What was achieved at the COP26 climate summit?

A view of the action hub at the COP 26 venue in Glasgow. Photo: Sibi Arasu
Hindustan Times

What was achieved at the COP26 climate summit?

“When will leaders lead? Our people are watching. And our people are taking note. And are we really going to leave Scotland without the resolve and the ambition that is sorely needed to save lives and to save our planet? Are we so blinded and hardened that we can no longer appreciate the cries of humanity?” Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley’s stirring speech marked the beginning of the United Nations’ COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, on 2 November. With CO2 levels in the atmosphere at 414 parts per million—50% higher than the pre-industrial era—global temperatures 1.17 degrees Celsius higher than 150 years ago, and the world on the path to catastrophic warming by 2050, Mottley’s concern was justified. COP26 was to be the most significant climate summit since the 2015 summit that led to the Paris Agreement.

The mandate for the Glasgow summit was fairly clear. Encourage member nations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—the Conference of Parties, or COP—to present improved national decarbonisation plans that will limit global warming rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius; adopt resolutions that call for phasing out fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas; get wealthy nations to deliver on climate finance to poor and vulnerable countries; fix rules so that the Paris Agreement could start functioning. 

As laid out very clearly by a report released during the summit by the independent scientific analysis Climate Action Tracker, a tally of voluntary national commitments towards mitigating climate change (nationally determined contributions, or NDCs) shows that the world is on course to heating by a catastrophic 2.4 degrees Celsius by 2100. The global science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is very clear that emissions must be cut by 45% by 2030 for the 1.5 degrees goal to remain alive. Current trajectories show that global carbon emissions are set to rise by 13.7% by 2030 instead. 

After two weeks of intense negotiations and last-minute wrangling on the final draft of resolutions adopted by the summit, COP26 was, on the whole, a missed opportunity. When the English politician and COP26 president Alok Sharma brought the gavel down to mark the end of the summit on 13 November, the planet remained on the 2.4 degrees Celsius path. 

But some progress was made. With time running out, it was decided that nations will now have to come forward with improved NDCs more often, next before the COP27 summit at Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt. Moreover, the fact that fossil fuels are a cause of global warming was included in the final COP decision, a first since the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and an achievement in itself in the face of determined opposition from coal and oil exporting countries. It was agreed that the amount of climate finance for adapting to the loss inflicted by climate change would be doubled by 2025. Most crucially, a consensus was reached that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees was the true goal of the UNFCCC process. 

As the dust begins to settle on what has been named the “Glasgow Pact” and the city that played host returns to its rather low-key self, the jury is still out on the answer to the key question: Is it too little, too late, for modern civilisation to act effectively against the climate crisis? As far as the UNFCCC process itself goes, the New Zealand delegate’s intervention in one of the final plenaries summed it up well. “The text we have here in front of us is far from satisfying and it does not go far enough. Having said that, this is the least worst outcome since not having an outcome at all would mean that there is complete inaction against climate change for one more year.”

While there is an incredible amount of analysis and news about the summit, we try to cut through the jargon and press releases to see what was and wasn’t truly accomplished. 

India in the spotlight

India has always had an important role to play in COP negotiations but at COP26 it made two far-reaching interventions that bookended the summit. First, on 1 November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sprung a surprise by announcing a net-zero target for 2070. Lounge had earlier reported that 2070 might be the most feasible date for the country but India going ahead and declaring a date after scoffing at such an idea prior to the summit was a surprise. While this hogged the headlines, Modi also announced four 2030 targets that are much more interesting. India has promised to generate 50% of its energy through renewable energy (RE) by 2030 and have 500 GW of installed non-fossil fuel energy capacity by that year. Also by 2030, India plans to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 45% (from 2005 levels). In another first, India set an absolute target of reducing carbon emissions by one billion tonnes by 2030. It’s still unclear whether these targets will count as India’s official, updated NDC.

Speaking to Lounge, Ulka Kelkar, director, climate program, World Resources Institute India, says these are ambitious goals which give a decisive signal that India plans to meet its new energy requirements from non-fossil fuel sources. “Right now RE accounts for a 26% share of the installed electricity capacity. That has to become 50%. So what India is effectively promising the world is that all of our new energy needs will be met from clean sources. If you plan to build 500 GW of non-fossil capacity, and you want to take the RE share to 50% and reduce the emissions intensity, while cutting emissions, what India is saying is that in this decade alone, emissions from our power sector will pretty much stop growing.” This, she suggests, is quite unprecedented for a country that’s still growing and whose energy needs are still unmet. And it will also have an effect on other sectors of the economy.

