Thoughts On COP26

Our thoughts on COP26 – Reflections on The Glasgow Climate Pact

Written by Ipek Gencsu, Rathin Roy, Annalisa Prizzon, Yue Cao, Sarah Colenbrander, Anna Locke, Mairi Dupar, Maximiliano Mendez-Parra, Emily Wilkinson, Thomas Tanner, Carmen Leon-Himmelstine, Emilie Tant

Hero image description: UNFCCC COP26 declaration announcement November 13, 2021.Image credit:UNFCCC COP26 declaration announcement November 13, 2021. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 UNclimatechange (https://www.flickr.com/photos/unfccc/)

Throughout the COP26 conference we’ll be sharing our views on the developing stories here. To browse all our analysis and research, visit our COP26 webpage

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November 15 – Sarah Colenbrander, Director of Programme, Climate and Sustainability

Moving past the blame game to keep 1.5 alive: reflections on the Glasgow Climate Pact

COP26 is over and uneasy agreement has been reached. There is no sense of triumph as there was after the Paris Agreement was finalised, but there is relief that consensus could be forged at all given tense geopolitical relations and the devastation wreaked by the Covid-19 pandemic.

While the Glasgow Climate Pact and the frenzy of pledges during the first week clearly signal that a decarbonised future is on its way, they are almost certainly too little too late to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Given the impossible task at hand, people were anticipating failure and pointing the finger of blame long before COP26 began. Western media highlighted the absence of China’s Xi Jinping from the conference and criticised India’s target of reaching carbon neutrality in 2070. Both countries have since been condemned for weakening the language around coal and fossil fuel subsidies.

Meanwhile, delegates from developing countries condemned wealthy countries’ failure to provide the annual $100 billion for climate action pledged back in 2009. They also criticised the UK for the delays in distributing vaccines and last-minute changes to quarantine rules. Within the conference itself, the most vulnerable countries were furious at rich countries’ unwillingness to pay for loss and damage caused by climate change, while middle-income countries accused rich countries of carbon colonialism.

So what are the wins within the Glasgow Climate Pact? What are the losses? Where does responsibility lie for the glacial pace of climate action? And how can we accelerate it after COP26?

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The wins

The Glasgow Climate Pact has some important breakthroughs. Perhaps the most striking is the commitment to accelerate ‘efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies’ (paragraph 36). As Ipek Gençsü says:

“This is a welcome if overdue recognition of the central role of coal, oil and gas in fuelling climate collapse, and of the way that governments continue to prop up these industries. Of course, it’s not wholly new: G20 governments had pledged to end ‘inefficient’ fossil fuel subsidies back in 2009 and they have made negligible progress, continuing to subsidise fossil fuels to the tune of $584 billion a year.

Unfortunately, the text from COP26 does not go far enough. We have no proven means of abatement at scale and governments can continue to claim, falsely, that only few of their subsidies are ‘inefficient’. And through their ongoing support for fossil fuels they not only drive climate collapse, but also numerous other adverse impacts such as air pollution and related health impacts, congestion, and exposure to fuel price volatility. It now falls once again to civil society to hold governments to account on these inadequate pledges. But that, we will.”

Most importantly, the ‘ratchet mechanism’ of the Paris Agreement has proven itself at Glasgow. The requirement that countries submit enhanced climate targets – Nationally Determined Contributions – every five years successfully created a moment where political leaders were held accountable for their climate policies or lack thereof. Thus climate laggards such as Australia and Saudi Arabia felt pressured to show up to COP26 with net-zero targets, however dubious their underlying plans to reach it. If countries deliver their new pledges and targets, warming could be held to 2.1°C.

Moreover, the Glasgow Climate Pact introduces a new ratchet, requesting countries to revisit and strengthen their 2030 targets by the end of 2022 (paragraph 29). This request is a welcome effort to “keep 1.5 alive”, contrasting the scientific consensus that emissions need to fall quickly with the political reality that many wealthy, polluting nations have shown up with inadequate targets. Countries like Australia, Canada, Norway, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States might have announced net-zero targets – but they also plan to expand fossil fuel production. Renewed pressure next year will be necessary to raise ambition.

