Today
Sun 5 December 2021

Mike Buckley reports from the last day of the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow about the challenges that still remain

As COP26 draws to a close, hopes are still alive that the final text could mark significant progress in the fight against climate change. 

The latest draft text was welcomed by campaigners as more balanced than the first, with stronger elements on adaptation, finance and loss and damage. Elements of it aimed at speeding up action to close the gap towards emissions goals are there, with no radical changes from the previous version and dates still intact. The language on coal has been qualified but survived the night, which many predicted it wouldn’t.

Yet, as negotiators head into the final scheduled day, at least four key issues remain unresolved. 

The first is an admission of failure. To have a chance of keeping global temperatures below 1.5C above pre-industrial averages, the goal agreed in Paris in 2015, global emissions need to fall by half this decade. The hope was that COP26 would end with nations having not just made long-term pledges, but with clear action plans to 2030. 

But new commitments do not go far enough. United Nations estimates of future temperature rises show that the summit has made some difference – the projected rise has fallen from 2.7C to 1.8C – but this falls short of what is required. A less optimistic Carbon Action Tracker report suggested a 2.4C rise.

For the world’s most vulnerable nations, all those numbers spell disaster. “One billion people to face deadly heat stress if [the] world warms [by] 2C,” reported Bloomberg’s Damian Shepherd this week. A 4C rise would mean half of the world’s population living in affected areas. 

As a result, ambitious nations have called for the final COP26 text to require nations to revisit their commitments a year from now instead of in 2025 as planned. Even Alok Sharma, COP’s President, has admitted that commitments will still be lacking at the end of this week. Nations “should return at COP27” with updated action plans, he told a press conference. 

The draft COP agreement does call for countries to come back by the end of next year with tougher plans. It just needs to survive to the final edit. 

The second outstanding issue is money. As long ago as 2009, rich nations promised they would donate $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poorer countries cope with climate change. That goal was missed in 2020 and 2021. Rich nations now say that it will be met in 2023. 

This year donations hit $80 billion but, according to Oxfam, mostly took the form of loans rather than grants. Loading developing nations with more debt will not help them in the long run and is no solution to the climate crisis. Developing nations want the $100 billion next year and for it be as close to 100% in grants. 

One significant move in Glasgow was the recognition that involving private finance is essential if the world is to act in time. “The gap between what governments have and what the world needs is large and the private sector needs to play a bigger role,” US Treasury secretary Janet Yellen told the conference.  

Former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney announced an alliance of private finance organisations, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, which collectively owns $130 trillion in investments. Carney says that they will use these funds to help reach net zero emissions by 2050.

It remains to be seen when funds will be made available, and whether they will be loans or grants. Poorer nations need the latter, all the more since private loans tend to come with large interest rates. 

The third issue was supposed to be agreed in Paris six years ago. Global carbon trading, if developed with a strong set of rules, would help us reach 1.5C as it would lead to emissions cuts, spur investment in clean technology and channel money to poorer countries.

Agreeing terms is taking so long because no one wants to lose out. High ambition negotiators are concerned because an agreement that failed to impose strict rules could end up increasing emissions, and allow for creative accounting where offsets could be counted twice. 

The main question is: how much money will be used to help poor countries adapt to harms from climate change? Until that is agreed, trading – like emissions cuts – is likely to be deferred to COP27. 

The final outstanding issue concerns language, specifically whether the final text will explicitly reference the major cause of climate change: fossil fuels. 

Incredibly, the COP26 draft text is the first to call for the phase – of fossil fuel subsidies and coal. This was welcomed by high ambition negotiators and campaigners, but some are nervous that it will be removed from the final version because of opposition from Australia and other fossil fuel exporters. 

As COP26 enters its final day, negotiators are aware of the scale of what remains to be done. 

“Today is an absolutely critical day in the fight to defend the 1.5C goal from vested interests who’ll do anything to dodge their responsibility for the climate crisis,” said Greenpeace International executive director, Jennifer Morgan. “Anything less puts the essence of Paris in peril.”

The sense of progress at COP26 – built on the US-China commitment to ongoing collaboration and wider agreement on adaptation finance, funding to pay for loss and damage in vulnerable nations, and acceptance of the need to phase-out coal and fossil fuel subsidies – is tempered by awareness of a deliberate and cynical effort by a few nation states to hamper progress and diminish ambition. 

It is tempered too by an awareness that much remains to be done. “The UK Presidency appears to be leaving too much for the Egyptian Presidency next year,” Labour MP Alex Sobel, a former member of the Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee, told Byline Times

He criticised countries and negotiators for failing to commit to needed action this year. “There aren’t the pledges in place to reach a cut in global emissions of 45% by 2030 and there is no firm date on the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies which is particularly disappointing,” he added. 

Yet there are “signs of quiet optimism” in the draft communique. The world will need that optimism as COP26 concludes with progress made but much more required if a world none of us can afford to contemplate is to be avoided in the nick of time. 

Mike Buckley is director of the campaign group ‘Labour for a European Future’

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