By Bridie Golding
The Glasgow climate conference, COP26, is being held up as one of humanity’s last chances to mitigate climate change. But can it actually solve the crisis?
What is COP26?
The 26th Conference of the Parties, more often referred to as COP26, is a UN conference that aims to minimize global warming as much as possible. This year, COP26 is being held in Glasgow, Scotland. The U.K. and Italy are co-hosting the conference, aiming to encourage countries around the world to advance their commitments to reduce emissions under the Paris Climate Agreement, signed in 2016.
The goals of COP26 include limiting global heating to under the 1.5ºC commitment and securing global net zero by 2050, adapting to protect communities and nature, and mobilising climate finance. Primarily, these multilateral goals center on financing adaptation and mitigation.
The 1.5ºC commitment is the central goal of the conference. According to the official COP26 website, current commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement would not limit global warming to even 3ºC over pre-industrial levels. This would mean, according to the Guardian, double the worldwide area burnt by wildfires, ice-free summers in the Arctic and the average drought length rising from two months at 1.5ºC to ten months.
What have countries committed to so far?
The most important commitment came as a surprise to observers, when on November 10th, the US and China reached a pact to reduce emissions, “enhance ambition” on climate change and “phase down” coal in China by 2026. However, the details of this plan are sparse.
Beijing sees climate change as an “existential crisis,” with the Chinese climate change envoy Xie Zhenhua saying “as two major powers in the world, China and the United States, we need to take our due responsibility and work together and work with others in the spirit of cooperation to address climate change.”
John Kerry, former secretary of state and US climate envoy, added, “on climate, cooperation is the only way to get the job done.” Head of research at the Climate Council, Dr Simon Bradshaw, praised the US-China agreement as “significant.”
A commitment to end deforestation from major global players including the US, China and Brazil was established on November 2nd, which will protect vast areas of forest, from Siberia to the Amazon and the Congo basin.
India has pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2070, the first time the world’s third largest emitter has set a net-zero target.
Over 40 countries, including Japan, Canada and Vietnam have agreed to “consign coal to history” in the 2030s and 2040s; however, this declaration was notably missing larger fossil fuel users, including the U.S., China and Australia. Experts told the Guardian that this was too late a deadline and it should be moved forward, with the International Energy Agency saying all new fossil fuel development should be stopped this year in order to meet the 1.5ºC target.
COP President Alok Sharma told the conference that 90% of global GDP was now covered by net-zero pledges, a massive increase from only 30% a year ago.
Will this reduce global heating?
It’s not yet clear if these efforts will significantly decrease warming. A week ago, a University of Melbourne study suggested that the new commitments, notably India’s net-zero pledge, could lead to this being the first time the globe is on track to keep warming under 2ºC.
But a projection from Climate Action Tracker sobered the conference, with the projection of 2.4ºC of warming including pledges made at the COP. This was before the US-China agreement, however the US-China agreement’s lack of details means its impact is yet to be determined.
Amendments to the Paris Agreement are also being hashed out by representatives from countries around the world. The conference ran into overtime past the 12th of November, with an agreement that meant countries had to return to COP27 (held in Egypt next year) with new targets for emissions cuts, and a doubling of climate finance that goes to adaptation for developing nations. The countries in attendance reaffirmed the 1.5ºC target in the Paris Agreement as well, with John Kerry saying the agreement must stay “well below” 2ºC.
However, in the last hours of the conference, India and China pushed a rapid and dramatic change to “phase down” coal, rather than the original “phase out.” According to the Guardian, the countries were unable to be persuaded to allow a phaseout of the dirty fossil fuel. Even though phasing down coal was a concession, no previous COP has contained a reference to phasing out fossil fuels, so this commitment was still welcomed; albeit to a much more limited extent.
How has the global community reacted?
Greta Thunberg has roundly criticised the COP, saying at a protest that it is“not a secret that COP26 is a failure” and that “the COP has turned into a PR event, where leaders are giving beautiful speeches and announcing fancy commitments and targets, while behind the curtains governments of the Global North, countries are still refusing to take any drastic climate action.”
Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate has said that developing nations have been sidelined by COP26. In normal times, conferences like COP26 would be swarming with activists and NGO representatives, but COVID-19 has prevented many from attending. Nakate told NPR, “I think it's not just my experience. There are many activists from the global south who have been sidelined at the conference.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guerres told the conference that “the announcements here in Glasgow are encouraging, but they are far from enough.” He aims to push world leaders to make more significant emissions commitments.
“Promises ring hollow when the fossil fuels industry still receives trillions in subsidies,” he added.
Representatives from developing countries have argued that there is not enough commitment to assisting these nations in adapting and mitigating the effects of climate change. An anonymous negotiator told the Guardian, “we also need clear language on doubling adaptation finance, and on solidarity and support from developed countries.”
Climate activist Tishiko King, a Kulkalaig woman from the Torres Strait in Australia, told The Age that “First Nations people have done the least to cause the climate crisis, but we are hit the first and the worst.” The Torres Strait has already been severely affected by climate change, with burial grounds and sacred remains of ancestors being exposed and washing away. Residents of the islands have also filed a lawsuit against the Australian government for its lack of climate action.
Another developing country negotiator said, “Despite the publicity created by pledges made last week, there are still huge leaps that must be taken if COP26 is to be a success on climate finance. As well as the highly publicised failure to meet the $100bn target, which was intended as a floor, there are a number of other key issues.”
“At present, there is an imbalance in the prioritisation of mitigation finance over investment in adaptation. For the developing world, the need to scale up adaptation financing is urgent. Yet sticking points for developed nations continue to grind negotiations to a halt,” they added.
Melbourne climate activist Anjali Sharma says, “COP26 will be really limited in its impact if countries such as Australia continue to undermine the intent of COP by using it as a place to promote fossil fuels and to continue to neglect to take stronger action on climate. That sets a precedent for the rest of the world that a country with such a large position on the world stage is prioritising its own benefits over that of the global community.”
“The ideal outcome would be for countries to commit to serious climate action, in line with what the IPCC has said, and in line with what First Nations and frontline communities have been saying for years. The ideal outcome would be if such voices are prioritised. Currently, the COP is serving the interests of big leaders rather than those that will be most affected by the climate crisis,” Sharma said.
The COP’s importance is best demonstrated by the speech given to the conference by Tuvalu’s foreign minister, Simon Kofe, speaking while knee-deep in seawater that was previously dry land. Island countries in the Pacific, including Tuvalu, need immediate action, as their very survival is at risk.
In contrast to the view that climate change is a problem only for the future, Kofe’s speech highlights the already-present effects of a rise in global temperature and demonstrates that people’s lives are at stake, right now.