The losses

On other fronts, the Glasgow Climate Pact is disappointing.

One of the core objectives of COP26 was to finally pin down the rulebook for international carbon accounting and trading, governed by Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. The design of Article 6 could drive greater climate ambition or enable greenwashing. The details underpinning Article 6 could not be resolved in Paris, and deliberations have since dragged out through COPs in Bonn, Katowice, Madrid and Marrakech. The Glasgow Climate Pact takes a step forward, but Simon Maxwell notes the ongoing risks to a fair, robust global carbon market:

“Glasgow did not go as far as hoped in cleaning up carbon markets, but has given new impetus to the idea of finding least-cost ways internationally to quickly reduce emissions – and carbon trading can help keep us on the path to 1.5°C. Rich countries beware, however: offshoring emission reductions by buying carbon credits abroad means losing the co-benefits of climate action: clean air, better health and faster technical change.

Of course, these negotiations have taken place as the EU plans and US considers introducing border carbon adjustments. These policies risk harming exporters in low-income countries. They should be accompanied by technical and financial support to green supply chains in developing countries. Greener, fairer trade will benefit both poverty reduction and climate action.”

Perhaps expectations for COP26 were too high. Another climate conference could never deliver the deep emission cuts required to limit global warming; that depends on radical new climate policies by the largest emitters. However, given that average temperatures have already increased by 1.1°C since pre-industrial times and that there are no immediate prospects of the rapid decarbonisation necessary to limit warming to 1.5°C, Emily Wilkinson concludes that Glasgow should have pivoted towards a firm financial commitment:

“Small island states face an existential threat from climate change, a tragedy to which the phrase “loss and damage” does not do justice. Nor does the Glasgow Climate Pact offer much justice on loss and damage. While we welcome the commitment to double adaptation finance by 2025, small island states and other highly vulnerable countries are facing climate shocks and stresses beyond their ability to adapt. COP26 should have introduced a new facility to finance loss and damage. Instead, it promised another talk fest. Small island states have already spoken at 26 COPs and counting while temperatures and sea levels have risen. Now they need finance for loss and damage – and they need it fast.”

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The scapegoats

The principle of common but differentiated responsibility is at the heart of the UN climate accords. Yet that principle seems to have been forgotten in recent wrangling, with developing countries like China and India accused of lacking climate ambition and developed countries like EU member states accused of not paying up. But these accusations have not always been fair. Let’s look at some of the numbers.

“Developed countries” (as defined within the archaic UNFCCC system) account for less than 13% of the global population and nearly 50% of cumulative emissions. By comparison, India accounts for nearly 18% of the world’s population and just over 3% of cumulative emissions. It currently produces just 7% of annual emissions. Given its widespread poverty and small carbon footprint, India is entitled to a larger share of our remaining carbon budget alongside time and support to eventually reach net-zero. As Rathin Roy suggests below:

“Human development (and biodiversity, for that matter) are sideshows at Glasgow, with good reason. Scapegoats have to be found for the real reason why Glasgow is engaging in a collective delusion and obsessing, Soviet style, with a net zero target rather than an equitable pathway to getting there…

I am interested in the pathway to net zero, presumably for the same reasons as the Prime Minister of India. A pathway that bucks the interests of the global rich and embraces a wider understanding of sustainable development that improves the quality of India’s built environment and agriculture, that safeguards its biodiversity, that does not debauch India’s coastlines forests and oceans, that prioritises lifeline over lifestyle energy.”

China was also scapegoated before the deliberations, especially before the revelation of the US-China Joint Glasgow Declaration. Yes, China is the currently the world’s largest emitter, but its cumulative emissions are less than half those of the US for four times the population. Yes, China is the largest producer of coal, but also of solar panels, wind energy and electric vehicles. Yes, Xi did not attend COP26 in person but he hasn’t left China since January 2020. Yes, China could do more to tackle climate change, but this is true for almost all high- and middle-income countries.

