Earlier this month, leaders from nations across the world gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, to discuss a critical subject: climate change. While COP26 was initially scheduled for last fall, due to COVID-19, it was pushed out to this year. But, some notable figures were still missing from the summit: President Xi Jinping of China, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil all decided to skip the trek to Scotland this year. Although some have deemed the conference a success, others have noted that while it contained many promises, it lacked plans for concrete actions. So, what were some of these critical initiatives discussed at COP26?
COP26 was a United Nations climate conference that represented the first time parties of the Paris Agreement were slated to reassess their emissions targets to limit warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius
The conference addressed several vital topics, including meeting this warming target, phasing down coal, cutting methane emissions, funding poorer nations to adapt to climate change, and ending deforestation.
One of the biggest successes was an agreement by major financial institutions to align their portfolios with the warming target.
The conference will reconvene next year as COP27 and member parties will again revisit their targets.
One of the best ways you can help combat climate change is to reduce your emissions—installing a solar system through EnergySage is a great place to start!
In 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) created an international treaty to avoid dangerous human interference with climate change. The Convention has negotiated key international environmental treaties, including the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, and is currently ratified by 197 countries. These countries are all represented by the Convention of the Parties (COP)—the Convention's decision-making body—which meets yearly to discuss progress in the fight against climate change.
One of the key commitments of the Paris Agreement was nationally determined contributions (NDCs), or non-binding targets set by individual countries to cut (in the case of wealthy nations) or curb (in the case of developing nations) greenhouse gas emissions—for most countries, by 2030. However, the targets set by governments were not aggressive enough to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels (with an absolute threshold of 2 degrees Celsius).
Based on initial NDCs, the world was still slated to warm 3 degrees Celsius or more, which would be catastrophic according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. Therefore, France decided to build a "ratchet mechanism" into the Paris Agreement, making the countries return every five years with updated plans to achieve the 1.5 degrees target. The 2021 United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference, COP26, represented the first time parties of the Paris Agreement were set to submit updated NDCs, helping to determine if we're on track to stay within the warming threshold.
COP26 culminated in the Glasgow Climate Pact—an agreement between parties. But what exactly does this agreement include? And what initiatives do environmentalists think it's missing?
1. Meeting the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming target
According to the organizers of COP26, the central goal of the conference was to set a path to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming goal set by the Paris Agreement. According to the 2021 IPCC report, staying within this threshold is vital to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The Glasgow Climate Pact states that we'll need to reduce global carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030 to reach this goal, and many countries have added long-term net zero emissions statements to their NDCs. However, the UN Environment Program released a report following the conference, finding that the updated NDCs are insufficient to meet the 1.5-degree warming target. According to the report, if the countries stick to their NDCs, the world will still be on track to warm 2.5 degrees Celsius.
2. "Phasing down" coal
Coal was another central topic discussed at COP26, resulting in the first-ever international commitment to limit the unabated use of coal power. Notably, the final text of the Glasgow Climate Pact includes an agreement to "phase down" coal, as opposed to "phase out" coal, which was a subject of intense debate—the word change occurred last minute under pressure from India. Consequently, some countries indicated that they wouldn't completely phase out coal use until 2040, which may be too little too late. However, for the first time, India, one of the world's largest consumers of coal, set a net zero emissions deadline for 2070 and stated that at least half of their emissions would come from sources other than fossil fuels by 2030. Additionally, the United States and China surprisingly reached an agreement to cut emissions, including a promise from China to phase down coal starting in 2026—though they didn't specify exact numbers—which follows a recent pledge by China to stop developing coal plants abroad.
3. Cutting methane emissions
While methane is released in lower quantities than carbon dioxide, it's a more potent greenhouse gas because it's more efficient at trapping heat. Thus, cutting methane emissions was also an important goal of COP26. The Glasgow Climate Pact included an agreement from over 100 countries to cut methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. The Biden administration led this push, announcing that the Environmental Protection Agency would reduce methane emissions from one million oil and gas rigs in the United States. Additionally, China, the world's largest emitter of methane, announced for the first time that it would be developing a plan to limit methane emissions.
4. Providing funding for poorer nations
While climate change will eventually impact everyone living on Earth, those hit the worst and first will be poorer countries—particularly island nations. One of the biggest debates at COP26 was how to protect and compensate these countries: while poorer nations are largely bearing the brunt of climate change, they have been the least significant contributors to the problem, placing equity at the heart of the argument. In 2001, the UNFCCC established the Adaptation Fund to finance climate change adaptation efforts for developing nation parties of the Kyoto Protocol. COP26 included record-breaking pledges from countries to support the Adaptation Fund, totaling $356 million. The Glasgow Climate Pact also urges wealthier nations to double annual financing for adaptation by 2025. However, this still falls far short of the $70 billion yearly funding the UN Environment Program estimates that developing nations need.
At COP26, parties reached a deal on how to regulate the international trade of carbon offsets, allowing countries to pollute more by paying for emissions reductions elsewhere. Developing nations argued that they should receive a portion of the proceeds from the trading market to help them build resilience. Still, they were unsuccessful due to pressure from wealthy countries. In addition to necessary adaptation funds, many developing countries also feel they deserve compensation for the damages caused by climate change – an issue referred to as "loss and damage." This funding would pay for losses that are less tangible, such as ecosystems and culture – but again, the initiative was blocked by wealthier nations.
5. Ending deforestation
One potential victory from COP26 was a pledge from leaders of over 100 countries, including the United States, Brazil, China, and Russia, to end deforestation by 2030. Maintaining healthy forests is crucial for combating climate change because trees act as a carbon sink, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This pledge would protect about 85 percent of the world's forests, but some environmentalists are not convinced it will succeed, arguing that similar promises have previously failed.
One crucial step towards reaching the 1.5 degrees warming target is aligning the finance industry with the goal. At COP26, over 450 global financial institutions, collectively controlling about $130 trillion in assets, committed to using the money to meet net zero emissions by 2050. These institutions will report the emissions they finance yearly and review their targets every five years to assess their success. While some critics have argued that it doesn't prevent investors from funding fossil fuels, the pledge has largely been lauded for placing climate change as a central focus of financial decisions over the next few decades.
No global courts exist to enforce the pledges made at COP26—so their success will largely be determined by goodwill and pressure from other nations. Because the conference lacked plans for tangible actions, the Glasgow Climate Pact calls for member parties to "revisit and strengthen" their NDCs by COP27, which takes place in November 2022 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. This request accelerates the typical five-year timeline for nations to reassess their NDCs. Parties of UNFCCC will also meet in the United Arab Emirates in 2023 for COP28 to determine if countries are fulfilling their commitments to the Paris Agreement and if we're on track to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming target.
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