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What happened at COP26?

The 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) took place between the 31st of October and the 13th of November 2021 in Glasgow. The COP26 has been considered the most significant climate change conference since Paris. Back in 2015, during the conference in Paris, the legally binding Paris Agreement set forth a limit of 2 °C degrees to global temperature increase and an aim to stay below 1.5°C degrees. This agreement was adopted by 196 countries.


However, with current national pledges in place, the average temperature rise would be around 2.7°C to 3.5°C, according to a study from Imperial College London. Nonetheless, the research also highlights that with stricter regulations, the goals set by the Paris Agreement would be reachable. While the long-term net-zero targets introduced by countries often appear ambitious, the road to achieving those targets is not that smoothly laid out. Governments should ensure that their short-term policies match these long-term net-zero targets so they can be met by the middle of the century. All in all, many argue that COP26 can be seen as the reinforcement of the Paris Agreement. But is this really the case? What exactly does COP26 contribute to the prevention of climate change?

THE GLASGOW CLIMATE PACT

The climate conference in Glasgow ended with the agreement of all countries to the Glasgow Climate Pact, which primarily aims to keep the 1.5°C alive and complete the remaining parts of the Paris Agreement. However, the COP26 achievements go into much more detail as the summit revolved around the four objectives of “coal, cash, cars and trees” and addressed these through the framework of mitigation, adaptation & loss and damage, finance and lastly, collaboration. While this sounds rather abstract, let’s see how this framework translates to actual pledges.

MITIGATION

Climate change mitigation refers to the process of mitigating the effects of climate change: reducing and avoiding further greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere to prevent global warming from reaching more extreme temperatures. At COP26, world leaders have realised that the current national actions need to be strengthened to keep the 1.5°C temperature rise in sight. However, even half a degree of extra warming (meaning 2°C temperature increase) could have irreversible impacts on indigenous populations, small island states and essential ecosystems like coral reefs.


Under the Glasgow Climate Pact, 153 countries have put forward renewed Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). In these NDCs, countries lay down their national actions to combat greenhouse gas emissions in the short term to reach the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement. Although the updated NDCs are not all in line with the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 – meaning that the greenhouse gas emissions produced would be balanced out by the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions removed from the atmosphere – yet GHG emissions would still be significantly lower – around 5 billion tonnes – by 2030 if the updated NDCs were thoroughly followed and acted upon. With the pledges made under Paris Agreement, the temperature rise would be around 2.7-3.7°C. Yet the pledges under the Glasgow Climate Pact would keep temperature increase below 2°C, and if countries commit to their strengthened goals, the 1.5°C temperature rise could be achieved. However, to do so, coal power needs to be phased down, deforestation should be halted and reversed, the switch to electric cars accelerated, and methane emissions lowered.


Coal is the single largest contributor to anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change: accounting for 46% of GHG emissions on a global scale and 72% of total carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity sector. Coal is the primary fossil fuel that needs to be phased down: an action to which 190 countries have agreed. The transition to clean and renewable energy would be the desirable goal.


The agreement at COP26 also included the commitment of 137 countries to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. This is an essential step as forests not only play a crucial role in maintaining biodiversity but are able to extract GHG from the atmosphere. This means that their role in reducing climate change is extremely significant.


The transition to electric cars would reduce another big chunk of GHG emissions as road transport currently makes up around 10% of the global GHG emissions. While electric cars are a greener option than fossil fuel vehicles, their sustainability, in the long run, is questionable due to the lithium-ion batteries they run on. However, it is not only cars that release GHGs into the atmosphere through the burning of petrol or diesel; agricultural activities, oil and gas systems, wastewater management systems all produce methane – yet another highly potent GHG. Therefore, the agreement at COP26 also highlights methane reduction as a crucial step forward in reversing climate change.

ADAPTATION, LOSS & DAMAGE

Climate change adaptation entails the process of adapting, adjusting to the effects of climate change. Therefore, adaptation revolves around the need to manage the impacts of climate change such as rising sea levels, extreme weather conditions threatening the life of indigenous populations and so on. During the COP26 summit, countries were urged to develop their national pledges in accordance with climate change adaptation. In doing so, the Adaptation Research Alliance (ARA) launched at COP26 can be of enormous help. ARA is a network consisting of more than 60 organisations across 30 countries aiming to enhance the resilience of countries vulnerable to climate change. Several funding programmes between organisations and governments have been agreed upon at COP26 to reduce, avert and tackle loss and damage in vulnerable countries.

FINANCE & COLLABORATION

Finance is a crucial aspect to consider in the process of preventing further impacts of climate change. Therefore cash needs to be raised from both the public and private sectors. Even though it costs much less to act now and prevent further consequences of global warming than to wait and manage its impact later, significant investment is required to make the transition to greener alternatives possible. In 2009, developed nations agreed to raise $100 billion every year between 2020 and 2025 to enhance developing countries’ adaptation and GHG emission reduction. It appears that around $500 billion will be gathered between 2021 and 2025 to enable the use of renewable energies and other sustainable solutions by developing countries.


Collaboration is yet another critical element to achieving success in preventing climate change. Different views and opinions of different countries have halted the complete operationalisation of the Paris Agreement. Nonetheless, the COP26 served as the perfect opportunity to address these points and come up with joint solutions for previous disagreements. Common timeframes have been agreed upon to reduce emissions, for instance, alongside agreements about voluntary cooperation, novel carbon crediting mechanisms and non-market approaches.

Besides finding common ground, the Breakthrough Agenda also became endorsed by more than 40 countries that account for more than 70% of global GDP. The Breakthrough Agenda is comprised of four elements.

  1. The Power Breakthrough focuses on making clean energy accessible and usable by 2030.

  2. The Road Transport Breakthrough encourages the use of electric vehicles by making them reliable and affordable everywhere by 2030.

  3. The Steel Breakthrough highlights the preferred use of near-zero-emissions steel by 2030.

  4. Finally, the Hydrogen Breakthrough refers to the affordable, renewable and low carbon-hydrogen ensured availability globally by 2030.

OPPORTUNITIES AND OBSTACLES

Will COP26 achieve anything in the long run? The extent to which COP26 can be seen as a ground-breaking climate summit with feasible solutions to save the world from climate change is debatable. One of the major concerns is caused by the wording of “phasing down” coal instead of “phasing out.” The little nuance in the phrasing came as a last-minute change after India, the world’s third-largest GHG emitter, vehemently objected against “phasing out.” While this seems like a detail, Greta Thunberg, the 18-year-old climate activist, went as far as labelling the entire COP26 a “failure.”


Although the pledges made in the Glasgow Climate Pact appear noble and achievable at first sight, the question remains whether countries are able to get ahead with these commitments. Or even more crucial is to question whether governments can break away from the lobby of the fossil fuel industry. Just days before the COP26 kicked off, a leak of documents by Greenpeace showed that the largest coal, oil, beef and animal-feed producing countries tried to lobby the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to take out recommendations from the UN’s climate report that concern the phasing out of fossil fuels and cause any harm to their industries. Oil and gas companies often attempt to obstruct policies and alter the public perception by displaying themselves as the solution, not the cause of climate change.


Even though the Glasgow Climate Pact is not without flaws, progress has also been made – attempting to stop deforestation by 2030, aiming to protect nature and biodiversity, and to support developing nations by raising cash – just to revisit some main points. Whether countries remain committed to these pledges is yet to be seen.

The COP26 Glasgow Climate Pact is accessible through this link https://ukcop26.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/COP26-Presidency-Outcomes-The-Climate-Pact.pdf

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