Last, the European Union was widely condemned for not stepping up on climate finance alongside other developed countries. But the EU (and the UK for that matter) does not belong in the same box as Australia, Canada and the United States. It has implemented sweeping decarbonisation policies, successfully cutting emissions by 26% compared to 1990 levels. By comparison, Australia’s emissions have increased 31%, Canada’s by 21% and the United States’ by 2% over the same period. Emissions per person in these three countries range from at least double to nearly triple the G20 average. Moreover, the EU came close to paying its fair share of the $100 billion goal even before its members made new commitments in recent months.

So how can we move beyond the unhelpful binary of rich versus poor countries? From whom should we demand more? While the blame game may not ultimately be constructive, it’s worth considering alternative explanations for the climate deadlock in order to understand how to break it and move forward.

1) Bronze medal: Australia

Australia accounts for 0.2% of the global population but 1.1% of cumulative emissions. Combined with our massive fossil fuel exports, we are responsible for 5% of global emissions or 25 times our share of population. Yet we showed up at COP26 without more ambitious 2030 targets; only the distant promise of net-zero by 2050 using unproven technologies.

As though our bloated carbon footprint was not enough, the Australian government has also undermined the international climate negotiations for over twenty years. It negotiated a dubious emissions baseline in the last few hours of COP3 in Kyoto (the so-called “Australia clause”), which has repeatedly allowed the government to claim it was exceeding its climate commitments. At COP21, Australia – alone among developed countries – sought to carry over these bogus carbon savings under the new Paris Agreement. Such antics explain the need for a robust framework for Article 6.

2) Silver medal: Saudi Arabia

Only countries that were members of the OECD in 1992 are required to provide climate finance, although many of them have been economically outstripped by booming economies like Israel, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and South Korea. Thus, despite the fact that average incomes in Saudi Arabia are comparable to those of Greece and Portugal, it is classified as a developing country under the UNFCCC.

Unlike some of the countries named above, Saudi Arabia uses its developing country status to obstruct negotiations. Within the UNFCCC system, Saudi Arabia has sought to tie adaptation finance to ‘compensation’ for the loss of oil revenues; exclude or discredit findings from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; and battled efforts to mitigate aviation and maritime emissions. During COP26, it was accused of seeking to strip out language around fossil fuel subsidies and safeguarding indigenous rights.

Of course, Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in maintaining a fossil-based global economy, given that it is the world’s second largest oil producer. The world’s largest oil producer has been awarded gold in this race to the bottom.

3) Gold medal: the United States

President Biden has committed to reduce US emissions by 50-52% from 2005 levels in 2030, and successfully introduced a new infrastructure deal that will help meet this target. His administration, particularly Special Presidential Envoy John Kerry, also played a very constructive role at COP26.

But these are recent developments. Climate action by the US has been hostage to domestic politics far more than China or the EU. The Trump administration withdrew from the Paris Agreement and the Clinton administration was unable to get the Kyoto Protocol ratified at all.

This matters because of America’s economic heft and carbon footprint. The United States is home to 4.2% of the global population, but it accounts for 25% of humanity’s cumulative emissions. Despite its outsized contribution to global climate change, the US pays only 4% of its fair share of international climate finance. (Biden’s new commitments are only a marginal improvement.) Moreover, the US is now the largest producer of both oil and gas. It should therefore come as little surprise if countries like Bolivia or Egypt roll their eyes when the US calls for bolder climate action.

But at least for now, the US is back at the table. How can the global community seize this window of opportunity?

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What next?

The science is clear. Holding global warming to 1.5°C depends on nearly halving emissions by 2030 (relative to 2010 levels) and then reaching net-zero by mid-century. It doesn’t matter how the US Democrats perform in the mid-terms, whether the Australian Coalition can hold on to swing states in coal mining regions or how Saudi Arabia’s exports perform. The laws of physics and chemistry will not bow to political constraints.

We must therefore chart a mitigation pathway grounded in the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. The last fortnight in Glasgow highlighted three immense opportunities for multilateralism to support a just transition.

First, all countries must put in place the foreign policies needed to chart a path away from fossil fuels. During COP26, nearly 40 countries pledged to end international finance for fossil fuels; others joined global initiatives such as the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. Implementing these commitments can level the playing field for clean energy and signal the end of the fossil fuel era.

