Was COP26 a victory or defeat?

The most ambitious climate pact since the Paris Agreement in 2015 has just been signed at COP26. Though it represents crucial forward momentum, experts say the summit failed to protect vulnerable nations by not addressing the pressing human-rights threats posed by a warming world.

As COP26 came to a close in Glasgow over the weekend, 197 countries, including Australia, agreed to a new deal that keeps alive – just – the goal of the Paris Agreement: limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Each word was painstakingly negotiated, and the final agreement was revised at the last moment after pressure from India and China. This led the wording of the deal to be watered down – the 10-page Glasgow Climate Pact now states that coal will be “phased down” rather than “phased out”.

Man with glasses puts hand to mouth with emotion
Alok Sharma pauses during his speech at the closing plenary. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell / Staff / Getty Images

COP26 President, Alok Sharma, called it a “fragile win”. He broke down with emotion during the proceedings as vulnerable and developing countries – which are being hardest hit by the impacts of a warming world, despite doing little to contribute – voiced their opposition to the change to the text.

“May I just say to all delegates, I apologise for the way this process has unfolded and I am deeply sorry,” Sharma said.

“I also understand the deep disappointment but…it’s also vital that we protect this package.”

What did COP26 achieve?

Though international movement on climate action has been slow, some experts say that even this incremental progress is encouraging.

“By many measures COP26 was a success,” says Pep Candell, CSIRO research scientist and executive director of the Global Carbon Project.

“Governments provided more stringent mitigation commitments for short- and long-term goals, agreed on new mechanisms to track on the delivery of those promises and further increased their ambition, and touched on many aspects of equity and financial flows.”

Main takeaways:

  • Before the Paris Agreement, the world was on track for 4°C warming by 2100.
  • Between Paris and the start of COP26, the world got itself on track for 2.7°C warming by 2100.
  • Through agreements reached at COP26, 140 countries strengthened their 2030 targets, reducing projected warming to 2.4°C by 2100 (or below 2°C by other modelling).
  • Long-term targets are also important to hold countries to account: for example, Australia now has a target of net-zero emissions by 2050, and India has committed to the same by 2070.
  • Other key takeaways include agreements to slash methane emissions, end deforestation, and eliminate foreign-aid financing for fossil-fuel projects.

The Glasgow Climate Pact also explicitly mentions coal and other fossil fuels, which – somewhat incredibly – were not in the Paris Agreement in 2015.

“The explicit recognition of the role fossil fuels (coal in particular) play in producing climate change have been acknowledged and the need to reduce fossil-fuel subsidies is reflected through commitments to reduce these,” says Ariel Liebman, director of the Monash Energy Institute.

“It is unfortunate that expressed actual commitments fall far short of what is needed to limit warming to 1.5°C.”

A woman wades through floodwaters among a wrecked house
Funafuti Atoll in Tuvalu is at the front line against global warming. Credit: Ashley Cooper / Corbis / Getty Images

Liebman adds, though, that the agreement does represent a “significant step forward” and means that 1.5°C is still technically possible.

“We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5°C alive,” Sharma said in a statement. “But its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action.”

Just a few years ago, keeping warming below 2°C by 2100 was barely on the table. Now, the momentum is building, setting the stage for more ambitious climate targets to be set at COP27 in Cairo in 2022.

“I am optimistic that there is momentum to make COP27 a real turning point,” says Liebman. “But I feel that really is the last chance for the 1.5°C target.”

Vulnerable countries left to drown

The outcomes of COP26 fail to solve a key question: how will wealthy nations help vulnerable nations at the forefront of climate change?

“From a human rights perspective, the COP agreement is a failure,” says Susan Harris Rimmer, director of the Policy Innovation Hub at Griffith University.

Two children stand next to a dry, sandy well with jerrycans at their feet
Children try to fetch water from a hand-dug well at Mideteni village, Kenya, where residents face starvation from drought. Credit: Boniface Muthoni/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

“[A] 1.5°C [goal] is the only target that keeps the world safe, including our Pacific neighbours and most of northern Australia. This is not a ‘near enough is good enough’ kind of deal.”

Even if COP26 limits global temperature rise to 2°C, this will still be catastrophic for many nations that are both disproportionately affected by the negative impacts of climate change – including flooding, drought, sea-level rise, storm surges, hurricanes and cyclones – and less resourced to cope.

A rise of 2°C would be a “death sentence” for island nations, according to Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley.

“We do not want that dreaded death sentence, and we have come here today to say, ‘try harder’,” she said in a speech at COP26.

“Can there be peace and prosperity if one-third of the world literally prospers and the other two-thirds of the world live under siege and face calamitous threats to our wellbeing?”

At COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, wealthy nations agreed to commit US$100 billion each year by 2020 to “climate finance”, helping developing countries afford to transition away from fossil fuels and adapt.

