"The commitments question is key to assessing COP26. Too early to make the call, Greta."
The dust has barely settled on Glasgow’s climate conference. Emotions were still running high when India and China pulled out the last-minute stunt about “phasing down” instead of “phasing out” coal.
An exhausted Alok Sharma apologised, an undaunted Frans Timmermans vowed to fight on, but it was Marshall Islands’ Tina Stege who brought home the message: for many communities the difference of an average temperature rise of 1.8 degrees against 1.5 may well be survival.
As the delegates were heading home from Scotland, that fundamental challenge remained on the table – no diplomatic language could finesse it.
The race to save the planet continues as the annual conference moves to the Gulf and the torch will be passed from the United Kingdom to Egypt in 2022 and to the United Arab Emirates in 2023.
Meanwhile, the implementation of “national determined contributions” (NDC) is the name of the game.
Yes, COP26 failed to secure the 1.5 objective but does that make it a failure? Greta Thunberg has little doubt. With the conference still in mid-course, she had already decried it a failure. But she is plainly wrong. As an activist she is right in keeping up the pressure, as an opinion maker she is wrong in belittling progress made and prospects opened in Glasgow. The issue is not the “blah, blah, blah” at the conference. It is whether that “blah, blah, blah” will turn into action. It’s delivery, stupid - that will make the difference.
Two yardsticks measure COP26. The first is based on what Glasgow achieved; the second on the follow-ups it will have.
In the immediate aftermath, judgment has to focus on the former, while the outgoing British presidency – in charge until next COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh – followed by the Egyptian and the Emirati successive chairs will work on the latter. A preliminary assessment cannot be given in black and white.
In tune with November Scottish landscape, COP26’s dominant colour is grey. Glasgow differed from its predecessors for three reasons.
First, the case about climate change, long scientifically established, was politically overwhelming. How many more floods in normally water-starved Sicily, bushfires in California or Australia, stray hurricanes in South China, are needed to bring home the message?
Second, the train of NDC had already left the station and some (modest) progress in curbing CO2 emissions and shifting from fossils fuels to renewables had been made – still falling short of targets set in Paris but in motion.
Third, and foremost, conflating urgency, rising temperatures and political activism had significantly raised expectations. Clearly, not all were met, but that does not make Glasgow’s results irrelevant especially if placed in context. Compared with the 2015 landmark Paris conference progress was made in Scotland, both declaratory – hence still to be turned into policies – and in NDC.
Declaratory: suffice the mention of fossils fuels, a first in a UN document, singling coal as the prime culprit of CO2 emissions – leaving aside the vintage diplomatic difference between “down” and “out”.
As for NDC, according to IEA’s preliminary assessment, commitments so far made at COP26 – if fulfilled, as they are far from legally binding – would limit global warming to 1.8 degrees: insufficient to “keep 1.5 alive”, as Tina Stege and other island states representatives made abundantly clear, but on the path to decline.
A 1.8 trajectory needs to be measured against the 2.7-degree course currently estimated by the UN. Once the political and economic momentum in the right direction is on, further progress can be brought in pursuit of various (2050-2060-2070) global-net-zero-emissions objectives announced in Glasgow.
COP26 showcased national leadership on climate change - or lack of thereof. By absence, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin appeared to downplay it. Together, China and Russia account for exactly one-third of CO2 emissions – 33%, 28% China, 5% Russia. Russia is a top exporter of fossil fuels, China its main consumer, including of coal for which there is really no room in energy transition.
By not coming neither to Glasgow nor to Rome at the G20 summit, were the Russian and Chinese leaders abdicating statesmanship for debatable short-term political gains?
Time will tell, though it must be acknowledged that China played an active role in Glasgow, witness its role in very forcefully pushing for the coal “phasing down” amendment. The joint China-US statement was one of the bright spots of the conference. Moreover, Xi has not travelled outside the country for more than 600 days, since the outbreak of the COVID pandemic and had some domestic chores to attend at home with the CCP Central Committee.
Taking stock of new NDC made in Glasgow, the EU and the US have led efforts – with notable omissions, like the US not signing onto the 190-country strong agreement to phase out coal and Poland partially backtracking on it.
More than 100 countries have agreed to cut methane emissions by 30%. Individual players have stepped up to the plate.
For the first time, India set a net-zero target, in 2070. By setting the course to a 2050 deadline, the UAE is positioning itself as a climate leader among Middle Eastern oil-producing countries with its presidency of COP28 in mind. Other oil and gas producers, like Saudi Arabia, Russia and Australia will have to follow suit.
For all of them, of course, the riddle will be to decrease and eventually stop exporting fossil fuels…. but a first step is now made.
Meanwhile, more than 20 nations, including the US, UK, Canada and Italy, and multilateral development banks will cease financing most overseas oil and gas projects in 2022. Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis announced a ban on combustion cars by 2030, while Athens and Salonika taxis would have to go hybrids or electric much earlier (2025).
Will delivery follow pledges? The answer lies with the next COPs. There is always the risk of domestic politics holding back promises made, as it seemed to happen in Indonesia on deforestation. Memories of the Trump administration pulling the US out of the Paris agreement are still fresh.
The commitments question is key to assessing COP26. Too early to make the call, Greta. Time will tell, while the climate clock is ticking fast – you are right about that. The race to beat it is on.
Stefano Stefanini is a director at Project Associates and former diplomatic advisor to the president of Italy. He has also served as Italian permanent representative at NATO and Deputy Chief of Mission at the Italian Embassy in Washington.