November 2, 2021 World Leaders Sound the Alarm at COP26. But Do Their Actions Add Up?

Welcome to the debut of Today’s Climate 2.0, now a twice-a-week newsletter released every Tuesday and Friday afternoon, examining the most pressing news related to our rapidly warming world. I’m Kristoffer Tigue, a veteran climate reporter at Inside Climate News, where, for 14 years, we’ve worked to hold polluters accountable, illuminate environmental injustices and document the world’s often inadequate response to the worsening climate crisis.

In today’s edition, we’ll explore what has developed in the first days of COP26, the two-week international climate talks that many activists—and scientists—have said is one of the last chances to prevent runaway global warming by the end of the century. I’ll keep this highlight reel brief, so no one falls asleep.

For anyone who has followed climate change news closely, the same story has played like a broken record. Science shows how the climate is warming faster than we had previously thought, requiring even steeper emissions cuts and more funding for adaptation, but the action to address the issue lags far behind. This is known as the emissions gap, and that gap is widening.

As world leaders gathered in Glasgow on Sunday for the United Nations conference, expectations of what might be collectively accomplished by the more than 193 countries that signed the 2015 Paris Agreement were already low. Nearly all of the world’s carbon emissions—80 percent—come from just 20 of the world’s wealthiest nations. And many people saw it as an ominous sign when those countries emerged from the G20 summit that same day without strong new pledges, which scientists say are necessary to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100 and avoid its worst consequences. 

At best, G20 members, which include the United States and the European Union, promised to stop funding coal-fired power plants in poor countries and made a vague commitment to seek carbon neutrality “by or around mid-century.” Yet, it was the leaders of those same nations that sounded the alarm on the first two days of COP26, highlighting the bizarre disconnect between their public rhetoric and what has long proven to be their inability to take robust action.

“If we don’t get serious about climate change today, it will be too late for our children to do so tomorrow,” the UK’s Boris Johnson said in his opening statements at the summit. “This COP26 must be the start of a new momentum, a quantum leap in our fight against climate change,” Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said in his speech.

President Biden, in his attempt to restore U.S. credibility on climate change after his predecessor pulled the country out of the Paris accord, told those in attendance that his administration “is working overtime to show that our climate commitment is action, not words.”

But the opening days for COP26 weren’t entirely without progress. In the first substantial deal announced at the summit, more than 100 world leaders representing over 85 percent of the planet’s forests committed on Tuesday to ending and reversing deforestation and land degradation by 2030, CNN reported

President Biden also announced at the summit that the U.S. would start providing $3 billion each year, by 2024, to help developing countries adapt to climate change, and that federal agencies would pursue newly proposed rules to slash emissions of methane, a short-lived climate super-pollutant that’s about 80 times more potent at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

You may want to take those pledges with a pinch of salt, however. Deforestation has only increased since many world governments and corporations promised to end it in 2014, our own Georgina Gustin reported earlier this year. The United States is actually a year behind on delivering funds from a previous pledge with other world leaders to give $100 billion a year to developing countries for climate adaptation, Nature reported. And while nearly 100 nations have signed onto the U.S.-led pledge to cut methane emissions already, some of the world’s largest emitters, including China and Russia, have yet to buy in, Reuters reported.

So, what else should we keep tabs on as COP26 continues to unfold? This CNBC guide sums up the most important aspects surprisingly well.

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll see you again Friday.

Today’s Indicator

26

The number of global climate talks held so far by the United Nations through its 1992 international treaty called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and a good proxy for just how long the world has sought to tackle this issue. COP26 stands for the 26th Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC.