Delegates to the just-ended COP26 climate conference in Glasgow were greeted by a wall decorated with cartoons. One of them depicted a horseman standing on a railway line just beyond a fork in the track. In the distance a train is steaming towards him. A bystander is imploring him to move. “But if I move and the train takes the other track,” the man is saying, “I will have got off my horse for nothing!”
Countries had to dismount from plenty of high horses in the last few days of the conference. As negotiators sought a final agreement, many nations’ red lines were crossed in the interests of compromise. But the conference ended in high drama when India stubbornly refused to get off its particular steed.
The issue was coal. Every other country had accepted a line in the final agreement calling for “the phasing-out of unabated coal” (that is, coal used without carbon capture and storage technology). But India — supported by China — would not. Even after the conference had to be adjourned because of its refusal, and after delegates were called back two hours later assuming a deal had been done, India objected again, proposing a further amendment to the now-completed text. “Phasing-out,” India said, should be replaced by “phasing-down.” The British chair of the conference, Alok Sharma, choked back tears as he apologised for the failure of the process, to much sympathy from delegates.
India’s and China’s late obstructionism highlighted both the power and limitations of these UN climate conferences. On the one hand, the largest and fifth-largest economies in the world cared enough about the precise wording of the agreement to face down the anger of 194 other nations. Other countries didn’t like many things in the text either, but had accepted them in the spirit of compromise required to reach agreement. On the other, it will make practically no difference to anything that happens in the real world beyond the conference hall. Though Greenpeace and other climate campaigners hailed the first-ever mention of getting rid of fossil fuels in a COP decision, the words are entirely symbolic. Without a date by when it must be done, neither “phasing-out” nor “phasing-down” have much practical meaning.
Part of the reason we know that it was only symbolic was that Australia had accepted “phasing-out” even though the government in Canberra has no plans to end coal use or exports at all. Poland and South Korea, two other coal-dependent nations, have agreed to a phase-out, but not till 2049. In practice, all five countries will have to end their use of coal well before that date if the Paris goal of limiting global heating to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial times is to be achieved.
The 1.5°C limit was in fact not the principal Paris goal, which was “well below 2°C.” But the small island states in the Pacific, Caribbean and elsewhere most existentially threatened by climate change — some of the lowest-lying will not survive rising sea levels at all — have succeeded in making 1.5°C the new benchmark of tolerable warming.
Remarkably, the conference didn’t just accept the new goal. It also acknowledged that countries’ current plans to reduce emissions would not go anywhere near meeting it, and agreed to come back next year with stronger plans aimed at doing so.
On this criterion alone COP26 should probably be regarded as a relative success. Given the pre-conference hype about Glasgow being “the last chance to save the planet,” many in the public might have been forgiven for expecting countries to announce new and stronger commitments during the conference. But that was never going to happen. They came to the meeting with emissions reduction targets decided — in many cases with great difficulty — in their domestic political systems. This is why the Paris agreement calls them “nationally determined contributions,” or NDCs. Countries had neither the desire nor the mandate to raise their ambition levels during this fortnight, and the possibility of doing so was not even on the agenda.
So the most this conference could ever do was to acknowledge that the global reduction in emissions was nowhere near enough to put the world on a path to limiting heating to 1.5°C; and to resolve to reconvene as soon as practically possible with stronger commitments. Which is precisely what it did.
The numbers presented were stark. If implemented, current national pledges up to 2030 would lead to average global heating of 2.4°C. At those temperatures the oceans would be stripped of all coral reefs, many land species would become extinct, major regions would lose their water supplies, and productive agriculture would become untenable in many countries. Revisiting and strengthening NDCs is crucial if such a projected temperature rise is to be averted.
The other big issue of COP26 was finance: specifically, money provided by the rich nations to the poorer ones to help them tackle climate change. For a long time the most vulnerable countries have been angry that most of the money provided so far has been for “mitigation” (emissions reduction in those countries) and has taken the form of loans. Their emissions are too small to matter much, but they are already suffering severe effects as the climate changes. So they wanted more money directed towards adaptation, and as grants rather than loans.
They won some of this. Developed countries agreed to “at least double” their finance for adaptation (which could take it to 40–50 per cent of total financial flows) and the World Bank has been told to increase its overall funding to vulnerable countries.
But developed countries resisted the demand that they make up for their failure to hit the goal of US$100 billion in financing by 2020 — first promised over a decade ago — by providing more in 2024 and 2025. Instead the text sticks to US$100 billion a year. A new process will be established to define how much wealthy countries should pay after 2025.
It was the issue of “loss and damage,” however, that provoked the most anger — and the greatest resistance. This is the idea that rich countries should compensate poor ones for the economic and human costs caused by the former’s emissions. The idea of compensation for loss and damage represents a vital principle for the global South, one that lies at the heart of the idea of “climate justice.” Climate change is the result of the two-centuries-old economic development process that has made rich countries rich. But its most damaging effects are being experienced by the countries that contributed least to causing it — and it is making them poorer.
