Updated: Nov 15, 2021
By Hamilton Steimer
With COP26 in its dying hours, negotiations spilled over into the weekend as representatives from countries around the world are still working towards a climate deal. COP26 was billed as one of the most important climate summits yet, at least since the Paris Agreement in 2015, because it was the first opportunity to review the world’s progress of limiting planetary warming to at most 2C. Going into the summit, global commitments had the planet on track to warm by 2.7C, so the stakes were high as scientists have consistently warned that we must reduce our emissions by 2030 to limit warming to 1.5C and prevent the worst of climate change. This summit was certainly watched from around the globe as those concerned about climate change monitored the summit for progress towards achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement as well as other crucial goals, such as boosting international climate finance and establishing rules for carbon markets.
What happened at COP26?
Lots of net-zero pledges
The phrase “net-zero” was used all throughout the conference as countries discussed and updated their climate goals. Countries that aim to be net-zero mean that they will eventually have a neutral impact on the climate as the amount of emissions going into the atmosphere is balanced by emissions drawn out of the atmosphere. Net-zero is usually achieved by reducing emissions as much as possible through growing renewable energy use and switching to clean energy technologies, with unavoidable emissions removed via carbon offsets or carbon capture technology. India notably announced a net-zero target for 2070, and Viet Nam did similarly for 2050.
Other countries, like Brazil, made goals to be carbon neutral, which views carbon offsets and carbon capture technology as important pathways to reducing emissions. While carbon neutrality commitments are viewed as less than net-zero pledges, most of the climate science suggests carbon capture technologies, which can produce negative emissions, are essential to achieving our climate goals.
Global Methane Pledge
Originally announced in September between the US and EU, the Global Methane Pledge now includes more than 100 countries, which have pledged to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030. Most of these emissions will be reduced by limiting leaking from fossil fuel infrastructure, such as oil and gas wells and pipelines, and signatories importantly will have to say how they are measuring methane emissions. Unfortunately, China, India, and Russia, which represent a third of global methane emissions, did not sign onto this pledge. Here is the US methane reduction plan for those interested.
Although this plan sounds like low-hanging fruit, it is still significant because methane accounts for 30% of planetary warming and has a much higher global warming potential than CO2. Fortunately, its lifespan in the atmosphere is relatively short, so by greatly reducing our methane emissions, we can slow climate change in the near term. With that said, CO2 emissions must be the focus of our climate policy as it is causing .2C of warming per decade, but avoided methane emissions will only avoid .1-.2C of warming by 2050.
Over 100 countries signed a pledge to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030, and include important players, such as China, the US, Brazil, Russia, and others, who collectively account for 85% of the world’s forests. There are a lot of questions surrounding the meaningfulness of this commitment as a similar one made in 2014 did nothing to slow deforestation. There also remain questions on how to enforce the commitment and decouple food and consumer goods from deforestation. Importantly, over $19 billion have been committed to achieving this goal, which signals greater intent than the previous pledge.
Haggling over climate finance
Climate finance has really been one of the main highlights of this climate summit, as developing nations are demanding funding support from developed nations in order to achieve their climate goals. The European Union, the world leader in climate finance, has spearheaded efforts to raise financing commitments from other developed countries. At the Copenhagen summit in 2010, countries had committed to $100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020, but it seems this goal will not be accomplished until 2023. Now, countries are demanding even more money in the future, so we will have to see if commitments increase in 2025, when a new target initiates. The UK is currently attempting to have countries meet annually to put pressure on them to fulfill their promises.
In other news, Mark Carney, the former head of the Bank of England, is leading the Financial Alliance for Net Zero, whose members represent $130 trillion in assets, and it has committed to putting climate change at the center of its decision-making. However, many members still have fossil fuel assets in their portfolios, and they have indicated they want public financing to lead the way and not private financing.
