COP26: Success or Failure?

A month after the U.N. climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, known as COP26, politicians, analysts and climate action advocates are taking stock of what was agreed to. And the consensus is that while substantial progress was made in a number of areas, there wasn’t enough.

The world still remains off track to avert a climate crisis and is falling short of limiting global warming to 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a goal set at previous talks in Paris in 2015.  And it remains off track despite deals to cut carbon and methane emissions, end deforestation, reduce the use of coal, and a renewed pledge of financing for poorer countries most vulnerable to extreme weather.

Britain’s own Climate Change Committee, an independent, statutory body established to advise the UK government on emission targets, says COP26 “marked a step forward in global efforts to address climate change.”

It says there was an increase in ambitions to reduce emissions across the world and it lists as achievements the “finalization of rules on reporting emissions and international carbon trading, and the launch of a range of new initiatives and sector deals.”

However, the committee added, “How far this can be considered a success will depend on follow-up actions over the coming year and beyond.”


Activists unimpressed

For many climate activists, the two-week summit was just more noise. Teenage activist Greta Thunberg dubbed COP26 “a global north greenwash festival.”

But some serious analysts also agree the summit should be marked a failure, because it didn’t reach the goals it set itself.

“Was COP26 a failure? If we evaluate this using the summit’s original stated goals, the answer is yes, it fell short. Two big ticket items weren’t realized: renewing targets for 2030 that align with limiting warming to 1.5℃, and an agreement on accelerating the phase-out of coal,” Robert Hales and Brendan Mackey, academics from Australia’s Griffith University, concluded in a commentary for The Conversation website.

Because of a last-minute intervention by India, an agreement to accelerate the phasing-out of coal was watered down in the final communique to the much vaguer “phasing-down” of coal.

But Hales and Mackey also say at COP26 “there were important decisions and notable bright spots.” They say COP26 may well be seen later as the moment the world took “an unambiguous turn away from fossil fuel as a source of energy,” and they highlight COP26’s emphasis on the importance of mitigating damage to nature and ecosystems, including protecting forests and biodiversity.


In a side deal at Glasgow, 124 other countries pledged to end deforestation by 2030.Other analysts praise the final pact urging countries to deliver on an outstanding promise to deliver $100 billion per year for five years to developing countries vulnerable to climate damage to help them with adaptation and to develop resilient infrastructure. Many developing nations are already seeing dwindling crop yields and are experiencing devastating storms.

Rob Stavins, professor of Energy and Economic Development at Harvard University, remains cautiously optimistic and says assessing COP26’s success and failure is “both simplistic and obscures much of the purpose and function of these annual negotiations.”

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” he told the Harvard Gazette. “To continue that metaphor: It’s a relay race and the fundamental thing about an individual Conference of the Parties in any given year is that you don’t drop the baton when you pass it off to the next one. And this was a reasonable pass off to the next Conference of the Parties.” The next global climate talks are scheduled next year in Egypt.

Stavins says before the 2015 Paris talks, the world was heading for 3.7 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of this century. After COP21, the trajectory was reduced to 2.7 degrees of warming. The updated emission reduction targets agreed to at Glasgow cut the trajectory further to 2.4 degrees Celsius.

“And then, if you add in all of the statements from countries about net zero emissions by the year 2050, as well as private industry statements, we could be at about 1.8 degrees centigrade,” he says.

That keeps the 1.5 Celsius goal within reach, the chairman of COP26, Alok Sharma, said in his concluding remarks in Glasgow, although he noted, its “pulse remains weak.”


Who will pay?

Weak or not, some worry that governments, especially Western ones, may be going too fast with decarbonizing and risk losing the support of their own populations by failing to take into account the economic impact of the monumental shifts envisaged.

Opinion polls suggest that across the globe, overwhelming majorities of people see climate change as an emergency requiring radical action. But some polls in recent weeks have also suggested that when people are told what the costs to them may be to curb global warming, they are reluctant to shoulder the financial burden.

COP26 saw plenty of discussions about how to fund the transition away from fossil fuel dependency to renewable, sustainable energy and how to finance projects to make countries more resilient to extreme weather. But there was little clarity about how the costs should be shared among governments (via taxation), consumers, households and the private sector.

At Glasgow, major banks, investors and insurers pledged trillions in green funding in a coordinated commitment to incorporate carbon emissions into their investment and lending decisions. The commitment was made by more than 450 financial institutions across 45 countries managing assets valued at $130 trillion.”

These seemingly arcane but essential changes to the plumbing of finance can move and are moving climate changes from the fringes to the forefront and transforming the financial system in the process,” Mark Carney, a former head of the central banks of England and Canada, said when announcing the pledge. “The architecture of the global financial system has been transformed to deliver net zero,” he added.

But some industry analysts and economists cautioned the private sector plans are far from concrete, and that significant problems remain on how to measure the carbon footprint of investment portfolios and align those measurements across international financial markets. Of particular concern is how to verify the accuracy of what banks and investors report.

Others worry that financial firms are there to maximize profits for clients and shareholders and that they risk losing customers or breaching their fiduciary obligations if they fail to maintain good returns. It remains unclear at this stage how profitable green investments will be.

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