India’s other intervention, alongside China, in the hectic closing hours of the summit was much more controversial. As two countries that are still overwhelmingly reliant on coal for current energy needs, India and China objected to the language of the final draft resolution that called for a “phase out” of coal. They pushed for it to be diluted to “phase down”, and after much wrangling, Alok Sharma agreed. India has faced some criticism for this but analysts have called this a reflection of India’s lack of choice, while others have pointed to climate injustice, where the COP resolution didn’t mention any phasing out of oil and gas, which developed nations depend on. Unnamed Union government officials have since been quoted in the media as saying that India hadn't asked for the change in language but had merely read out a “consensus” statement.

“India is representing all developing countries at this forum. In Paris, what India promised, India delivered. Even now, we will give all the information on NDCs at the right time,” said Bhupender Yadav, Union minister of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC), at a meeting inside the India delegation’s offices in Glasgow.

The rather sizeable Indian delegation, with a total of 135 registered participants, claimed it had received good feedback from other countries about the announcements. “There has been a general positive reception to India’s announcements. People have spoken about it and congratulated India in various forums. India’s announcements have been sensible and balanced,” said T. Jayaraman, senior fellow-climate change, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, and a registered participant from India at COP26. 

Veterans of the COP process, especially from developing countries, also felt India set the right tone as soon as the conference began. Natalie Unterstell of the Brazilian climate policy think tank Talanoa told Lounge: “I think the whole world wants to help India move faster and the announcements give us a lot of hope. We are counting on India to do the transition and for the country to become a faster implementer will be crucial. Having said that, climate finance will be critical too.”

Show us the money

At Glasgow, Modi had demanded that the developed world make available $1 trillion (around  ₹74 trillion) to help developing countries make the transition to RE. Climate and adaptation finance was stated to play a big role in Glasgow, and indeed it did. But despite some process-oriented victories for developing nations, it was a story of disappointment.

The first blow was the $100 billion per year in climate finance to developing countries that was supposed to become operational from 2020. Before the summit got under way, a report authorised by the COP26 presidency looking into the state of climate finance found that developed countries were falling short by $20 billion for the first payout. It was also reported that the first instalment would be $90 billion and will be available only next year, and $106 billion would be available in 2023. Unfortunately, this is where it remains even now.

Another big demand from developing countries, and especially those that are most vulnerable to climate change, was regarding finance to boost adaptation. Countries in the global south are already experiencing loss of life and damage to properties and assets due to extreme weather events triggered by climate change. A need to increase finance from developed nations was needed, beyond the current 25% share of total climate finance. A hotly debated topic centred on climate justice, this is another area in which developing countries faced disappointment. No new announcements came but the final agreement did take note of this. 

The text says that it “urges developed country parties to at least double their collective provision of climate finance for adaptation to developing country parties from 2019 levels by 2025, in the context of achieving a balance between mitigation and adaptation in the provision”. In COP-speak, “urges” is, of course, not as strong as “decides”, but it is not as bad as “requests”. For a mandate as key as financing long-term climate adaptation in developing countries, this is as much progress as has ever been made within the COP process. “Climate finance is not charity. It is their commitment. This is their historical responsibility. It is what they promised,” said Yadav. For developing countries at the front line of the consequences of climate change, this finance is crucial to handle growing risks.

Fossil fuels, guilty as charged

Since the Kyoto Protocol, the term “fossil fuel” has never been mentioned in the cover decisions emerging from climate change conferences. This finally changed this year, as the summit clearly stated that the source of global warming and climate change-related impacts comes from the unrestricted burning of fossil fuels for the past 150 years. 

“It is really historical if this term is there because we are talking about climate change in terms of the atmosphere, emissions, as if it’s a faraway thing. We know at the end of the day that really doing transitions and keeping fossil fuels in the ground is crucial. This is something that has not happened in 30 years. It is obvious to everyone, yes. But now it is there in international law,” said Unterstell. Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, acknowledged that this is a breakthrough. “The line on phasing out unabated coal and fossil fuel subsidies is weak and compromised but its very existence is nevertheless a breakthrough, and the focus on a just transition is essential,” she said.

A tale of many pledges

By the time the summit wound up, a plethora of pledges had been made. If these are followed up, they will make a serious dent in global warming. Of course, only time and various NDCs will tell if the pledges become more than just rhetoric. 

The most headline-grabbing pledges were when the US and China, geopolitical foes and the world’s top emitters, agreed to boost cooperation on combating climate change over the next decade. Even though they said they will be working together on increasing the use of renewable energy, developing regulatory frameworks and deploying technologies such as carbon capture, details are yet to be delivered by either country. As of now, one can only hope that this is not just a paper tiger. 

Other key pledges included one to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030—signed by over 130 countries (though not India)—a global methane pledge that aims to collectively slash methane emissions by 30% by 2030, and at least 23 countries making new commitments to phase out coal. 

