With the effects of climate change becoming more pronounced each year, it was imperative that climate negotiators make substantial progress at the COP26 global climate summit, held in Glasgow Nov. 1-13. The results were mixed, containing a lot of positive language, but less in terms of specific commitments and actions. And alas, representatives of the fossil fuel industry outnumbered the delegations of any single country.
In the final agreement, known as the Glasgow Climate Pact, countries stressed “the urgency of enhancing ambition and action” and resolved “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C,” recognizing that this would significantly reduce climate change risks and impacts. Importantly, the commitments countries set forth would, for the first time, likely hold total warming to about 1.8°C, a more ambitious target than the 2.7°C of warming estimated under the Paris agreement pledges. This of course assumes that countries will hold themselves accountable.
Another sign of progress was 110 countries pledged to cut emissions of methane 30% by 2030. Since methane is a very potent but short-lived greenhouse gas, curbing its emissions is an effective measure to reduce near-term global warming. Several of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases made notable commitments. The U.S. and China announced a joint agreement to do more to cut emissions this decade, and China committed for the first time to developing a plan to reduce methane. Nonetheless, the agreement was short on specifics.
India’s Prime Minister announced that India intends to generate half its electricity from renewables by 2030 and achieve net zero emission status by 2070. This is well short of the target date of 2050, but was a stronger pledge than what has been made by Saudi Arabia, the planet’s second-biggest oil producer, and by Russia, the second-biggest gas provider.
One of the most significant deals at COP26 involved the private sector. Nearly 500 global financial services, holding 40% of the world’s financial assets—a total of $130 trillion—agreed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, including limiting global warming to 1.5 ⁰C. The commitment “comes with a pathway by which the companies involved must use science-based guidelines to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and commit to interim goals towards a 50 percent reduction by 2030.” This means adjusting their business models, developing credible decarbonization plans, implementing them and providing annual reports.
COP26 came tantalizingly close to calling for an end to coal, the most polluting of the fossil fuels, but late in the negotiations, the Pact language was weakened from “phase out” to “phasedown.” The final language, which reads, “accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies,” allows room for continued coal use, such as with carbon capture. Forty-six countries, five subnational territories and a range of electricity providers, pension funds and other organizations pledged to phase out existing coal-fueled power plants and stop building new ones. However, the biggest coal producers and users like Australia, India, the U.S. and China did not join the pledge.
Although the Pact “emphasizes the importance of protecting, conserving and restoring nature and ecosystems, including forests and other terrestrial and marine ecosystems,” progress here was hampered by lack of enforcement mechanisms. More than 140 countries representing over 90% of the world’s forests, including Brazil, China, Russia and the United States, pledged to strengthen shared efforts to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. Forests are crucial to absorbing carbon dioxide and slowing the pace of global warming, as well as supporting biodiversity. The pledge includes $19 billion of public and private funds, which is better than nothing, but far short of the amount needed. Perhaps more important, there are no consequences for not following through, and a similar deal in 2014 failed to slow deforestation in any way.
What Needs to Come Next
Fighting climate change requires much more than a two-week annual summit. It must be a continual, year-round commitment. Follow-up is needed to ensure that signatories meet and exceed their Glasgow pledges.
In a statement released at the end of the meeting, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said COP26 was an important but insufficient step. “It is time to go into emergency mode,” he said, “[and] accelerate action to keep the 1.5 degree goal alive.” The U.N. chief called for ending fossil fuel subsidies, phasing out coal, putting a price on carbon, protecting vulnerable communities and delivering the $100 billion climate finance commitment.
Guterres also had a message for climate activists: “I know many of you are disappointed. The path of progress is not always a straight line. But I know we can get there. We are in the fight of our lives.”9
The Glasgow Climate Pact calls on countries to come to next year’s COP, set to take place in Egypt, with stronger and more detailed plans for cutting their emissions. In addition, wealthy countries were urged to increase adaptation funding to protect the most vulnerable nations from the hazards of a hotter planet.
What Can You Do?
Congress and the White House are currently negotiating the Build Back Better Act, a fiscal package that could help the U.S. meet its climate goals and advance nature-based solutions. In order to solve the joint climate and biodiversity crises, we urge decision-makers to benefit both wildlife and people by protecting old carbon-rich forests, restoring degraded habitat, investing in climate adaptation and increasing the resilience of public and private lands.
Contact your Senators and Representative and let them know strong climate action and nature protection and restoration must be included as Congress considers the Build Back Better Act and other climate legislation.