This promise has not been kept. Just $79.5 billion was put forward in 2019, the latest year for which data is available.

“We are $20 billion dollars short of the $100 billion, and this commitment, even then, might only be met in 2023,” Mottley pointed out in her speech. “Climate finance to frontline small island developing states declined by 25% in 2019.

A delegate holds a poster protesting about climate funding to vulnerable countries
Credit: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

“Failure to provide the critical finance, and that of loss and damage, is measured, my friends, on lives and livelihoods in our communities. This is immoral. And it is unjust.”

Climate finance was therefore a key – and contentious – issue at COP26. Richer nationals admitted they had not kept their earlier commitments and Sharma said that US$500 billion would be mobilised by 2025 for developing nations, but clear financial commitments were not made.

For the first time, the new pact also mentions “loss and damage” – compensation for damage caused by climate change. But no funding has been committed, and a mechanism to move forward is unclear – developed countries have essentially agreed to continue to discuss it.

India alone requested $1 trillion in both climate finance and loss and damage by the end of the decade to aid in its goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2070. That’s 10 times more than the unmet $100-billion-a-year promise for other developing countries.

A man speaks into a microphone. A placard in front of him says "india"
Indian Environment and Climate Minister Bhupender Yadav speaks at the closing plenary of the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties COP26. Credit: Han Yan/Xinhua / Getty Images.

The right to retain fossil fuels

The complexities of the politics of climate action are apparent in India’s actions to revise the text of the Glasgow Climate Pact. For the nation of more than 1.3 billion people, ending the use of fossil fuels seems to be a matter of climate injustice.

“Calls upon Parties to accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies, and the adoption of policies, to transition towards low-emission energy systems, including by rapidly scaling up the deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures, including accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, recognizing the need for support towards a just transition.”

Glasgow Climate Pact, article 36

Indian Environment and Climate Minister Bhupender Yadav, who put forth the revised text during final negotiations, made the point that developing countries are expected to commit to the same targets as wealthier developed countries, without the same financial resources or alternatives.

“This climate crisis has been caused by unsustainable lifestyles and wasteful consumption,” he says. “The world needs to awaken to this reality. Fossil fuels and their use have enabled parts of the world to attain high levels of wealth and wellbeing.”

Boy holds a tub of coal on his head
12 year old Abdul Kayum from Assam works at a coal depot in Jaintia Hills, India. An Indian NGO group, Impulse, estimates that 5,000 privately-owned coal mines in Jaintia Hills employed some 70,000 child miners. Credit: Daniel Berehulak / Staff / Getty Images

India has made great strides in renewables infrastructure over recent years and has one of the world’s most ambitious renewable energy plans, but is still reliant on fossil fuels for 70% of its energy. India’s demand is expected to surge more than in any other country in coming decades as the population grows and urbanises.

With limited oil and gas reserves, India does not have alternatives on which to fall back – for example, the US is moving away from coal by ramping up natural gas consumption. Reducing coal consumption is a particularly “wicked problem” for India given that many millions of Indians rely on the coal industry for their livelihoods, and tens of millions of people still do not have access to electricity of any kind.

Shifting the blame closer to home

Many are pointing fingers of blame at India for the watered-down resolution, but perhaps Australia’s focus should be less on the amendments to the pact and more on its own actions.

According to John Quiggin, an Australian Laureate Fellow in Economics at the University of Queensland, “the compromises made to reach a final text have been disappointing, but relatively minor.

“For example, while ‘phasing down’ coal is less satisfactory than ‘phasing out’, either contrasts sharply with the view of the Australian government – at least until recently – that coal demand will remain strong indefinitely into the future.”

Indeed, it seems that the revised phrasing will allow Australia to keep mines open – the federal government has indicated that coal will remain a key export.

Senator Matt Canavan told the Nine Network that the pact is a “great result for Australia and our coal industry”, as he stood in front of a screen reading “Glasgow: a huge win for coal”.

“There has never been stronger demand for our coal, and given the fact that the agreement did not say that coal needs to be phased out or taken down, it is a green light for us to build more coal mines, [and] supply the world more coal because that’s what brings people out of poverty,” Canavan said.

Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce expressed a similar sentiment to Seven’s Sunrise: “If you start shutting [fossil fuel exports] down, you are going to shut down your standard of living in Australia.”

But Griffith University’s Harris Rimmer points out that the threat from continuing to burn fossil fuels is not only to developing countries – Australia is among the most vulnerable to climate change.

“We need to understand what is in the balance here for our own increasingly short-term futures,” she says. “Livable summers, insurable homes, water security, healthy cities, preparedness for weather events, not to mention the ability to look your grandchildren in the eyes.”

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