In climate negotiations the developed world has always fiercely resisted the idea of compensation. They fear it is a slippery slope. Accept liability for causing climate harm and before long they will find themselves in the international court, required to pay out trillions of dollars to every developing nation.
This clash of interests was never going to end harmoniously at COP26. The least developed nations and small island states demanded a new financing facility for loss and damage — with no sums or liabilities mentioned. But the United States, the European Union and other developed nations were determined not to concede. The final text called merely for a “dialogue” to discuss “arrangements.” The island nations vowed to return next year with the same demand.
So, two weeks of intense wrangling, with a leaders’ summit thrown in, ended in a nine-page main document primarily notable for asking countries to do it again next year at COP27 (to be held in the somewhat warmer location of Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt). It’s easy to see why the whole process attracted so much hostile comment. Did the Glasgow jamboree actually achieve more by way of reducing emissions than it caused, in bringing 25,000 people together from across the world to merely talk about climate change? Haven’t greenhouse gas emissions risen continuously throughout the thirty years in which these annual UN climate chinwags have taken place?
Cynicism is understandable. But the right question to ask is not whether emissions have fallen since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was first signed in 1992. It is what would have happened if there had been no international treaties, and no talks.
We have an answer to this. Before COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, projected that if emissions continued on their “business as usual” path, the average global surface temperature would likely rise 4–6°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. Prior to COP21 in Paris in 2015, the projected temperature rise had been reduced to around 3–5°C. In 2018, it was around 3°C. If the “nationally determined contributions” presented in Glasgow are implemented, the projected likely temperature rise is 2.4°C.
So it is not true (as Greta Thunberg is wont to say) that nothing is being done. Almost all countries have either reduced their absolute emissions (in the developed world) or slowed their rise (in the emerging economies). Not by enough, as the IPCC makes clear. But this is not a record of complete inaction.
Has this anything to do with climate negotiations? Yes. The reason we have an international climate treaty and big global “moments” like COP26 is that they internationalise what would otherwise be national policy responses to a global problem.
Climate change can only be tackled if all countries reduce their emissions. The largest single emitter, China, contributes 31 per cent of the global total; the United States 14 per cent, India 7 per cent, Russia 5 per cent. No other country’s share is above 3 per cent. Global emissions can only be reduced if every country plays its part, but if it were left to every country to act on its own, most would surely not. It would be too easy for each to say, “Our emissions are too small to make a difference; how do we know anyone else is acting?”
But it is also a problem of political circumstances. There are few countries in which climate change is a major political issue, with powerful interests favouring action. Left to themselves, most governments would no doubt do something, some time; but it is highly unlikely that this would be coordinated with every other country’s domestic political timetable.
By forcing all countries to act simultaneously, not just when it is domestically propitious to do so, the UN climate process has created much larger collective action. And in doing so it has built global scale for emissions-reducing technologies. It is no coincidence that the cost of solar power has fallen around 90 per cent since Copenhagen in 2009, and wind power up to 70 per cent. That has happened because all larger countries have introduced renewable energy policies in response to UN climate agreements (even the apparently “failed” one in Copenhagen), and the resulting scale and innovation have slashed costs. The same effect has led to the rapid and continuing fall in the price of electric vehicles and batteries since Paris in 2015.
And, of course, the declining cost of decarbonisation means that more of it can be done. It is a virtuous circle. International agreements lead to near-universal national action, which creates global markets for green technologies, which reduces costs and incentivises innovation, which allows stronger targets to be adopted next time round.
Given the requirement in the Glasgow agreement that every major country produce new 2030 commitments by COP27 next year, attention will now turn back to domestic politics. It won’t be easy for any country, barring a few with very weak plans (such as Australia), to find ways of cutting their emissions further than they have already decided. New policies and new public investment funding will be required, whether in renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, industrial emissions, or research and development into green technologies.
Can it be done? Technically and economically, yes. But politically, for many countries, it will be mighty hard. The Glasgow agreement acknowledges the need to support a “just transition” — the creation of alternative jobs and incomes for the workers and communities of high-carbon industries — but it will still be difficult to overcome the power of incumbent interests. The fossil fuel sector will defend itself vigorously for some time yet.
And yet, taking the longer view, Glasgow did feel like a turning point. Never at a COP has there been such a recognition of the injustice faced by poorer countries as a result of a problem caused by rich ones. Never have leaders been confronted so directly with the evidence of their failure. Never have they admitted that failure, and agreed to have another go. China and India’s pyrrhic victory in the dying minutes of the conference may have given heart to all those still wedded to coal. But for the rest of the world it looked like the beginning of the end for the age of fossil fuels. •
The publication of this article was supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.