COP26: Preliminary progress as world leaders exit

COP26 has been described as the ‘last, best chance’ to keep 1.5 degrees in reach but, with the high-level segment concluded, what progress has been made?

Expert comment Published 3 November 2021 Updated 21 December 2021 3 minute READ

As COP26 kicked off, Greta Thunberg accused world leaders of ‘pretending’ in Glasgow, while developing countries’ opening statements were clear – enough of the big talk and empty promises, no time for showmanship remains. The task at hand is one of delivery, nothing less will avert the greatest human tragedy of all time.

Statements by the Republic of Maldives and other climate vulnerable developing countries during the World Leaders Summit underscored what is really at stake with brutal, heart-wrenching clarity. ‘If the rise in temperature remains unchecked at 1.5 and jumps to two degrees, that is a death sentence to the Maldives’.

The frustration, especially with G20 countries’ failure to come up with sufficiently ambitious plans and to act, was evident as epitomized by Belize’s remarks that ‘every dollar my country invests in climate action, G20 countries undo multiple times over with the trillions they invest in oil, coal and gas’. The G20 leaders’ summit in Rome appeared to have done little to reassure.

Progress on mitigation targets, but more is needed

An important announcement during the World Leaders Summit was India’s commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2070, reduce economic emission intensity by 45 per cent by 2030, and accelerate renewable energy deployment. According to Professor Nicholas Stern, the new targets may enable India to peak its emissions by 2030.

The frustration, especially with G20 countries’ failure to come up with sufficiently ambitious plans and to act, was evident

Net-zero pledges were also made by Thailand, Nepal, Nigeria and Vietnam, while Argentina, Brazil, Guyana and Mauritania were among those announcing 2030-target updates. According to Climate Resource, the combined 2030 and long-term commitments means there is now a decent chance of keeping warming to around 1.9 degrees.

But it is important to underscore that the credibility of long-term pledges is contingent on the existence of ambitious 2030 targets, and that all pledges need to be backed by policies, investment and regulatory frameworks that spur implementation. Moreover, even if all pledges are implemented, there is a big – and for many existential – difference between 1.9 and 1.5 degrees in terms of the severity of climate change impacts.

Breakthroughs on deforestation and methane

Part of the UK strategy for COP26 is to bring governments and other stakeholders together to jointly accelerate action in key sectors, and several COP26 ‘thematic days’ are scheduled. A first ‘deal’ was announced when more than 100 leaders – including Brazil and China – agreed to end and reverse deforestation by 2030. Importantly, this pledge is backed up with funding.

Other initiatives have contributed to a building momentum. The US and EU, for example, announced around 100 countries have committed to reducing emissions from methane – a highly potent greenhouse gas – by 30 per cent by 2030. Other multilateral statements and declarations have been put forward on topics including: green power grids, sustainable agriculture, clean technology and net zero cities, to name a few.

Finance failures

A red thread running through most developing country high-level statements was the failure of developed countries to make good on the decade-old pledge to mobilize $100 billion in annual climate finance by 2020. Many also underscored that substantial additional climate finance is needed.

While important progress has been made, it is clear much more must be done to accelerate action and ambition in the next few years

Gabon said the current pledge of $100 billion annually would ‘need to be multiplied by tenfold by 2025 to meet the real needs of developing countries’. Kenya, similarly, called for a ‘quantum increase’ while India said it expected developed countries to make available $1 trillion in climate finance as soon as possible. Barbados proposed IMF Special Drawing Rights worth an annual $500 billion for 20 years be placed in a trust fund to support the green transition.

A few new pledges of funds towards the $100 billion have been made at COP26, such as by Japan, Norway and Ireland. On 3 November, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) also announced 450 firms across 45 countries, responsible for assets worth $130 trillion, are committed to supporting the net-zero transition worldwide.

Dealing with climate impacts

The failure to deliver on the $100bn goal was linked to a parallel failure in the balance of funding between adaptation and mitigation. Many climate-vulnerable developing countries also underscored the necessity of addressing loss and damage.

Speaking on behalf of The Alliance of Small Island States, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda highlighted the desperate position of many small island states, and spoke of the potential need to seek legal redress, should no formal mechanism for compensation of loss and damage be established.

Crucial few years of concerted action ahead

While important progress has been made, it is clear much more must be done to accelerate action and ambition in the next few years – on mitigation, finance, adaptation, and loss and damage. Forging alliances and pacts to enable this is a key task facing negotiators during the remaining days in Glasgow.

Crucial few years of concerted action ahead contd.

Statements during the first days of COP provide impetus to these efforts. The ‘High Ambition Coalition’ of governments from both developed and developing countries has called on all parties yet to deliver NDCs aligned with 1.5 degrees to do this as soon as possible ‘and well ahead of COP27’. This echoes statements made by world leaders during the high-level segment, the UN Secretary General’s opening remarks, and the Climate Vulnerable Forum’s Dhaka-Glasgow Declaration.

While NDCs are a vital piece of the puzzle, continued building of momentum during the COP’s remaining ‘thematic days’ is critical. Deforestation and methane deals have been clear ‘wins.’ More such deals might represent and enable the multinational collaboration, support, and idea-sharing needed to help ensure the 1.5 degrees target does not slip out of reach.