One negotiator from the Group of 77 (which includes India) and China negotiating bloc, who didn’t want to be named, was not very optimistic about the pledges. He said: “If you take the US-China announcement, except for the fact that they are again working together, nothing new was announced. China has not committed to any domestic phase-out of coal either.” The negotiator, a veteran of many COPs, went on to add: “I think leading up to the COP and even here, everything has been about net zero and climate finance. Declaring net zero doesn’t mean you will reach net zero, you need a credible pathway. It is not as if in 2030 or 2050 there will suddenly be a magic wand which will make all the emissions go away. So I would take these pledges with a huge pinch of salt.”

A bittersweet victory

Leading up to the summit, most civil society organisations, island states and many developing countries were demanding that loss and damage, considered by some as the “fourth pillar” of the Paris Agreement, be addressed strongly.

Developed countries have historically resisted any debate related to loss and damage. “It is very clear why the reluctance is there. They are afraid of making themselves open to liability and compensation. As you know, even the term ‘loss and damage’ is, in fact, a euphemism for a liabilities and compensation fund. We have finally forced them to talk about it here,” said Prof. Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Bangladesh.

There were tense negotiations on the issue, which is nested under the rather technical-sounding Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage (WIM). Finally, towards the end of the summit, the Santiago Network, a process created at the Madrid COP in 2019 to deal with loss and damage issues, was “fully operationalised”. The results of these mechanisms will probably be seen next year at COP27, and beyond. 

“We have made tangible progress but there is still a lot more to do. According to my metric of success, I think we have achieved what most of us wanted to get. We have got recognition for the issue and set the groundwork for some concrete action to be taken, hopefully, in the near future,” said Vicente Yu, a Filipino lawyer and lead negotiator on loss and damage for the G77 and China.

Harjeet Singh, senior adviser at Climate Action Network International, was less optimistic. “People are losing everything. Even though we have made the issue of loss and damage reach political consciousness, just a tiny bit of technical assistance is not enough,” he said. The G77 and China bloc had tabled a proposal for a Glasgow Loss and Damage Funding Facility; this wasn’t accepted by the COP presidency. “COP26 fails to respond to the urgency of acting on climate change and helping people rebuild their ravaged homes and farms. While the outcome from the summit recognised the gap in dealing with losses and damages in developing countries, the step to provide finance and deliver justice to the climate victims has been delayed. We are walking in inches when we must move in miles,” Singh said. 

In her address, Mottley had said, “Failure to provide critical finance and that of loss and damage is measured in lives and livelihoods in our communities. This is immoral. And it is unjust.” It remains to be seen if this crucial part of climate negotiations will be given as much importance as net-zero pledges at COP27. 

Out on the streets of Glasgow

Even as the summit was going on in what was called the “Blue Zone”, which was cordoned off by concentric layers of security, there were thousands of people from all over the UK and elsewhere marching and protesting on the streets of Glasgow for climate justice and climate action. On consecutive days over the first weekend of the summit, Glasgow saw protests and rallies with over 50,000 people attending. There were speeches from climate leaders like Greta Thunberg from Sweden and Vanessa Nakate from Uganda. They castigated the COP’s lack of ambition, with Thunberg calling the summit a failure. 

A People’s Summit had also been organised by the COP26 Coalition, an umbrella organisation of climate justice movements. This was attended by public intellectuals and activists from different parts of the world. They held discussions and gave speeches for three days that coincided with COP26. The greatest overflow of people’s critique of the slow-moving and process-oriented COP into the Blue Zone was seen during a people’s plenary that was hosted at the summit on the penultimate day. Climate scientists, activists and members of civil society made vociferous demands that leaders do more to restrict global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. They staged a walkout following the plenary to reassert their point that the COP exercise is not living up to expectations. 

Many small protests by indigenous people from different parts of the world and climate activist groups like 350.org, Fridays for Future and the Extinction Rebellion did manage to squeeze through security and protest right outside the Blue Zone. “I think the whole summit is a failure. I cannot believe they are treating our future like something they can negotiate,” said Dominika Lasota, a young Fridays for Future activist from Poland. “Most people making these promises won’t be alive in 2050; we want to know what will happen next year, not what will happen in some distant point in the future,” she added. Her fellow activist, Sriranjani Raman from Fridays for Future, India, chimed in: “The Blue Zone represents probably 0.5% of the people. Things here are completely contradictory to what is happenings on the streets. Outside, people are asking for finance being delivered from rich countries to the most vulnerable countries. On the streets you see leadership, urgency, the severity of the climate crisis and demands for climate justice. In here you see cocktail drinks, nice conversation and greenwashing. It is bizarre.”

COP26 president Alok Sharma, the very archetype of the “uncaring politician” that climate activists love to hate, seemed to be on the same page as the activists. After the emotional ending to his COP presidency, he was clear about the way forward. “We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees alive. But its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action.” 

This story was produced as part of the 2021 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.

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