised India’s target of reaching carbon neutrality in 2070. And when things were finally underway, the UK was criticised for the delays in distributing vaccines and last-minute changes to quarantine rules.

There is perhaps not the same sense of triumph that we felt at Paris but there is relief that consensus could be achieved at all given tense geopolitical relations and the devastation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

So what are the wins within the Glasgow Climate Pact? What are the losses? And how can we accelerate climate action after COP26?

The Wins

The Glasgow Climate Pact has seen some important breakthroughs. Perhaps the most striking is the commitment to accelerate efforts towards the phase-down of coal and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies—the first explicit mention of coal and fossil fuels in 26 years of COP declarations and decisions. But the text from COP26 does not go far enough. Whilst it is clear that “phasing down”, rather than” phasing out” could provide a lifeline to coal fired power stations, it is less clear what “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” means and is open to interpretation.

The ‘ratchet mechanism’ of the Paris Agreement—all signatories to return with revised NDCs every five years—has proven itself at Glasgow. As a result, even climate laggards such as Australia and Saudi Arabia came back to the table with net-zero targets, although there was no clear cut underlying plan as to how to achieve them.

Moreover, the Glasgow Climate Pact puts emphasis on action by 2030. All countries are urged to “revisit and strengthen” 2030 targets in advance of COP27 in Egypt. This request is a welcome effort to keep the 1.5 degree Celsius target alive.

The Losses

On some other fronts, the Glasgow Climate Pact is disappointing.

While developed countries are required to double climate adaptation finance from a 2019 baseline by 2025, they did not meet their pledges or commitments in the manner as stipulated by them. Furthermore they offered no guarantee that post-2025 climate finance would be significantly strengthened from their end.

COP26 finally put the critical issue of loss and damage squarely on the main stage. A number of climate-vulnerable countries advocated to create a new finance facility dedicated to loss and damage, but that faced pushback by developed nations such as the United States. Instead, countries landed on creating a new dialogue dedicated to discussing possible arrangements for loss and damage funding. This is grossly insufficient. Small island states have already spoken at 26 COPs and counting while temperatures and sea levels have risen.

The Scapegoats

The principle of common but differentiated responsibility is at the heart of the UN climate accords. But this seems to have been forgotten in the run up to COP26 and after. Developed countries account for less than 13% of the global population and nearly 50% of cumulative emissions. Yet, China and India were called out for the weakened language on phasing out coal and fossil fuels in the final Glasgow pact.

But India has always reinforced that it is not in a position to completely phase out coal-based electricity generation for at least a couple of decades. By comparison, India accounts for nearly 18% of the world’s population and just over 3% of cumulative emissions. Given its widespread poverty and small carbon footprint, India needs more fiscal and technology support to eventually reach net-zero.

Ratin Roy points out that “Human development (and biodiversity, for that matter) are sideshows at Glasgow, with good reason. Scapegoats have to be found for the real reason why Glasgow is engaging in a collective delusion and obsessing, Soviet-style, with a net-zero target rather than an equitable pathway to getting there.”

While the blame game may not ultimately be constructive, we need to consider alternative solutions for the climate deadlock in order to understand how to move forward.

COP26 Provided A Foundation To Build On

In a time marked by uncertainty and escalating climate impacts, COP26 has reinforced just how essential collective global action is to address the climate crisis. While we are not yet on track, progress has been made over the last year. The climate summit offered a strong foundation to build upon. This progress also demonstrates that the Paris Agreement mechanisms to strengthen ambition and finance are working, if imperfectly and not yet at the pace we need.

Aditi Sinha is Associate Director – Communications at Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation.

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