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Nation/World

COP 26 climate conference makes small gains, leaves toughest issues to next year

Glasgow’s COP 26, billed as the last chance to save the world from catastrophic climate change, failed to make the radical steps scientists said were needed but finally ended in a political consensus agreement 24 hours later than planned.

The UK’s stated aim to “keep 1.5°C alive”, in other words to keep the planet’s temperature from exceeding that dangerous threshold of warming, was not achieved by the agreements at the conference. The world is still on course to warm by 2.4°C if all the country’s promises in Glasgow are kept. The hopes of keeping to 1.5°C were left “hanging by a thread”, said UN Secretary General António Guterres, relying on actions at next year’s COP 27 in Egypt and beyond.

The ministerial declaration by 197 countries did go further than at any past COP in pushing for more action on climate change. But much of it was in language “urging” governments to act, which #FridaysforFuture founder Greta Thunberg memorably characterized as “Blah, Blah, Blah.”

Countries were told, however, that to rescue the 1.5°C aspiration they must increase their efforts to reduce carbon emissions and come to COP 27 with updated plans for deeper emissions cuts by 2030.

Beyond that weak outcome, the whole conference nearly foundered on the issue of money for the developing world. There was an ambition to double the US$100 billion-a-year fund to adapt to climate change, but no separate funds to cover the sweeping loss and damage the world’s most vulnerable countries are already experiencing. This is a long-standing demand by the developing world for a reparation fund from the rich countries to help them survive and repair damage caused by extreme weather events like typhoons, floods, droughts, and sea level rise.

Several African countries, and particularly members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), rose to say the lack of funds for loss and damage was a major stumbling block to success, but they did not want to wreck the conference by refusing to join the consensus.

For the rich countries, including the issue at all was a concession, and giving loss and damage a section to itself in the ministerial declaration was seen as a sign they were taking it seriously. However, the United States, the European Union, Australia and the host nation, the United Kingdom, were all credited with blocking the inclusion of a Loss and Damage Finance Facility to provide funds for countries hit by extreme weather and sea level rise.

This united front by the rich world against reparations had been punctured earlier in the conference by Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, who won wide praise (along with a rare Ray of the Day award from Climate Action Network-International) for pledging £1 million to a new loss and damage fund for the poorest countries seeing the worst impacts of climate change. It is a tiny amount compared with the $1 trillion estimated damage already suffered because of the current 1.1°C rise in temperatures, but was seen as a precedent and a prompt for others to do better.

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Scotland’s bid was immediately backed with another $3 million from a group of Western philanthropic organizations, and Sturgeon later doubled her pledge to £2 million. By the end of the conference, it was not yet clear how these pledges would be delivered.

Another significant advance in the COP declaration was the mention of fossil fuels for the first time, with a call for parties to scale up clean power generation with a view to “accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.”

While it was the first mention of fossil fuels in any of the 26 COP declarations to date, the subsidy wording was a disappointment for many. Some wanted a statement that said all coal, oil, and gas should be phased out, while others wanted the word “inefficient” removed in an attempt to get all fossil fuel subsidies stopped. Global fossil fuel subsidies ran to $5.9 trillion in 2020, or $11.2 million a minute, far more than any aid package offered to the developing world to combat climate change. 

As well, the declaration language on coal was watered down from a stronger call to phase out the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel, the result of a last-minute intervention by India’s Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav in the closing round of plenary deliberations. That unexpected twist was seen as an underhanded tactic by many, one that will play out to the detriment of India’s own citizens and the rest of the developing world.

“This commitment on coal had been a bright spot in this package,” said Marshall Islands Climate Envoy Tina Stege. “It was one of the things we were hoping to carry out of here and back home with pride. And it hurts deeply to see that bright spot dim.”

But “because the UN operates by consensus, the other delegations didn’t have much choice,” the Globe and Mail explains. “There wasn’t time for further negotiation, and if they rejected India’s amendment, the Glasgow Climate Pact would collapse.”

Stege still defended the deal in a Twitter thread Saturday.

“This Package is not perfect,” she wrote. “The coal change and a weak outcome on loss and damage are blows. But it is real progress and elements of the Glasgow Package are a lifeline for my country.”

Those wins include:

• A decision to double funding for climate change adaptation, a “very hard-fought win” that was not at all certain when the High-Ambition Coalition (HAC) bloc of countries began a “dawn to dusk” campaign to make it happen;

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• The call to accelerate the emission reduction promises in countries’ NDCs this decade, which likewise “didn’t always seem possible” during the negotiations.

Stege added that “a plan is only as good as its implementation. All Parties must now go home and get to work to deliver on their Glasgow and Paris commitments.” And with COP 26 bringing an end to six years of negotiations to finalize Article 6, the deeply contentious section of the Paris Agreement dealing with international carbon trading, she tweeted that “we need to remain vigilant against greenwashing, protect environmental integrity, & protect human rights & the rights of Indigenous peoples.”

Former Marshallese president Hilda Heine tweeted back her thanks to Stege for “doing your best for SIDS [small island developing states] under the circumstances. Disappointed EU and US, HAC members, did not rally behind funding facility to support the vulnerable respond to loss and damages caused by industrialized world’s addiction” to fossil fuels.

Overall, the conference was a victory for the rich nations, many of which had fossil fuel advocates in their delegations, against the countries already suffering from climate change, many of which were under-represented at the conference because of COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine apartheid.

Language by diplomats and ministers on the conference floor was polite, but non-government organizations were disappointed at the lack of ambition.

Perhaps the feelings and views of the developing world were best summed up by a blistering attack by African civil society, the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, on the “failure of the COP”. They said the outcome was focused on the Northern agenda to defer urgent action on climate and pursue half-measures while oppressing Africa.

The statement said many African states and observers had felt excluded from the conference, with the U.K. organizers restricting access to meetings and forums so African voices were not heard at the conference.

“COP 26 has perpetuated the mutual suspicion and mistrust that has characterized the climate debate so far,” the Alliance said, in a statement on behalf of 1,000 grassroots organizations in 48 countries. “This is a COP that has failed Africa, with measures tailored to ignore the urgent needs of the continent. The conference lacked the clear foresight to squarely address the climate emergency.”

The statement detailed the damage to agriculture, health, and infrastructure that warming, droughts, and floods are already causing a continent where some countries are already spending more on climate adaptation than on education and health care. It said funds to compensate for loss and damage, and for adaptation, were urgently needed now but not forthcoming.

“There has been a lack of understanding of our plight, lack of concern by parties we considered friends, but we find they are hostile,” the statement said.

It pointed out that Africa is responsible for only 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but is the most vulnerable to climate change and least able to protect itself. 

“When we came here, we thought the U.K. would be different,” the Alliance said. “It was the country that perhaps had most benefitted from the industrial revolution. At last, this was a unique opportunity to change direction, to correct the wrongs of the past, but it has not been taken. We have not seen leadership or the determination.”

As for the U.K., which hosted the talks in Glasgow, there has been wide praise for COP President Alok Sharma, appointed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to run the meeting. He had the difficult job of producing a final document to which everyone could agree.

However, the U.K. government was described by insiders as lacking political commitment early enough, and being ill-prepared for the complex task of getting 30,000 delegates organized and briefed for the complex negotiations. The series of compromises in the final declaration watered down action on reducing emissions and failed to give the developing countries the financial help they needed.  The final declaration could be described as a too-small step on the way to climate safety, but certainly not a triumph.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.


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