Op-Ed: Glasgow’s hope at a critical moment in the climate battle
For those looking for reasons to be cynical about the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland — COP26 — there seemed to be more than ample cause early on. Yet for those looking for hope, grounds for this too emerged later.
COVID-related restrictions made it difficult for climate activists to participate in the proceedings, contributing to a feeling that the process favored the power brokers over the people. The fact that fossil fuel executives made up the largest delegation at the conference didn’t help matters.
Meanwhile, the leaders of the world’s largest carbon emitter, China, and petrostates Saudi Arabia and Russia were AWOL. Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia was shunned for his woefully inadequate climate commitments. Yes, there were pledges aplenty, but the “implementation gap” seemed ever more yawning. A leaked draft of the COP26 decision text lacked any mention of a fossil fuel phaseout.
There was understandable anxiety, despair and righteous anger on the part of young people given the insufficiency of the progress and the bad actors who are creating obstacles. This led some to insist that the talks were just more “blah, blah, blah,” that COP26 was dead on arrival, and even that the entire process should be abandoned.
United Nations summit goes into overtime before ending with an agreement in fight against climate change.
But we believed walking away would be counterproductive. After all, the U.N. COP process provides the only multilateral framework for negotiating global climate policy. And while the speed of work had been inadequate, some real progress was being made in key areas: on deforestation, methane emissions and, most importantly, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning.
By the end of the first week, the latest commitments from various countries for the first time appeared to offer a chance of keeping the warming of the planet below 2 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels. That’s half of what we were heading toward prior to the 2015 Paris summit (COP21).
It’s not good enough, of course. We need to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius to avert many of the worst impacts of climate change. But the latest commitments are meaningful and can be built upon.
The final COP26 decision statement, for the first time in a COP agreement, contains language directing all nations to increase efforts toward phasing down unabated coal and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, though it gives no firm deadlines. Yes, the last-minute change from “phase out” to “phase down,” at the behest of India, was disappointing, and the reference to “unabated coal” leaves a dubious “carbon capture” loophole.
And while some worried that adding “inefficient” before subsidies introduced another loophole, we read it as an admission that such subsidies are by their very nature inefficient. Importantly, nations are also asked to return one year from now to strengthen their pledges, instead of waiting five years, as was set in the 2015 Paris agreement.
The lexicon of delay uses “adaptation,” “resilience,” “geoengineering” and “carbon capture” to promise action, but they all fail to address the scale of the problem.
In another welcome development, a group of nations said they were creating plans to end fossil fuel extraction. The Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, founded by Denmark and Costa Rica, includes France, Ireland, Sweden, Wales, Greenland and Quebec. While most of the largest oil and gas producers in the world, including the U.S. and Russia, are nowhere to be found in the alliance, some of the signatories are substantial producers or have substantial reserves. When Denmark made the decision in 2019 to begin its phaseout, it was the biggest oil producer in the European Union, and Greenland has huge reserves that it will forgo. Of course, this is only a first step.
But the biggest breakthrough was unexpected. On Wednesday, China and the U.S. — the world’s two largest climate polluters — said they would commit to “enhanced climate actions” to keep global warming to the limits set in the Paris agreement. Most critically, the statement included a commitment to phase down coal. And while we can’t yet quantify the impacts of this development, it presumably moves us closer to the 1.5 Celsius goal. This level of U.S.-China cooperation quickly shifted the entire COP26 narrative and outlook.
It is noteworthy that a similar bilateral agreement in 2014 brokered by the same two lead negotiators — China’s top climate envoy Xie Zhenhua and then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry — laid the groundwork for the Paris agreement a year later. This week’s agreement might prove even more important. Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Biden will meet virtually on Monday to discuss further actions.
The key aim of COP26 was to “keep 1.5C alive.” Despite pessimism among many heading into Glasgow, there is still reason to believe that’s possible. But only if the hard work begins now. We need to hold leaders accountable for their pledges and see to it that plans are carried out. Our future depends on it.
Michael E. Mann is distinguished professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. He is author, most recently, of “The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back our Planet.” Susan Joy Hassol is director of the nonprofit Climate Communication.
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