Top Takeaways From the COP26 Climate Summit

Coal powerplant in China (Tobias Brox / CC BY SA 3.0)

Published Nov 14, 2021 7:47 PM by The Conversation

The staff of The Conversation asked experts from around the world for their reaction to the outcomes of this year’s UN climate summit, COP26, including the Glasgow Climate Pact agreed by all 197 countries attending the talks. Here’s what they had to say about the deals that were made. 

Deals and targets: A starting point for future action

The Glasgow Climate Pact is not perfect, but still strengthens the Paris agreement in several ways. Acknowledging that there is no safe limit for global warming, the Pact resolves to limit global warming to 1.5°C, instead of the Paris text of “well below 2°C." Crucially it also delivers a strong framework for tracking commitments against real-world progress.

The summit was pitched as the last chance to “keep 1.5°C alive” – holding temperatures to less than 1.5°C above their pre-industrial levels. 2020 was also supposed be the year when developed countries would provide at least US$100 billion a year of financial aid to help developing countries adapt to mounting storms and droughts – a pledge that still has not been met – and the transition to clean energy was supposed to start being rolled out.

Perhaps concerned that national targets collectively were nowhere near good enough to keep 1.5°C alive – we were heading for more like 2.4°C at best – the UK government used its presidency programme to supplement these targets with a series of press-friendly announcements of non-binding pledges to cut methane emissions, end deforestation and phase out coal.

These were further supplemented by the “race to zero” initiatives, a series of announcements by states, cities and businesses on a range of decarbonisation approaches.

While these are genuine attempts at climate action, success hinges on whether these developments can swiftly make into raised national commitments within the next year. The pact now explicitly “requests parties to revisit and strengthen” their 2030 goals, meaning 1.5°C is down but not out.

(Piers Forster, Professor of Physical Climate Change & Director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate University of Leeds)

Greenhouse gas emissions: Progress on cutting emissions, but nowhere near enough

The Glasgow Climate Pact is incremental progress and not the breakthrough moment needed to curb the worst impacts of climate change. The UK government as host and therefore president of COP26 wanted to “keep 1.5°C alive”, the stronger goal of the Paris Agreement. But at best we can say the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C is on life support – it has a pulse but it’s nearly dead.

Before COP26, the world was on track for 2.7°C of warming, based on commitments by countries, and expectation of the changes in technology. Announcements at COP26, including new pledges to cut emissions this decade, by some key countries, have reduced this to a best estimate of 2.4°C.

More countries also announced long-term net zero goals. One of the most important was India’s pledge to reach net zero emissions by 2070. Critically, the country said it would get off to a quick start with a massive expansion of renewable energy in the next ten years so that it accounts for 50% of its total usage, reducing its emissions in 2030 by 1 billion tonnes (from a current total of around 2.5 billion).

A world warming by 2.4°C is still clearly very far from 1.5°C. What remains is a near-term emissions gap, as global emissions look likely to flatline this decade rather than showing the sharp cuts necessary to be on the 1.5°C trajectory the pact calls for. There is a gulf between long-term net zero goals and plans to deliver emissions cuts this decade.

(Simon Lewis, Professor of Global Change Science at University College London and University of Leeds, and Mark Maslin, Professor of Earth System Science, University College London)

Fossil fuel finance: Some progress on ending subsidies, but the final deal fell short

The most important outcomes from COP26 will be directly related to two “F-words”: finance and fossil fuels. Close attention should be paid to pledges for new finance for mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage. But we must remember the other side of the equation — the urgent need to cut off funding for fossil fuel projects. As the International Energy Agency made clear earlier this year, there is no room in the 1.5? carbon budget for any new investments in fossil fuels.

The commitment from more than 25 countries to shut off new international finance for fossil fuel projects by the end of 2022 is one of the biggest successes to come out of Glasgow. This could shift more than US$24 billion a year of public funds out of fossil fuels and into clean energy.

There was also short-lived hope that the COP decision would call on parties to “accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels.” According to the United Nations, eliminating all fossil fuel subsidies would reduce global carbon emissions up to 10% by 2030. Sadly before the pact was agreed, the text on coal was watered down, the phrase “phasing out” was replaced with “phasing down”, and the weasel word “inefficient” was inserted before “subsidies for fossil fuels.”

The fact that not even a weak reference to fossil fuels can survive in the decision text speaks volumes about how divorced the COP process is from the realities of the climate crisis. And this is unlikely to change as long as fossil fuel lobbyists are permitted to attend.

(Kyla Tienhaara, Canada Research Chair in Economy and Environment, Queen’s University, Ontario)

Energy transitions: Discussions relied on unproven technologies

COP26 featured hundreds of commitments to power past coal and natural gas and offer just transitions to workers and communities, mostly with a focus on renewable energy transitions.

However, one concern I have coming out of COP26 is that discussions are often promoting technologies that are not currently market ready or scalable, especially nuclear small modular reactors, hydrogen and carbon capture and storage.

According to the International Energy Agency, 38 technologies are ready for deployment right now, including solar photovoltaic, geothermal and wind power. Yet none has been deployed at the scale we need to achieve 1.5?. Renewable energy, currently 13% of the global energy system, needs to reach 80% or more.

Globally, a transition to renewable energy will cost between $22.5 trillion and $139 trillion. What’s needed are policies that support a mix of innovations, accelerate the scale-up of renewable energy and modernize power grids — including the right for consumers and citizens to generate power to sell to their neighbours and the grid. They also need to support business models that offer revenue to communities and jobs for those in industries in transition.

(Christina E. Hoicka, Associate Professor of Geography and Civil Engineering, University of Victoria)

Low-carbon steel, concrete and next generation biofuels received a boost.

Science and Innovation Day at COP26 saw interesting new schemes announced, and three were particularly important.

First, the UK, Germany, Canada, India and the United Arab Emirates formed an initiative for developing low carbon steel and concrete, to decarbonise construction. Their stated goal is net-zero steel and concrete for public projects by 2050, with an earlier 2030 target yet to be announced. That is an exciting project, as construction materials like these contribute about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Second, a goal of creating low-carbon health care systems was also announced, with 47 countries joining that initiative. While the goal of net zero healthcare by 2050 is welcome, it is hardly an additional commitment. If a nation achieves net zero, its health system will have met that criterion anyway.

Third, Mission Innovation is a collaboration between governments aimed at accelerating technologies that will reduce emissions. The Netherlands and India are leading a welcome bio-refinery program, aiming to make bio-based alternative fuels and chemicals economically attractive.

Less useful is the “carbon dioxide removal” project, led by Saudi Arabia, US and Canada. Its goal is a net annual reduction of 100 million tonnes of CO? by 2030. As global emissions are now 35 billion tonnes a year, this project aims to prolong fossil fuel use by capturing only a token, tiny fraction.

(Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor, School of Science, Griffith University)

This article appears courtesy of The Conversation and is reproduced here in an abbreviated form. The original may be found here

Top image: Coal powerplant in China (Tobias Brox / CC BY SA 3.0)

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The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.