What Happened at COP26 in Glasgow?

What happened at COP26

COP26 has wrapped up this week with gruelling negotiations from national delegates overrunning by 24 hours. After a lot of talk, finally an agreement has been reached that can be signed-off by all 196 countries in attendance. 

COP takes place every year and is an attempt to create an international consensus on how to fight climate change. COP26 is important as it is the first time, since the seminal Paris Climate Agreement, that countries have to show the changes made to their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to cutting carbon emissions. 

A lot has happened with some big achievements but there is still a long way to go. Polluting and fossil fuel producing nations like Saudi Arabia, Australia and Russia still present a big obstacle, but with the progress made over the last fortnight limiting global temperature rises to 1.5C is possible (just). 

The biggest agreements and disagreements at COP26

Stopping deforestation 

An agreement to stop and reverse deforestation was signed by 100 world leaders at the beginning of COP26. This is good news as the world’s forests sequester 10 million metric tonnes of carbon each year, the equivalent of emissions from 2 million cars. $14 billion dollars of public and private money is promised to make the aim of halting deforestation by 2030 a reality. 

Deforestation agreements at COP26

Signatories are from countries which cover 85% of the world’s forests and 28 governments have committed to removing deforestation from global trade, connected as it is to agriculture. The big news is that top culprits for deforestation including Russia, Brazil and Indonesia have signed. This is excellent news considering the leadership of both Russia and Brazil are seen as climate sceptics. 

Cutting methane 

Over 100 countries signed a pledge to cut methane by 30% by 2030. Cutting methane is considered to be ‘low hanging fruit’ in that it is easier than reducing CO2 emissions. The move was championed by US president Joe Biden who teamed up with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to make the surprise announcement. Biden has said he will focus on reducing emissions from oil and gas wells by improving infrastructure.

The move could achieve a reduction of 0.2C in warming in the short term which would improve extreme weather. Public health and agriculture will also improve as methane causes ground-level ozone pollution. 

Methane has 20 times the warming power of CO2 once in the atmosphere but breaks down faster. 

Phasing out coal

The goal of ‘consigning coal to history’ was one of the UK government’s key targets of COP26 and while the outcomes have been ambiguous, some progress has been made. 

40 countries – including big coal users Poland, Ukraine, Indonesia and South Korea – have agreed to phase out coal by the 2030s and 2040s. 100 financial institutions have also promised to phase out financing for coal projects.

Climate agreements to phase out coal

However, unfortunately large coal users and producers China, India, Australia and the US are missing from the pledge. 

Some wording in the final COP26 agreement on stopping coal-use has been retained although it was weakened by an intervention from India at the last minute. 

Coal is the most polluting fossil fuel and needs to be phased out as soon as possible to retain the possibility of ‘keeping 1.5C alive’.

Green finance 

450 financial organisations have agreed to back green technology such as solar and wind power. Meanwhile two fifths of the world’s financial assets which are controlled by banks and pension funds have committed to net-zero by 2050. Encouragingly, included in this are Chinese public banks who have been big backers of coal power station projects. 

Wind and solar agreements at COP26

Unfortunately no agreement was reached on phasing out fossil fuel subsidies due to interventions from India and Iran, however it is hoped that redirecting the flow of money away from oil and gas and towards clean energy may ease the transition to a green economy. 

The biggest financial sticking point has been providing money for poorer nations to transition to a green economy and to adapt to climate change which they are already experiencing. The world is currently at 1.1C above pre-industrial levels and low-lying and equatorial nations are already feeling the effects. Famine in Madagascar, sea level rise in Tuvalu and increased tornadoes in Barbados and Fiji and just some examples of the problems poor nations face from increased global temperatures. 

12 years ago in Copenhagen wealthy nations promised $100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020 to developing countries, a figure which has never been met. A coalition of the country’s most stricken by climate change were asking for $1.3 trillion by 2030 but this was refused. It is worth remembering that most of the carbon already in the atmosphere was pumped out by European and North American nations since the 1800s. This means that the countries currently most affected by climate change have played almost no role in the causes of their predicament. 

Is it enough? 

If all countries stick to their current NDCs the world will heat to 2.4C above pre-industrial levels. It cannot be stated enough that this will be disastrous. The projections of 2.4C heating are dire and would see extreme weather, desertification of much of West Africa, heat waves and fires in the Mediterranean and the US, and crop failures all over the world. The implication for population movement and food supplies are clear. 

There is still hope to limit global temperatures to 1.5C and one of the huge steps at COP26 has been an agreement that countries will improve their NDCs by next year’s COP, in Egypt. Previously plans only had to be reworked every five years. 

Emissions need to be cut by 45% this decade to achieve 1.5C. Projections at the Paris COP in 2015 showed the earth would warm by 3.6C, so some improvements have been made but not enough.

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