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COP26: Tempest in a Teapot?

Analyses - 17 December 2021

The COP26 summit in Glasgow came to an end only a few weeks ago, yet life has already returned to normal. Domestic and global news coverage of the climate crisis was progressively replaced by headlines surrounding the current presidential campaign in France. The latest political scandal is taking precedence over government announcements in favor of carbon neutrality. The topic of biodiversity loss, once a high-profile issue on every television channel, now rarely gets a mention. In that respect, the COP26 largely resembles previous Conferences of the Parties (COP): long-awaited, scrutinized, but the object of largely disappointing results, leaving behind a feeling of "too little too late". A month after the opening of the anticipated conference, assessments of its results range from high praises to harsh criticisms. Yet, conclusions of the COP26 are more nuanced than they appear to be. If anything, they highlight the inability of the current climate governance system to ensure the success of the energy and environmental transition we so desperately need.

More than the COP itself, it is the ecosystem surrounding the event that leaves hope for optimism. Ahead of COP26, the letter signed by a coalition of 778 companies and addressed to the G20, which called for stronger climate action, was an encouraging sign of society’s increasing awareness of the urgency of today’s climate crisis. It foreshadowed an unprecedented mobilization of the private sector in Glasgow, a sign of the increasingly powerful paradigm shift at play. Similarly, the level of mobilization within civil society is increasing each year. It undeniably helps strengthen the echo of the COP summits, and the pressure that is put on government representatives. Some of them might have heard young people’s voices coming from the streets of Glasgow. What truly matters, then, is the final pact agreed upon by the international community. What are its key outcomes? 

Higher and stronger? 

The COP26 climate summit had started long prior to its official opening on October 31, 2021 in Glasgow. In the wake of the failure of the COP3 and its Kyoto Protocol, the aim was no longer to sign a major international treaty that would legally bind signatory states to reduce their greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions. Instead, since the COP21, countries have issued climate commitments on a five-year basis, by publishing "nationally determined contributions" (NDCs). At the opening of this twenty-sixth edition, 150 of the 196 parties had submitted new climate commitments for 2030. Among them, 80 states had adopted goals leading to carbon neutrality - a considerable step forward. 

Out of all announcements, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pledge attracted the most attention. The fourth largest emitter of GHGs committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2070, implying that India would join the three largest emitters in the world, China, the United States and the European Union, in setting a net-zero target. India’s announcement was unexpected - until now, the country had repeatedly opposed the adoption of such a net-zero target based on the basis of equity. It represents a massive step forward for a nation that is nowhere near reaching its economic growth peak, and that still relies on coal for 70% of its electricity production. While these commitments still need to be backed by a complete roadmap, they demonstrate the positive effect that the kind of scrutiny offered by the COP summits can have on states’ climate policies. 

At the opening of this twenty-sixth edition, 150 of the 196 parties had submitted new climate commitments for 2030.

Beyond unilateral commitments, however, the COP26 also represented an opportunity to strengthen international treaties that have shaped global environmental priorities in the last twenty years. These include agreements to halt deforestation and reduce methane emissions, which are widely recognized as major advances. In Glasgow, over 100 leaders representing some 85% of the world's forests have signed a commitment to "halt and reverse deforestation" by 2030.

Among the signatories is Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, which is particularly notable. His pledge comes as a surprise, as the rate of deforestation in Brazil rose by 22% between August 2020 and July 2021 alone. As such, it remains to be seen whether Brazil’s sudden commitment to halt deforestation can effectively be translated into action. 

Another critical agreement emerging from the COP26 is the so-called Global Methane Pledge, from which over 100 states have committed to. Although methane has a shorter atmospheric lifetime than carbon dioxide, it holds much higher warming potential. Indeed, over a period of 20 years, a unit mass of methane has an impact on climate estimated to be 84 times greater than that of CO2, and methane is responsible for a quarter of today’s global warming. The reduction of methane emissions can thus have a rapid beneficial effect on global GHG emissions. Still, it should also be noted that, unlike carbon dioxide, a large portion of global methane emissions result from leakages. These could be avoided, for instance, by using existing technologies. In that respect, the commitment made by multiple states to rapidly reduce methane emissions is commendable, but its implementation in the short term will require careful attention. More crucially still, the notable absence of major methane emitters, such as China, Russia and India, already weakens the impact of this agreement. 

The International Partnership for a Just Energy Transition might be the most promising agreement to come out of this COP. As part of this initiative, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union have committed to financially contribute to South Africa’s energy transition. Today, coal accounts for 87% of South Africa's electricity, making it the world's 12th largest emitter of greenhouse gases. In this respect, South Africa ranks ahead of the United Kingdom while having an economy that is eight times smaller. Besides, the consequences of South Africa’s high-carbon development are far from trivial. Across the country, climate has been warming at twice the global rate, endangering agricultural activities and continental logistics networks. The Partnership announced at the COP26 is set to mobilize $8.5 billion to help decarbonize South Africa’s economy. While this sum will most likely be insufficient, it is part of an innovative framework that aims to create a new path for clean development. Ultimately, the success of this partnership could elevate South Africa's green credentials on the rest of the continent for decades to come. 

Perhaps the most famous element of the "Glasgow Climate Pact" is the designation of coal as ‘public enemy number one’. The final text, signed by 197 parties, calls for "efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies". Coal is responsible for 37% of the world's electricity production, but is significantly more polluting than its fossil counterparts, gas and oil. The transition away from coal has thus become a priority in recent years, and the singling out of coal in the COP26’s final agreement can be considered a meaningful step forward.