Second, rich countries – particularly major polluters such as Australia, Canada, Norway and the US – need to provide more finance for adaptation, loss and damage. The impacts of climate change are already being felt, primarily by those who have done the least to cause it. The Glasgow Climate Pact urges “developed country Parties to at least double their collective provision of climate finance for adaptation” by 2025 (paragraph 18). Even more strikingly, Scotland broke ranks with developed countries to pledge £2 million for loss and damage, followed by Wallonia committing an additional €1 million. As Yue Cao says:

“Developed countries will need to meet and exceed the current climate finance goal to ensure climate justice and maintain trust in the multilateral climate negotiations. Finance for adaptation, loss and damage is therefore a precondition for the more ambitious near-term pledges and measures needed from developing countries to hold global warming to 1.5 °C. In particular, laggards like Australia, Canada and the US need to pay their fair share of climate finance while all providers could do more to address conflict and fragility, which is often multiplied by climate change impacts.”

Third, rich countries – again, particularly those hooked on fossil fuels themselves – need to support a rapid coal phase-out in low- and middle-income countries. Many rich countries expressed their disappointment at China and India’s last-minute push to weaken the language of the Glasgow Climate Pact from “coal phase-out” to “coal phase-down”. Given their concerns and cumulative emissions, they should support lower-income countries navigate the energy transition.

A highlight of COP26 was the announcement of a huge deal to help South Africa phase out coal, including resources to support affected workers, remediate degraded ecosystems and scale clean energy capacity. Funding is being provided by EU member states, the US and UK. Coal-dependent economies from Colombia to Kazakhstan, India to Indonesia, will be eager to replicate this model, particularly given the domestic health impacts of coal mining and power generation. Such transactions could rapidly deliver the immediate emission cuts necessary to limit warming to 1.5°C and help move beyond the blame game that characterised COP26.

November 12 – Carmen Leon-Himmelstine, Research Fellow and Emilie Tant, Senior Communications Officer in Gender Equality & Social Inclusion

What would an inclusive and fair COP26 have looked like?

While the British government has worked hard towards making COP26 in Glasgow a ‘safe and inclusive summit’ the conference has widely been criticised for being an elitist, patriarchal, and exclusionary space.

‘I think it is just a negotiation… between rich and powerful people.
The voices of indigenous communities haven’t been heard.’
– Andrea Ixchíu

Despite efforts from the COP26 Presidency, UNFCCC and other partners to make the climate summit accessible, many activists who are at the frontline of climate breakdown couldn’t attend at all. Many faced a combination of visa problems, limited access to Covid vaccines, changing travel rules and scarce or expensive accommodation. Media sources particularly highlighted the absence of several climate-vulnerable Pacific Island states including Vanuatu and Kiribati.

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A conference for rich white men?

These barriers have led the climate conference to be described as the “whitest and most privileged ever”. While it is unclear if such claims stand up – it is certain that COP26 has been treated as this season’s hot ticket. One where high-flyers must be seen, rather than a crucial moment to avert climate collapse. White actors, billionaires, fashion designers and royals have been among the attendees, not to mention the excessive number of white executives from the oil and gas industry.

Women only serve 24 countries as Heads of State, which accounts for the stark gender imbalance at the World Leader’s Summit. Women have been historically underrepresented in party delegations at previous COPs, but – in a small sign of progress, they made up 49% of registered government delegates this time round. But still, men accounted for 60% of active speakers in the COP26 plenary and spoke for 74% of the time. This is shocking but not surprising, given that, for example, the UK team of politicians and climate negotiators were all men until very recently, in a response to public criticisms.

One exception was Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley – described as a ‘regional rockstar’ after an inspiring opening speech, and the Amazonian activist Txai Suruí who brought attention to the devastating deforestation of the Amazon. Afterwards, Txai shared that she was nervous to speak in a foreign language (English) to a mostly white, male audience.

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Or a conference to host land defenders?

One of the most striking successes at COP26 is the emergence of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. While the governments of Costa Rica and Denmark have been rightly celebrated for this new commitment, it is worth reflecting on the origins of this movement.

