COP26: How full is the glass?
In early November 2021, COP26 was all over the news, as climate commonly is, in the wake of major floods, wildfires, heat domes or other weather-related disasters. But then it was overnight, equally commonly, superseded by other events. This is unfortunate, tragic indeed, because Global Heating is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. Put more technically, addressing Global Heating is an unprecedented global public policy responsibility. To avert catastrophe, no less is required than, in the clinical language of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),
rapid and far-reaching systems transitions that are technically possible, yet unprecedented in terms of scale.1
This is not a recent insight. In fact, the International Community recognized it well over thirty years ago. In December 1988, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution entitled Protection of Global Climate for present and future generations of Mankind (https://undocs.org/A/res/43/53), determining "that necessary and timely action should be taken to deal with climate change within a global framework". In the same resolution, the General Assembly endorsed the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the child as it were of two UN parents, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) that, in 2007, won the Nobel Peace Prize together with Al Gore. To be sure, this focus on climate was not a vacuous gesture of the UN ivory tower. Time, soon after, proclaimed "Endangered Earth" Planet of the Year (http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19890102,00.html). Then came the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (https://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/CONF.151/26/Rev.1%20(Vol.%20I)&Lang=E), the Rio Earth Summit. It was another wake-up call. One of the principles agreed upon was that “States shall cooperate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem.” Some 1,700 of the world's leading researchers, including the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences, issued a “Warning to Humanity” (https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/1992-world-scientists-warning-humanity):
Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed at Rio. U.S. President George H.W. Bush announced on the occasion that the "United States will continue to lead the world in taking economically sensible actions to reduce the threat of climate change". This president, a Republican, got the U.S. to ratify the convention as the first industrialized country (https://bush41library.tamu.edu/archives/public-papers/4953?fbclid=IwAR3vp0zzELT8zzmJL-RYqw6-qDY-h-c3o5D5Oo-vjpJ7M8Vkd9HfExUw6NE).
This was thirty years ago. However, fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – get burnt in ever increasing quantities even today. Their share was about four fifths of global energy consumption then as, stubbornly, it is now, except that consumption has shot up by over 60 percent. In numbers: the world consumed 107,816 terawatt hours (twh) of energy in 1992, of which 83,961 twh (78 percent) were fossil fuels. By 2019, energy consumption had risen by two thirds to 173,340 twh, of which 137,761 twh (79 percent) still were fossil fuels (https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/business-sites/en/global/corporate/pdfs/energy-economics/statistical-review/bp-stats-review-2021-full-report.pdf, https://ourworldindata.org/energy-production-consumption).
Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere results from burning fossil fuels and leads to Global Heating. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050 is essential to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement, as was affirmed in Glasgow (https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/cma2021_L16_adv.pdf). Yet, fossil fuels are not even mentioned in the Paris Agreement. Considering that humanity, in the last thirty years, has burnt about the same quantity of fossil fuels and emitted about the same quantity of carbon dioxide than in all its prior history, this is an egregious and troubling omission. Yet growth of everything continues unabated. Since 1992, the surface areas of cities has doubled. Plastic pollution has increased by a factor of ten since 1980.
This is the big picture against which to assess the success or failure of COP26 specifically, or of international climate diplomacy generally. COP1 took place in Berlin in 1995, presided over by Angela Merkel, then German Environment Minister (https://www.suche-briefmarken.de/marken/brd/d1995014.html). A quarter century later, COP26 was the largest ever climate conference, with more participants even than COP21 in Paris six years earlier. Registered were 22,000 delegates, 14,000 observers and 3,800 journalists (https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/PLOP_COP26.pdf, https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-which-countries-have-sent-the-most-delegates-to-cop26). Notably, the largest single group, by far, was 503 people linked, directly or indirectly, to the fossil fuel industry (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/11/08/cop26-glasgow-climate-summit-fossil-fuel/).
Was COP26 a success or a failure?
The short answer: It depends. My assessment is that, from a perspective of climate diplomacy, it was a relative success. From a perspective of climate science, it was a relative failure.
To begin with the diplomatic angle: The surprise at COP26 was the adoption of the Glasgow Climate Pact, (https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/cop26_auv_2f_cover_decision.pdf) an unprecedented, lengthy and wide-ranging political decision towards a more ambitious climate response. It requests that countries “revisit and strengthen” their climate pledges by the end of 2022 and set up processes towards delivering serious adaptation, higher levels of climate finance and finance for loss and damage.
