The dust has barely settled on the Glasgow climate conference. Sentiments were still running high when India and China pulled a last-minute stunt about “phasing out” rather than “phasing out” coal.
Exhausted Alok Sharma apologized, and Frans Timmermans boldly vowed to keep fighting, but it was Tina Steg of the Marshall Islands who delivered the message home: For many societies, a difference in average temperature of 1.8 degrees versus 1.5 degrees might be alive.
While the delegates were on their way home from Scotland, this fundamental challenge remained on the table – and no diplomatic language could make him master it.
The race to save the planet continues as the annual conference moves to the Gulf region and the torch relays from the UK to Egypt in 2022 and to the UAE in 2023.
Meanwhile, implementing National Determined Contributions (NDC) is the name of the game.
Yes, COP26 failed to secure the 1.5 target but does that make it a failure? Greta Thunberg has no doubts. As the conference dragged on mid-cycle, she had decried that it had already failed. But she is clearly wrong. As an activist, she is right to keep up with the pressure, as an opinion maker wrong to downplay the progress and prospects open in Glasgow. The issue is not “such and such and such and such and such” in the conference. is whether this “such and such and such and such” will turn into verbs. It’s a connection, you idiot – that’s going to make all the difference.
Two scales measure COP26. The first builds on what Glasgow has accomplished. The second on the follow-ups will have.
In the immediate aftermath, judgment should focus on the former, while the outgoing British presidency – responsible until the next COP 27 session in Sharm el-Sheikh – will be followed by successive Egyptian and Emirati presidents on the latter. The initial evaluation cannot be given in black and white.
In tune with the Scottish November landscape, the dominant color of COP26 is grey. Glasgow differed from its predecessors for three reasons.
First, the scientifically proven issue of climate change has been politically overwhelming. How many floods in normally water-starved Sicily, wildfires in California or Australia, and stray typhoons in southern China, are needed to get the message home?
Second, the NDC train had already left the station and some (modest) progress had been made in reducing CO2 emissions and switching from fossil fuels to renewables – still short of targets set in Paris but in motion.
Third, and above all, the conflation of urgency, rising temperatures, and political activism has raised expectations exponentially. Obviously not all results have been achieved, but this does not make the Glasgow results irrelevant especially if they are put into context. Compared to the landmark 2015 Paris Conference, progress has been made in Scotland, both declarative – and thus not translated into policy – and in Nationally Determined Contributions.
My declaration: It suffices to mention fossil fuels, the first in a UN document, that coal is the main culprit of CO2 emissions – excluding the old diplomatic difference between “down” and “out”.
As for the NDCs, according to the IEA’s preliminary assessment, the commitments made so far at COP26 – if they are met, because they are far from legally binding – would limit global warming to 1.8 degrees: insufficient “to sustain Over 1.5 Alive,” as Tina Steg and Other Island State representatives made clear, but they’re on their way back.
The 1.8 course must be scaled against the 2.7 degree course currently estimated by the United Nations. Once the political and economic momentum starts in the right direction, further progress can be made in pursuit of the global targets (2050-2060-2070) of net-zero emissions announced in Glasgow.
COP26 has demonstrated national leadership on climate change – or lack thereof. Because of the absence, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin seemed to downplay it. China and Russia together account for exactly a third of carbon dioxide emissions – 33%, 28% China, 5% Russia. Russia is the largest exporter of fossil fuels, and China is its main consumer, including coal for which there is really no room for energy transition.
By coming to neither Glasgow nor Rome at the G-20 summit, have Russian and Chinese leaders abandoned their statesmanship for debatable short-term political gain?
Time will tell, although it must be admitted that China played an active role in Glasgow, it is seeing its part pushing hard for a “phasing down” adjustment of coal. One of the bright spots of the conference was the Sino-US joint statement. Moreover, Xi has not traveled outside the country for more than 600 days, since the outbreak of the COVID pandemic and had some chores to attend at home with the CPC Central Committee.
When evaluating the new NDCs made in Glasgow, the European Union and the United States led the effort — with notable omissions, such as the United States not signing a robust 190-nation agreement to phase out coal and Poland’s partial backtracking.
More than 100 countries have agreed to cut methane emissions by 30%. Single players climbed to the board.
For the first time, India has set a net zero target, in 2070. By setting the path to the 2050 deadline, the UAE is positioning itself as a climate leader among oil-producing Middle Eastern countries with its COP 28 presidency in mind. And other oil and gas producers, such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and Australia will have to follow suit.
For all of them, of course, the puzzle will be to reduce and eventually stop the export of fossil fuels. But the first step is now being taken.
Meanwhile, more than 20 countries, including the US, UK, Canada and Italy, and multilateral development banks will stop financing most offshore oil and gas projects in 2022. Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis announced a ban on combustion cars by 2030, in When Athens and Salonica were announced, taxis will have to go to hybrid or electric cars much sooner (2025).
Will the delivery follow the pledges? The answer lies in the upcoming COPs. There is always a risk that local policies will renege on promises made, as seems to be happening in Indonesia about deforestation. Memories of the Trump administration’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement remain fresh.
The question of commitments is key to assessing COP26. Too early to make the call, Greta. Time will tell, while the climate clock is ticking fast – you’re right. The race to beat them has begun.
Stefano Stefanini is a Director at Project Associates and a former diplomatic advisor to the President of Italy. He also held the position of Permanent Representative of Italy to NATO and Deputy Chief of Mission at the Italian Embassy in Washington.