GLASGOW—A bright and sunny Saturday morning after days of gray autumn skies held a transient promise of hope for major progress at the COP26 climate talks along the River Clyde, but even after an extra day of negotiations, there was no magical moment in the decades-long effort to stabilize the global climate.
As afternoon clouds rolled in, sanitation workers scraped tattered climate posters from the brick walls and boarded-up storefronts on Sauchiehall Street, and delegates from 197 countries packed their briefcases, touting incremental progress on climate action, which sounded hollow to many grassroots activists who had hoped for much more.
“They said everything and did nothing,” said Glasgow resident Afzal Sherzai, as he rolled up his yellow Extinction Rebellion flag beside the high wire fences and fleets of police cars along the walkway to the conference center. “COP may be over, but we won’t stop fighting for climate action. Nothing that was decided here will slow emissions in the next 10 years. After that, it will be too late.”
On Twitter, another Extinction Rebellion activist wrote she “knew it was pointless to come to #Glasgow as a #climate activist. The #COP process is built to fail, which it reliably does year after year. Every single country has to agree—this includes the #oil minister of #SaudiArabia. This leads nowhere. The whole system is broken.”
Conference president Alok Sharma saw it differently, claiming that the final documents signed in Glasgow “will facilitate the full and effective implementation of the Paris agreement,” the 2015 pact aimed at capping global warming near 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1850 average global temperature.
But reaching that goal would require cutting global greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030, and nothing that was signed in Glasgow, including the Glasgow Climate Pact proposed by Sharma, suggests that the major producers of greenhouse gas emissions, including the United States, China and the European Union, are on track for such reductions.
The world is still on a path to warming about 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit, even after adding the new promises made in Glasgow to the old ones made since the Paris agreement, several analyses by outside organizations that use climate modeling to track the effects of climate policy changes showed.
The most recent climate science assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change spelled out how devastating that amount of warming would be. Some parts of the planet, including land areas, mountains, the Arctic and parts of the Pacific Ocean region are warming much faster than the global average, and that will result in crop and coral-killing heatwaves and droughts in some areas, while other places will be swamped by intensifying rainstorms and floods, the report showed.
In a Glasgow press conference shortly after COP26 ended, United States Special Climate Envoy John Kerry said he has a “gut feeling” that the latest round of talks mark a major shift in global climate policy.
“We raised ambition here in Glasgow,” he said. “This is not business as usual.”
But he couldn’t provide any details on how the U.S. might live up to its new Glasgow commitment to deliver even more ambitious emissions cuts by next year. With President Biden struggling to pass his landmark climate bills, the administration will have a hard time delivering on its current promises, let alone the increased targets.
He said he considers the completion of transparency and accountability rules under the Paris agreement to be one of the major achievements at COP26. Accurate reporting and verification of emissions and emissions reductions add accountability to the Paris agreement, he added.
“Paris built the arena, Glasgow starts the race. Now we have nine years to make the critical decisions we were warned about by the IPCC,” he said.
A Broken Record
In the final round of speeches before the new climate documents were approved, European Union vice president Frans Timmermans tried to claim that the 28 industrialized countries of Europe responsible for 17 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions wanted to do more. But at the start of the conference, the E.U. was criticized for backing $15 billion of new gas projects like pipelines and liquid natural gas terminals. Timmermanns mentioned ending coal use four or five times, but never referred to oil and gas, which also have to be phased out to limit warming.
Essentially, the two weeks of talks resulted in agreements that repeat what was agreed to in previous agreements, said Ani Dasgupta, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute, a global nonprofit climate and environment think tank.
“Negotiators found common ground on key issues,” he said, sounding like a broken record as he listed those issues, including efforts to strengthen 2030 targets for emissions reductions, more financial aid for developing countries and finalizing Paris agreement rules, like reporting and verifying emissions, repeating the same words and phrases used at every COP session since Paris. One bright spot appears to be a firm commitment to double global funding to $40 billion by 2025 to help countries adapt to climate impacts, he added.
Sharma tried to close out the conference in the morning, but a series of statements by representatives of developing countries spurred another round of talks that lasted into late afternoon.
A delegate from Switzerland expressed disappointment that language on phasing out fossil fuels was weakened in the final rounds, a change that “will not bring us closer to 1.5 but will make it more difficult to reach it,” she said.
Another delegate from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, threatened by rising seas, also expressed “profound disappointment in the changes in language on coal.” The earliest draft of the final document used stronger words to describe the necessity of ending coal burning quickly. “It had been a bright spot, and it hurts deeply to see that bright spot dimmed,” she said.
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The early draft seemed to suggest many countries were ready to take big steps toward ending fossil fuel use on a timeline that would result in a meaningful drop in greenhouse gas emissions, but the final language gives fossil fuel-reliant countries wiggle room to keep funding more development of oil and gas resources.
Still, the COP26 final decision is the first time the U.S. and other petrostates have directly addressed fossil fuel burning in the United Nations climate talks, said Jean Su, energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a U.S.-based conservation group. But in the end, the new document kept open a loophole that enables countries to say they will reduce future emissions with technologies that don’t exist, or are presently too expensive to deploy.
Technologies like capturing the greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning enable countries, including the United States, to unrealistically continue including fossil fuels in their net zero carbon goals, she said, adding that President Biden deserves credit for pushing agreements to stop public financing of fossil fuel projects, as well as cutting methane emissions from oil and gas production and agriculture. But the United States did not join new global alliances to end coal use, and, in fact, plans massive new oil and gas leases in the already devastated Gulf of Mexico, she added.
In the final round of comments at the Glasgow talks, a delegate from Mexico, speaking on behalf of the United Nations Environmental Integrity Group, said many countries felt like they had been “sidelined in a non-inclusive and non-transparent process” that failed to fully consider key issues like human rights.
“Language on human rights should have been strengthened and we are very disappointed that our concerns were not heard. We all had remaining concerns but were told we couldn’t re-open the text,” she said.
A delegate from Cuba reinforced those concerns, saying that her country is not satisfied with the document because it doesn’t clearly spell out the responsibilities the developed countries have for climate change.
That includes the United States, which failed to commit meaningful funding to help poorer countries adapt, or to pay for global warming losses and damage that are piling up, Su said.
The U.S. is the largest historic emitter of climate-warming greenhouse gases, and “must reach into its deep pockets to pay its fair share to the people who suffer from a crisis they did little to create,” she said. “Paying that climate debt of loss and damage is a matter of fundamental justice. The U.S.’s blockage of loss and damage finance is a betrayal of the communities most impacted by the climate catastrophe.”