Failure to finalize carbon market rules
One of the main goals was to finalize the rules concerning the use of carbon markets and offsets. Offsets are particularly contentious, as their efficacy in actually reducing emissions is dubious, as I mentioned in my previous blog. A country or company would invest money into an environmental protection/restoration scheme or clean energy project, usually in another country, and claim the supposed emissions reductions to count towards their climate goals. The problem is putting money towards offsets may not mean anything. If a project was already being planned or a forest was already protected, paying money to an offset scheme is not benefitting anyone but the project or property owner. Offsets are more effective if they are going to future projects or land protections, where the money is crucial and is the determining factor in the offsets’ existence. Only then can you truly say that you are reducing emissions via offsets.
However, funding existing forests as offsets may be the only way to prevent them from being torn down and developed. Should these offsets count the same as funding future projects? Who should be credited with emissions reductions, if there are any? How do we prevent double counting? I imagine these are the kinds of questions that are holding up negotiations as developed and developing nations try to hash out a deal.
Other notable events
Activists, including Greta Thunberg, were present in Glasgow, and they and others around the world held events demanding leaders take climate change more seriously and offer more than empty promises. Greta, who was skeptical of the summit beforehand in her famous blah-blah-blah speech, did not seem to change her opinion, lambasting the summit as a “Global North greenwash festival.”
Obama appeared at a COP for the first time since the Paris Agreement, offering his thoughts on events. He criticized Russia and China for their “dangerous lack of urgency,” and claimed that the US was reclaiming its environmental leadership mantle. While admitting that he too has felt discouraged, he said that we “can’t afford hopelessness.”
The US and China announced a surprise deal to work closely together through this decade on issues like cutting methane emissions, reducing coal consumption, and protecting forests. Although China has resisted calls to end coal consumption and did not sign onto the methane pledge, this agreement suggests there is progress to be made on those and other issues.
10 major auto manufacturers and several countries have officially announced their intentions to transition to 100% zero-emission vehicles by 2040. Notable signatories were Ford, General Motors, and Volvo, as well as the UK, Canada, California, and New Zealand. It is unfortunate that the US, China, and India did not join in this pledge, but it signals to the world that fossil-fuel-powered cars are on their way out.
Was COP26 a success or a failure?
As COP26 concludes, it is fair to say that the conference was disappointing. At the moment, finalized rules regarding carbon markets continue to be elusive, revamped climate pledges only limit warming to 1.8C (at best), and disagreements remain on the extent of future climate financing. There have been several notable successes: the global methane pledge, the deforestation pledge with monetary backing, improved climate pledges, the movement towards ending the use of fossil-fuel cars, and the restoration of US participation. However, the conference will ultimately be judged on whether it is able to prevent 1.5C of planetary warming, and so far, it looks like that will not be the case.
This climate summit has revealed a universal problem that I think is particularly visible in the United States. In this country, whether it is regarding the climate, social justice, income inequality, the national debt, and other issues, we are seeing that we have delayed addressing these issues for far too long. Over the past decade, we have finally realized that the climate crisis is real, that the gap between the 1% and majority of Americans is unsustainable, that our healthcare system is unfair and too costly, etc. As we decide how to address these issues, the cost of resolving them is enormous and requires significant changes in our economy and society. For some, this shift is too much and is too costly, so they delay progress, allowing the problem to continue festering.
We are seeing this same issue playing out on the international system regarding climate change. We have decided to tackle this issue too late, largely thanks to delays by the United States, and we find ourselves in a make-or-break situation. The developed world is now beginning to address climate change, but developing countries demand assistance and are angry about the double standard, with some arguing they cannot afford to phase out fossil fuels. We find ourselves in a position where we either halt planetary warming by 2030 or face cataclysmic repercussions, but we have waited so long, that we have given ourselves less than 10 years to fundamentally change our entire way of life. We might have been better prepared to tackle climate change if we started to take action decades ago, but years of delay and denial have placed all of our futures at risk.
From my perspective, COP26 may seem a failure, but that is because a perfect COP26 was the only one that could be labeled a success. We must be honest with ourselves and admit that our goal of limiting warming to 1.5C is all but gone. However, we must remain determined to reduce future warming as much as possible, and we should be grateful for the small successes we have made. As frustrating and scary as this situation is, I choose to be optimistic that we are on the right path and that we can still achieve a sustainable future.