Perhaps the most famous element of the "Glasgow Climate Pact" is the designation of coal as ‘public enemy number one’.

However, on the last days of the conference, India, China and Saudi Arabia successfully toned down the level of ambition found in the wording of the final text. Instead of mentioning a "phase out" of coal use, the final agreement came to refer to a "phase down", a damaging decision. However, these efforts should be placed in the context of increasingly high demand for electricity in these countries. As most of their electricity supply stems from low-cost coal mining, we can hardly expect the same commitments from them and other countries that have already succeeded in eliminating coal from their energy mix, as is the case for the United Kingdom. Moreover, the agreement focuses exclusively on the use of coal in the energy sector, and disregards its use in other sectors. If we are to realistically meet the commitments made under the Paris Agreement, we would need to move away from coal altogether. 

Not high enough, not strong enough

Will these commitments be enough to tackle the global climate crisis? Simply put, the answer is a strong no. The agreements resulting from the COP26 reveal major flaws, which would only be acceptable in the context of a climate urgency that did not jeopardize the fragile balance of the ecosystems on which we all depend. Rather, the perpetual lack of a decisive turn on climate governance suggests the worst.

Will these commitments be enough to tackle the global climate crisis? Simply put, the answer is a strong no.

For instance, the COP26’s outcomes with respect to "climate finance" proved disappointing. Climate finance refers to public, private or other financial means mobilized to support adaptation and mitigation efforts in tackling climate change. In 2009, so-called "rich countries" committed to making an envelope of $100 billion available per year to their most vulnerable counterparts by 2020. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), this aid has not surpassed $80 billion up to 2019.

What’s more, only a very small portion of the aid has reached the African continent, which finds itself in urgent need of additional resources to face climate change. Many African countries are among the most affected by the consequences of global warming, while the African population is expected to double by 2050. Between 2014 and 2018, the so-called "adaptation" aid received by African countries only amounted to an average of $5 dollars per person and per year. 

Failure by the world’s richest countries to meet their climate commitments in the past greatly weakens the credibility of the new commitments that were previously mentioned. The final text agreed upon at Glasgow simply encourages an increase in the levels of climate finance, instead of revising mechanisms that help to ensure states’ accountability on these environmental matters.

On "loss and damage" too, the COP26 left many disappointed. While vulnerable countries have been calling for help from countries that have historically been the biggest emitters, the COP26 has not allowed such a mechanism to emerge. This mostly stems from fears that a strong enough commitment would allow vulnerable countries to take legally binding actions against developed ones. Yet, how can so-called "developing" countries be expected to embark on a costly and uncertain environmental transition without any substantial assistance from countries that are most responsible for the current climate crisis? This question clashes with the reality of the loss and damage discussion as we know it today.

Finally, commitments adopted at the COP26 should not allow us to stay in reach of the objective of maintaining temperatures below 1.5°C by 2100 compared to the pre-industrial reference period (1850-1900). Set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), this objective is neither arbitrary nor exaggerated. Nor should it be negotiable, if we are to avoid the most disastrous consequences of climate change. Under the most optimistic scenario, the commitments made in Glasgow would limit the rise of temperatures to 1.8°C before 2100.

Commitments adopted at the COP26 should not allow us to stay in reach of the objective of maintaining temperatures below 1.5°C by 2100.

This is a disappointing prospect. More discouraging, still, is the fact that it is largely unrealistic, as it assumes that all states will honor their pledges. In particular, commitments to achieve carbon neutrality are risky and uncertain, to say the least. As a reminder, states would need to reduce GHG emissions by 45% by 2030 compared to 2010 to maintain world temperatures below 1.5°C. This would imply reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 at the global level.

From commitment to action

Beyond the results obtained in Glasgow, it is the very functioning of the COPs that must be questioned. Conceived as spaces for multilateral reflection, these conferences are not binding for the stakeholders involved. They are closer to Robert Keohane’s conception of a "regime complex" than to the integrated climate governance that could have been envisioned at the time of the Kyoto Protocol. The current perception of consensus as being the cornerstone of climate governance inevitably results in annual disappointment. While this regime also allows some states to move faster when others are reluctant to take ambitious action, it faces the fundamental "collective action problem".

In retrospect, then, the 26th edition in Glasgow did not perform so poorly for a COP. States did commit to new and relatively ambitious actions, which could prevent a few tenths of a degree of warming before the end of the century. The COP26 also encouraged governments to raise their objectives for the coming year. However, it is no longer time to be satisfied with the announcement effects that have characterized the COP summits since their launch in 1995. Most governments now recognize the urgency of the climate crisis we are facing, even if they are not yet ready to push for collective climate action ahead of other national concerns. It is for that reason that we previously called for a shift from a COP of commitments to a COP of action, a call left unanswered as of now. 

What is left? The signing of the partnership between several Western countries and South Africa appears to be an encouraging initiative. In the same way, progress made around Article 6, which should allow for the creation of an international carbon credit market, gives additional consistency to the COP26. These two initiatives favor concrete action, and might spark a paradigm shift for the following COPs. Without any possible concession in the face of climate urgency, however, the objective must now be clear: give states concrete means to invariably respect their climate commitments.

 

 

Copyright: Paul ELLIS / AFP

 

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