As they emerged from the final plenary after two weeks of talks, exhausted Cop26 negotiators – some shocked at last-minute compromise on the vexatious issue of coal – knew they’d been through a bruising battle where “uncomfortable” compromise marked the outcome.
In spite of this, tangible commitments, and even progressive moves to shift course, were nailed down. For the first time a Cop agreement targets fossil fuels as the key driver of global warming. The tone is much different to the usual arcane language of UN climate summit outcomes. The 2015 Paris Agreement is finally moving to gearing-up stage.
There is no doubt now that keeping global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees is the priority of the 197 signatory countries, who can no longer put vague commitments on the table in the hope that the world might warm by less than two degrees.
Emerging into the Glasgow daylight probably provided a far greater shock for negotiating teams, especially political leaders heading up delegations, as the reaction was marked by a wave of deep disappointment. Reaction in climate-vulnerable states can be summed up by one word – despair.
Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan admitted that dramatic twist was “gut wrenching” as India – the world’s third biggest emitter – pushed for “phase down” rather than “phase out” of coal. This prompted a rushed manoeuvre by the European Union, China and United States to amend the text in the interests of holding “what we’ve got”, though it was against protocols and the final political, rather than legal, decision was already agreed going into the final plenary.
The critical target of keeping global warming to within 1.5 degrees was still alive, Cop26 president Alok Sharma insisted; a view backed by those big players.
“What the world has done today is to keep 1.5 alive, recommitting to keep the global temperature increase at a level that is liveable for humanity,” Ryan said.
Much unfinished business, however, is confirmed by definitive analysis published in Glasgow showing all promises made before and at the UN summit make for a 2.4 degree rise in temperatures, where already dangerous climate impacts would become catastrophic.
“For many countries, two degrees is a death sentence,” executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Patricia Espinosa said.
The deal backs “best available science” to inform actions. Applying that framework, there is no sugar-coating the standout failure of ambition on actions to curb emissions, leaving our fragile planet still hanging by a thread.
That said, there is enough to suggest the world is facing into a decade of scaled-up action. In that scenario the request that parties “revisit and strengthen the 2030 targets in their nationally determined contributions as necessary to align with the Paris Agreement temperature goal by the end of 2022” becomes the key enabler. A request in “UN speak” is close to a demand.
The temperature issue aside, this was the most productive Cop since Paris. Decisions on doubling adaptation finance and setting up a body to assist countries most impacted by climate disruption represents progress, but more is needed.
When it comes to hard money, the long-awaited $100 billion a year for developing countries under climate finance will be realised, while adaptation funding to help vulnerable countries adjust for inevitable climate impacts is set to be in excess of $1 trillion a year by 2025.
While Cop26 failed to generate dedicated finance for “loss and damage” because of resistance by wealthy countries, vulnerable countries agreed to compromise on the understanding more help would come soon. Ireland has offered to co-host a “dialogue” to come up with ways of supporting those most affected.
The outcome also finalises the most contentious elements of the Paris Agreement rule book, encapsulated in article six, six years after the landmark deal was done. This includes facilitation of a global carbon-trading market that closes glaring loopholes such as “double counting” of carbon credits.
A historic proposal to “phase out unabated coal and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” was watered down; part of the compromise needed to agree a deal by inserting “phase down”. It has left a bad aftertaste, especially for the EU.
The reality, however, is the economics of coal-powered electricity generation no longer add up in face of cheap solar and wind energy. The coal industry that once brought wealth to the developing world is coming to a rapid end, probably by 2030. Developing countries are predicted to follow the same course over the following decade.
Outside the COP process, groups of countries committed to ending fossil fuel extraction, to accelerate the phasing out of coal, to tackling methane and to ending deforestation. If all of this delivered, acceleration of decarbonisation over the coming decade is realisable. New alliances between public and private sectors have been forged, especially on switching to green energy. There was also a strong indication that the financial world is gearing up for transitioning to a world of net-zero emissions.
Analysis by Climate Action Tracker and the International Energy Agency indicate fresh pledges made over the past fortnight have the potential to reduce global warming by 0.5 degrees – a significant stride toward the 1.5 target.
Delivery reinforced by meaningful near-term commitments is critical. Being unable to bend the emissions curve downwards this decade will put huge pressure on the remaining carbon budget for “keeping 1.5 degrees alive”.
The Cop26 outcome has been described as a political lifeline for accelerating action to keep temperature rise below 1.5 degrees, but science indicates forcing down the global emissions curve in just nine years is essential.
As climate scientist Prof John Sweeney has highlighted, the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has four out of five possible scenarios which indicate the world will exceed 1.5 degrees over the next 20 years.
The one that keeps us to within 1.5 degrees is a trajectory the world is nowhere near at present. It will be some years before we know if Cop26 has helped bridge the gap.