Climate change: a fair COP, but not a great one

The Glasgow Agreement is a compromise but also an important step. It reaffirms some of the most important climate goals and promises more action.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By WANG Qing


Diplomats from 197 countries reached an agreement on November 13 to curb climate change, the end of the United Nations global climate summit in Glasgow known as COP26. They promised to cut emissions, reduce the use of coal and increase climate finance but deferred more action until next year.

Negotiators missed the original November 12 deadline, and the talks went on well into Saturday night. India raised a last-minute objection to the phrase “phasing out” coal. The language was eventually changed to “phasing down.”

Some scientists and activists are disappointed by the incrementalist tone and approach. Secretary General of the United Nations António Guterres called the outcome a “compromise, [...] an important step, but [...] not enough.”

The compromises reflect the delicate balance of interests among 200 countries, but the agreement itself reaffirms some of the most important climate goals.

Keep 1.5 Celsius alive

COP26 fell short of committing to keeping temperature rise within 1.5 degrees Celsius. Current plans should likely keep the global temperature rise within 2.4 degrees, lower than the projected 2.7 degrees but still far higher than the Paris goal.

More countries have acknowledged the urgency of the crisis and are speeding up the action. Some of the world’s heaviest emitters, such as India and Nigeria, pledged carbon neutrality within 50 years. Countries were asked to come back in a year with more ambitious plans next year, instead of waiting until 2027 as originally mandated by the Paris Agreement.

Alok Sharma, the COP26 president, said the deal would "keep 1.5 alive" but “the pulse is weak,” and that countries must meet and deliver on their commitments to keep it going.

Phase down fossil fuels

The agreement calls upon countries to accelerate the transition to low-emission energy, and explicitly mentions “the phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” The wording was changed at the last minute from “phase out” due to objections from developing countries. Nevertheless, it is still a step forward from previous agreements with a vision for the end of coal and fossil fuel.

Carbon dioxide emissions need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 to keep temperature rise within 1.5 degrees, according to IPCC analysis. This would be a formidable task given the current global energy structure. IMF estimates that global fossil fuel subsidies were US$5.9 trillion in 2020. Demand tanked during the pandemic last year but quickly rebounded, causing prices to soar. The global energy shortage is a sobering reminder of the world’s reliance on fossil fuels and the long road ahead to renewables.

Increase climate finance

The Glasgow Agreement emphasizes the need for climate finance and calls upon rich countries to follow through on their previous pledge to provide US$100 billion annually by 2020 to help poor ones adapt to climate change. The OECD estimates that only 80 percent of the promised amount was delivered by 2019. Many believe the actual amount is even smaller. Sharma said last week the pledge might be fulfilled by 2023.

There have long been concerns about loss and damage caused by climate change but rich countries, supposedly responsible for most of the emissions, are reluctant to compensate poor and vulnerable ones for it. Developing countries asked for a loss and damage fund at COP26 but the proposal did not make it into the final agreement.

However, the Glasgow Agreement does ask rich countries to double their spending by 2025 to reduce the negative impact of climate change (adaptation). OECD estimates that as of 2019 only 20 percent of climate finance was spent on adaptation. The Glasgow Agreement urges a balance between mitigation (i.e., cutting emission) and adaptation.

Use the market

Negotiations covered several unsettled issues in the Paris Agreement, principally the carbon market. After six years of negotiations, details are finally emerging of an emission credit trading framework. The framework will create a new global mechanism to offset emissions and use the market to fight global warming.