COP26: Key Outcomes from the UN Climate Talks
Considered a “failure” by climate activists such as Greta Thunberg and a “success” by some world leaders, the UN Climate Conference (COP26) held in Glasgow, Scotland, from October 31 to November 13, 2021, made important progress toward reducing the impact of global warming but did not keep the world on track to beat back the climate crisis.
The two-week meeting that gathered a record number of delegates in the Scottish city was surrounded with expectations and tensions after being postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and after the release of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) report. According to the report, published in August 2021, climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying, and some trends are now irreversible. However, scientists claimed there is still time to limit the worst scenarios with strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases.
In the Glasgow Climate Pact (the final document produced at the end of COP26), almost 200 countries made commitments to reduce the use of fossil fuels, but specialists claimed the pledges are still insufficient. Thelma Krug, Vice-Chair of the IPCC, explains that one of the positive outcomes from the conference was that this was the first-ever COP to openly discuss fossil fuels, calling for a “phasedown of unabated coal” and “phase-out” of “inefficient” fossil-fuel subsidies. “This was the first time that fossil fuels, mostly coal, have been explicitly addressed in a COP agreement. The expectation was to close a deal calling for the "phase out" of coal-fired power, but, in the end, they replaced it with the term "phasedown." Even so, we can still consider it a step forward,” explains Krug.
Here we provide a summary of the key outcomes in Glasgow.
Defining the Rules of the Paris Agreement
After almost six years of negotiation, nearly 200 countries finalized the outstanding elements of the Paris Agreement at COP26. The Paris Rulebook, the guidelines for how the Paris Agreement is to be delivered, was discussed during the two-week meeting in Glasgow, and, on the last day, the final document was presented with important progress, such as a deal on Article 6, which covers international cooperation, including carbon markets, and establishes a robust framework for countries to exchange carbon credits through the UNFCCC.
Negotiators agreed to avoid the double-counting of emissions, in which more than one country claims the same emissions reductions as counting toward their own climate commitments. They also established a common time frame for their national climate commitments, encouraging countries to align new Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) targets’ dates around five-year cycles.
Mobilizing International Finance for Vulnerable Nations
The amount of money rich countries should give to the developing world to help it cope with climate change was one of the big battles of the COP26 climate summit, and once again the UN meeting frustrated leaders from vulnerable nations. In 2009, developed countries made a commitment to raise climate financing for developing nations to green their economies and adapt to the impacts of climate change. The plan called for nations to mobilize $100 billion per year in climate funds for developing countries starting in 2020 through 2025. Just before COP26, however, rich nations acknowledged that they could not keep their financial promises (only 80% has been delivered) and would not be able to do so until 2023.
The expectation was that a better agreement would be made in Glasgow. However, after two weeks of discussion, the final text of the Glasgow Climate Pact noted “with deep regret” that developed countries failed to meet that goal and “urged” those nations to meet the target “urgently and through to 2025” but lacked any wording on making up the shortfall that has already accrued. Additionally, little progress was made on current loss and damage, in which rich countries could help other nations deal with the climate impact they're already experiencing. For some specialists, COP26 will be remembered as a betrayal of global south countries, who have been left with no money for energy transition or adaptation to the climate crisis.
Reducing Emissions to Stop Warming at 1.5°C
Before the Paris Agreement was signed, the world was on a dangerous trajectory to reach about 4°C of warming by 2100. The 2030 climate plans prepared by nations ahead of COP26 were not ambitious enough to limit warming to 1.5°C. Instead, they would result in the planet warming by about 2.7°C by the end of the century. Further, in February 2021, the UN reported that most nations were already falling short of their emission reduction commitments.
The United Nations calculated that the climate commitments made during COP26 put the world on track for 2.5°C of warming by the end of the century, way above the goal of limiting the rise of global average temperature to “well below 2°C” signed in Paris.
That is why Alok Sharma, president of the UN COP26 climate summit, said that, for the November talks in Glasgow to be considered a success, governments needed to announce stronger commitments and stick to their plans. After the Glasgow meeting, more than 150 nations submitted new Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) containing more ambitious climate goals. The summit also saw a steady stream of net-zero targets from countries promising to balance emissions and CO2 removals by mid-century. By the close of COP26, a total of 74 targets were communicated.
India has said it will reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2070. This is decades later than many other countries, but this announcement marks the first time the country has put an end date on its contribution to climate change.
Results of Conference: Not Good Enough
While these targets are good news, they are not good enough. The United Nations calculates that the new NDCs, as they stand, put the world on track for 2.5°C of warming by the end of the century, way above the goal of limiting the rise of global average temperature to “well below 2°C” signed in Paris. According to Carbon Brief, if countries stick to their NDC goals and meet their long-term net-zero promises, global warming would be reduced to around 1.8°C (an estimated range of 1.4°C to 2.6°C) by 2100, although temperatures would likely peak around 1.9°C in the middle of the century before declining.
The small positive steps that COP26 has brought must be just the beginning of more ambitious climate achievements. “It is an important step but is not enough. We must accelerate climate action to keep alive the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees,” said the Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres in a video statement released at the close of the meeting. He also added that it is time to go “into emergency mode,” ending fossil fuel subsidies, phasing out coal, putting a price on carbon, protecting vulnerable communities, and delivering the $100 billion climate finance commitment. “We did not achieve these goals at this conference, but we have some building blocks for progress,” he said.
That is why, looking past COP26, climate activists, scientists, and all citizens need to pressure world leaders to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, to ramp up their 2030 emissions reduction targets, and to stick to the promises already made. Some of this progress towards more climate ambition might be clearer next year, at COP27, set to take place in Egypt.
*Jaqueline Sordi is a Brazilian journalist and biologist, specializing in science and environmental journalism. She has a master’s degree in environmental journalism at UCLA and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in communications at Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.