Indigenous people have a long history of fighting extraction on their territories. For example, the Ogoni Bill of Rights of 1990, led by the Ogoni People, made both the Nigerian government and transnational oil companies liable for the poor environmental and human rights conditions in the Niger Delta. More recently, the Waorani people of the Ecuadorian Amazon won a legal case to prevent oil drilling in their territory. Opposition by Indigenous People contributed to Biden’s executive order cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline in the United States.

Yet despite this legacy, indigenous land defenders have struggled at COP26. For example, Mitzy Violeta and Ita Mendoza from the Mixteca region of Oaxaca in southern Mexico were attending COP for the first time as accredited observers. When talking to them to get more insights about the experiences of female indigenous environmentalists at COP, they lamented it was a space designed for English speakers with few multi-lingual signs or language support. Ita observed that most of many side and panel events did not offer simultaneous translation, limiting their ability to take part, something noted by other South American activists invited to speak.

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Mitzy noted the exclusion of indigenous perspectives:

‘… when we are here, we are only able to come and listen, because that is what it says in our name badges – that we are only observers. This means someone who only looks, who cannot give an opinion, who cannot make decisions.’

Activists from the Global South, especially indigenous peoples, have been at the front line of the environmental protests and resistance movements. Yet, indigenous peoples’ delegates reported feeling a pressure to ‘perform indigeneity’ if they wanted to be heard at COP26. As Ita says:

‘We come dressed in a sweatshirt that says: Defenders of the Earth, and not all of the time we wear our typical indigenous costumes. If people here see you, as they think an indigenous person looks like, they treat you better. But it becomes a racist space when you don’t wear the typical costume … So, [it’s like] if you don’t go [dressed] with this stereotype of what an indigenous person looks like in COP, they won’t treat you well.’

What would an inclusive and intersectional COP process look like?

Gender justice goes hand in hand with climate action. We know that women are more likely to confront the physical impacts of climate breakdown, and that the climate crisis increases women and girls’ exposure to gender-based violence or child marriage.

We also know that drivers of, and vulnerabilities to, climate change, fall starkly along racial lines. Industrialisation and current living standards in the Global North has been fed by slavery, colonialism and exploitative

(some argue racialised) capitalism, creating a vast historical carbon debt within and between countries. Those facing the most severe climate impacts are vulnerable partially because of a history of extraction and conquest. The most vulnerable within these countries are low-income and other marginalised groups.

But, global leaders remain blind to the role of patriarchy, racism and neo-colonialism in the climate crisis, precluding a fair and just planetary future for all. This means rethinking the negotiations process, requiring those in the Global North to recognise the expertise and leadership of the ‘first adapters’. All countries should ensure a gender balance and represent marginalised communities (such as indigenous peoples) in their delegations, rather than relegating them to observer status.

What would a fair COP outcome look like?

Rich countries jointly committed to mobilise $100 billion a year for climate action by 2020, but they have collectively fallen short. Many of the worst per capita emitters – settler colonies such as Australia, Canada and the United States – all contributed less than 20% of their fair share to the climate finance goal, a stark example of climate injustice.

Negotiations over the new climate finance goal commenced at COP26, but still the draft decision text on the table is not sufficient. There is an urgent need for a paradigm shift about climate finance within the multilateral climate negotiations. Given the human and economic cost of ecological collapse, negotiators must focus both on achieving 1.5°C (to avoid any further loss and damage) and securing

climate reparations for those at the front lines of climate injustice. Moreover, those reparations should reflect responsibility for cumulative greenhouse gas emissions rather than willingness to pay. The science has been clear for thirty years; rich countries that have chosen not to decarbonise should be held to account for the catastrophe that they are fuelling.

Ultimately, the fight to avert planetary breakdown is intersectional. We cannot achieve climate justice without actively listening to the voices of women and marginalised communities, particularly those defending their lands from environmental degradation. By hearing about their needs and priorities, we can learn about how to prevent, mitigate and adapt in the face of our climate emergency – particularly learning from indigenous peoples, who protect 80% of the biodiversity left in the world.

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