November 12, 2021 On COP’s Final Day, Big Aspirations Show Little Progress

Welcome back to Today’s Climate, a newsletter that examines the most pressing news about our rapidly warming world every Tuesday and Friday afternoon. There’s a lot riding on the final day of COP26—the global climate talks in Glasgow could be one of the last chances for humanity to prevent catastrophic climate change by the end of the century.

So, where exactly do things stand now? Grab a snack—maybe crack open a cold Irn-Bru—and settle in. There’s a lot to cover in this short newsletter.

Last week, I shared a helpful CNBC guide that laid out the five key goals that could make or break the summit’s success. Those goals are increasing mitigation targets, drafting stronger plans to phase out fossil fuels, striking a deal to finance climate efforts, implementing global carbon pricing and developing more nature-based solutions. How have efforts to reach those goals panned out?  Spoiler: The results are not great. 

Mitigation: little progress made

When the Paris Agreement was signed six years ago, the mitigation goal was to limit the global average temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, with an additional, more- ambitious aspiration to keep it at or below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Scientists now say keeping that 1.5 degree target is imperative to curb some of global warming’s most dire consequences, including a surge in deadly heat waves, unrelenting sea level rise, rising famine and more.

So, it was no surprise that one of the most pressing goals at this year’s COP was to make that more ambitious 1.5 degree target the new goal, and coax countries to increase their own mitigation targets to achieve it. But as of Thursday, 22 nations—including China and India—oppose the updated text, saying developing countries would once again be paying for a problem caused mostly by rich countries. The development prompted United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to declare that key goal was now “on life support.”

Fossil fuel phase-out: some progress made

To accomplish any mitigation goals, the world must drastically reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases. And scientists say the most effective way to do that is to cut fossil fuel use. So did COP26 succeed in convincing countries to dial back their fossil fuel consumption? The answer is yes, a little, but not nearly enough.

More than 100 nations have pledged to reduce their emissions of methane, the key ingredient of natural gas and a climate super-pollutant. But some major emitters, including China and India, have not signed on. More than 40 countries pledged to phase out coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. But loopholes have since been written into the text of that pledge, which critics say significantly weaken its effectiveness. And an international coalition to phase out oil and gas, led by Costa Rica and Denmark, added six new member nations to the agreement. That coalition, however, wasn’t formally recognized at the COP summit.

Finance: little progress made

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to finding consensus at this year’s climate summit has been who will pay for all these efforts? Transitioning away from fossil fuels, adopting clean energy, building more climate-resilient infrastructure—it all requires a massive investment. And so far, no one can agree on who should pay for it.

In 2009, the United States led an effort with several other rich nations on an agreement to pay $100 billion a year, starting in 2020, to help developing countries address climate change. Last week, the United States re-upped its pledge, albeit a year late, saying it would fork over $3 billion a year to that effort starting in 2024. But that commitment and a few others still come up short of what experts say is needed. And as of this morning, the latest draft text of the COP26 deal spelled out no clear plan for how that finance promise will work.

Carbon pricing: little progress made

A carbon pricing scheme essentially sets a limit on carbon emissions, taxing polluters who exceed that cap and allowing those who stay below it to sell the difference as a credit to others. While there’s disagreement over how effective such a scheme would be in curbing rising emissions, many experts still believe it’s a vital tool in the fight against global warming. Member nations have so far failed to produce consensus over the Paris Agreement’s so-called “Article 6” rules, which deal with carbon pricing. And as of Thursday, several major issues remained unresolved, including how to count credits, what kinds of credits should be allowed and whether developing countries should get special provisions.

Nature-based solutions: some progress made

Aside from cutting back on the use of fossil fuels, scientists say the best way to fight climate change is to rely on the natural ability of forests and oceans to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. On that front, a new pledge from more than 130 countries to stop and reverse deforestation by 2030 showed some progress being made at this year’s summit. Still, many environmental activists and scientists remain skeptical regarding whether the countries can make good on that pledge, considering the similar promises in the past that were broken.

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate and I’ll see you next Tuesday.

Today’s Indicator

$3.8 trillion

That’s how much financing the world’s largest 60 banks have provided fossil fuel companies since the Paris climate accord was signed in 2015, according to a March report from a coalition of NGOs.