Beyond endorsing the Glasgow Climate Pact, countries also made bold collective commitments. Some bright spots on the sidelines at the talks were that clusters of countries announced initiatives they were undertaking on their own. More than hundred countries agreed to cut emissions of methane, a potent planet-warming gas, by thirty percent this decade (https://www.globalmethanepledge.org/). Another 130 countries vowed to halt deforestation by 2030 and commit billions of dollars toward the effort (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/02/climate/cop26-deforestation.html). Two dozen governments vowed to phase out coal plants over the next few decades (https://unfccc.int/news/end-of-coal-in-sight-at-cop26),2 a different set of countries to end the sale of gasoline-powered vehicles by 2040 (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/cop26-declaration-zero-emission-cars-and-vans/cop26-declaration-on-accelerating-the-transition-to-100-zero-emission-cars-and-vans), and yet others to end international financing for fossil fuels (https://www.devex.com/news/inside-the-cop-26-deal-to-end-international-fossil-fuel-financing-102026).
Glasgow was a platform to launch innovative sectoral partnerships (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/cop26-message-from-climate-champions-glasgow-pact-15-nigel-topping/) and new funding to support these, with the aim of reshaping every sector of the economy at the scale necessary to deliver a net-zero future. Despite significant headway on several fronts, national climate and financing commitments still fell far short of what is needed to come to grips with the climate challenge. Some governments, the United States and the European Union, increased their climate pledges while others – Australia, China, Brazil and Russia – remained stuck in negativity (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/26/climate/greenhouse-gas-emissions-un-climate-report.html).
Nevertheless, in a time marked by uncertainty, mistrust and escalating climate impacts, COP26 affirmed just how essential collective global action is to address the climate crisis. Although few claim that we are on track, in the view of inveterate optimists, some progress was made, some bright spots emerged and the conference constitutes a strong foundation to build upon. The Paris Agreement mechanisms to strengthen ambition and finance seem to be working, albeit imperfectly and not yet at the required pace and scale. Although the text left many disappointed over a lack of balance between the strength of language and action on emissions cuts, relative to finance or loss and damage, the fact that it was agreed at all is a novelty for the COP process. Going into COP26, it was concerning that the 151 new national climate commitments submitted ahead of and during the meeting fell short of putting the world on track to limit warming to 1.5°C. But after two weeks of negotiations, delegates reached consensus that countries should further strengthen their 2030 emission reduction targets next year, deliver greater amounts of finance to developing countries and take steps to help vulnerable countries deal with losses and damages from climate impacts.
The agreement calls on governments to return next year with stronger plans to curb their planet-warming emissions and urges wealthy nations to “at least double” funding to protect poor nations from the hazards of a hotter planet. The US Climate Envoy John Kerry (US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change) – the only person alive, who twice signed the Paris Agreement for his country – called the results of COP26 “good.” Kerry quoted the International Energy Agency estimate that if all the current long-term commitments were fully followed through, the world would limit heating to 1.8°C in the long term. But he stressed that there was a gap between those long-term ambitions and countries’ crucial short-term targets for 2030, which would result in heating of 2.4°C, and so countries needed to do more (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/09/shock-at-24c-reality-check-prompts-dismay-at-cop26).
The agreement establishes a consensus that all nations must do much more, immediately, to prevent a harrowing rise in global temperatures. And it sets up transparency rules to hold countries accountable for the progress they make or fail to make. In the final hours of talks, negotiators clashed over wording that would have called on countries to “phase out” coal power and government subsidies for oil and gas. In the end, at the urging of China and India, which argued that fossil fuels were still needed for their development, “phase out” was changed to “phase down” at an unspecified time.
The reason for this stumbling block was that carbon dioxide, in the language of economics, is both a stock issue and a flow issue. What matters are not just current emissions, but historical ones. The West grew rich by burning massive amounts of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution. The resulting carbon dioxide emissions contribute to warming even today. Developing countries – so the terminology in the Framework Convention, and still used in the Glasgow Climate Pact – insist on their right to economic growth based on cheap fossil fuels. From an equity point of view, they are justified. Article 4 of the Glasgow Climate Pact consequently reiterates the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities that was already recognized in the Kyoto and Paris Agreements. The cumulative historical emissions from 1850 to 2002, i.e. before the take-off of China and India were: US = 29%, EU = 27%, Russia = 8%, China = 8%, Japan = 4%, India = 2%; developed countries as a group = 76%, developing countries = 24% (http://pdf.wri.org/navigating_numbers.pdf).
"We’re all well aware that, collectively, our climate ambition and action to date have fallen short on the promises made in Paris", said Alok Sharma, the British minister of state and president of the Glasgow talks, who appeared emotional after the last-minute change to the fossil fuels provision. Sharma’s distress is understandable, considering that the International Energy Agency states that, to stay within the 1.5°C limit, 40% of the world’s existing 8,500 coal-fired power plants must be closed by 2030, and no new ones built (https://iea.blob.core.windows.net/assets/deebef5d-0c34-4539-9d0c-10b13d840027/NetZeroby2050-ARoadmapfortheGlobalEnergySector_CORR.pdf).
