experts react to the UN climate summit and Glasgow Pact
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We asked experts from around the world for their reaction to the outcomes of this year’s UN climate summit, COP26, including the Glasgow Climate Pact agreed by all 197 countries attending the talks. Here’s what they had to say about the deals that were made. (This page will be updated as reactions come in.)
Deals and targets
A starting point for future action.
The Glasgow Climate Pact is not perfect, but still strengthens the Paris agreement in several ways. Acknowledging that there is no safe limit for global warming, the Pact resolves to limit global warming to 1.5°C, instead of the Paris text of “well below 2°C”. Crucially it also delivers a strong framework for tracking commitments against real-world progress.
The summit was pitched as the last chance to “keep 1.5°C alive” – holding temperatures to less than 1.5°C above their pre-industrial levels. 2020 was also supposed be the year when developed countries would provide at least US$100 billion a year of financial aid to help developing countries adapt to mounting storms and droughts – a pledge that still has not been met – and the transition to clean energy was supposed to start being rolled out.
Perhaps concerned that national targets collectively were nowhere near good enough to keep 1.5°C alive – we were heading for more like 2.4°C at best – the UK government used its presidency programme to supplement these targets with a series of press-friendly announcements of non-binding pledges to cut methane emissions, end deforestation and phase out coal.
These were further supplemented by the “race to zero” initiatives, a series of announcements by states, cities and businesses on a range of decarbonisation approaches.
While these are genuine attempts at climate action, success hinges on whether these developments can swiftly make into raised national commitments within the next year. The pact now explicitly “requests parties to revisit and strengthen” their 2030 goals, meaning 1.5°C is down but not out.
Piers Forster, Professor of Physical Climate Change & Director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate University of Leeds
Greenhouse gas emissions
Progress on cutting emissions, but nowhere near enough.
The Glasgow Climate Pact is incremental progress and not the breakthrough moment needed to curb the worst impacts of climate change. The UK government as host and therefore president of COP26 wanted to “keep 1.5°C alive”, the stronger goal of the Paris Agreement. But at best we can say the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C is on life support – it has a pulse but it’s nearly dead.
Before COP26, the world was on track for 2.7°C of warming, based on commitments by countries, and expectation of the changes in technology. Announcements at COP26, including new pledges to cut emissions this decade, by some key countries, have reduced this to a best estimate of 2.4°C.
More countries also announced long-term net zero goals. One of the most important was India’s pledge to reach net zero emissions by 2070. Critically, the country said it would get off to a quick start with a massive expansion of renewable energy in the next ten years so that it accounts for 50% of its total usage, reducing its emissions in 2030 by 1 billion tonnes (from a current total of around 2.5 billion).
A world warming by 2.4°C is still clearly very far from 1.5°C. What remains is a near-term emissions gap, as global emissions look likely to flatline this decade rather than showing the sharp cuts necessary to be on the 1.5°C trajectory the pact calls for. There is a gulf between long-term net zero goals and plans to deliver emissions cuts this decade.
Simon Lewis, Professor of Global Change Science at University College London and University of Leeds, and Mark Maslin, Professor of Earth System Science, University College London.
Fossil fuel finance
Some progress on ending subsidies, but the final deal fell short.
The most important outcomes from COP26 will be directly related to two “F-words”: finance and fossil fuels. Close attention should be paid to pledges for new finance for mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage. But we must remember the other side of the equation — the urgent need to cut off funding for fossil fuel projects. As the International Energy Agency made clear earlier this year, there is no room in the 1.5℃ carbon budget for any new investments in fossil fuels.
The commitment from more than 25 countries to shut off new international finance for fossil fuel projects by the end of 2022 is one of the biggest successes to come out of Glasgow. This could shift more than US$24 billion a year of public funds out of fossil fuels and into clean energy.
There was also short-lived hope that the COP decision would call on parties to “accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels.” According to the United Nations, eliminating all fossil fuel subsidies would reduce global carbon emissions up to 10% by 2030. Sadly before the pact was agreed, the text on coal was watered down, the phrase “phasing out” was replaced with “phasing down”, and the weasel word “inefficient” was inserted before “subsidies for fossil fuels.”
The fact that not even a weak reference to fossil fuels can survive in the decision text speaks volumes about how divorced the COP process is from the realities of the climate crisis. And this is unlikely to change as long as fossil fuel lobbyists are permitted to attend.
Kyla Tienhaara, Canada Research Chair in Economy and Environment, Queen’s University, Ontario
A declaration on deforestation, but it isn’t binding.
Nature was a big theme at COP26, and the importance of Indigenous peoples’ rights and tackling commodity supply chains that drive deforestation were widely recognised across the conference.
Over 135 countries signed a declaration agreeing to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030, although Indonesia subsequently backed away from the commitment, underscoring the importance of binding decisions rather than voluntary declarations for important outcomes. Donors pledged US$1.7 billion to support Indigenous peoples and local communities’ forest stewardship. Twenty-eight of the largest consumer and producer countries of beef, soy, cocoa and palm oil discussed a roadmap identifying areas of work to tackle deforestation in commodity supply chains.
However, declarations can distract from the negotiated outcomes of the UN process. For nature, an important outcome included in the final Glasgow Climate Pact is that it “emphasizes the importance of protecting, conserving and restoring nature and ecosystems to achieve the Paris Agreement temperature goal, including through forests and other terrestrial and marine ecosystems”.
Such recognition of the role of nature is critical to enhance the inclusion of ecosystem restoration in countries’ climate commitments. Yet, nature alone cannot deliver the 1.5°C goal without other efforts, including phasing out coal and fossil fuel subsidies, providing adequate finance to developing countries, and protecting human rights.
Kate Dooley, research fellow in ecosystem-based pathways and climate change, University of Melbourne