Also disappointing was that developed countries failed to meet their commitment to deliver $100 billion annually starting in 2020, even as they provide hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies for fossil fuels. Still, the final outcome at COP26 puts developed countries on the hook to report on their progress towards the $100 billion goal, to develop a new financial goal that goes beyond 2025 and to at least double the funding for adaptation by 2025.
In sum, the COP26 outcome is, diplomatically, a glass that is more than half full. But, then, paper is patient, and the road to hell plastered with good intentions and unenforceable agreements. The real-life test is if the agreed upon goals are adequate for the problem at hand, and if they are being met. Diplomats – and the diplomatically inclined – expressed satisfaction with the COP26 outcome. The EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans said it was not 24 carat gold, but 18 carat which, after all, was still gold. John Kerry reminded delegates that, the perfect being the enemy of the good, one should be satisfied with the good.
Scientists, in contrast, given humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels, noted wistfully that the goal of preventing temperature rises beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius has become ever more fanciful. And that, as a result, more deadlier heat waves, more destructive floods, more frequent wildfires, more cataclysmic weather, more conflict and more forced migration are in the cards. Even as countries vowed to step up their climate efforts both before and during the Glasgow summit, they are still falling far short. The detailed plans that governments have made to curb fossil-fuel emissions and deforestation between now and 2030 puts the world on pace to warm by roughly 2.4 degrees Celsius this century, claims the research group Climate Action Tracker (https://climateactiontracker.org/global/temperatures/). "Many governments, businesses and people still don’t seem to understand that we are in an emergency situation and need to cut emissions much faster this decade, or else any hope of staying at 1.5°C will be lost" said Niklas Höhne, a German climatologist.
By way of conclusion: COP26, with all its compromises, half-measures and insufficiencies, signaled the beginning of the end of the era of fossil fuels. That is the good news. Not even mentioned in the Paris Agreement, fossil fuels, six years later, have become the elephant in the room. Much has happened in the past half-decade. Scientific models have become more granular. Climate activism has become a force to be reckoned with. Climate denialism has all but disappeared. Only to be replaced by climate delayalism. It remains to be seen if governments will actually follow through on their commitments, since there are no sanctions or penalties if they fail to do so. Historical experience is not reassuring.
The lost three decades are a forceful reminder that the wholesale systemic transformation of the world’s economies is long overdue, and that further delays will inflict horrendous damage and that they will cost immeasurably more than immediate mitigation and adaptation action. This is not an environmental issue, but a massive global political challenge. Time is of the essence, and nature does not negotiate. Having wasted three decades, the urgency of the situation is becoming clearer, but not yet, I fear, clear enough. We are still in a Catch-22 situation: What is ecologically required, is politically not feasible, and what is politically feasible is ecologically insufficient.
Going forward, countries will have to choose – actively or by default – between three options, or, more precisely, between a mix of the following three options:
- Mitigation, which means reducing the damage;
- Adaptation, which means learning to live with the damage;
The important, and still wide open, question concerns the mix of the three. The longer decisive mitigation and adaptation measures are delayed, the more suffering will result, and the higher the inevitable costs will be. Decisions not taken today, means that future ones will have to be taken under time pressure and in crisis conditions, possibly involving armed conflict. Today’s current casual procrastination – it has been called predatory delay – will strike future generations, even future governments, as reckless. COP26 has once again starkly highlighted the challenges and what needs to happen to address them.
Franz Baumann war bis zu seiner Pensionierung Ende 2015 Beigeordneter Generalsekretär sowie Sonderberater für Umweltfragen und Friedensmissionen bei den UN. Seit 2017 ist er Gastprofessor an der New York University.
1 “Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems (high confidence). These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options (medium confidence).”
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Global Warming of 1.5°C: an IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty, Summary for Policymakers, October 6th 2018; C.2, page 17; https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/download/, https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2018/07/sr15_headline_statements.pdf
2 However, the number of countries joining the pledge was not in the end 190, as claimed by the UK government, but a much more modest 23, ten of whom don’t even burn coal.
UK Government Press Release, End of coal in sight as UK secures ambitious commitments at COP26 summit: The UK has secured a 190-strong coalition of countries and organisations at COP26, with countries such as Poland, Vietnam, Egypt, Chile and Morocco announcing commitments to phase out coal power, 3.11.2021; https://www.gov.uk/government/news/end-of-coal-in-sight-as-uk-secures-ambitious-commitments-at-cop26-summit
UNFCCC External Press Release, End of Coal in Sight, 4.11.2021; https://unfccc.int/news/end-of-coal-in-sight-at-cop26