The Cop26 climate conference, framed by many as a last best chance to combat the climate crisis, was in reality never going to deliver a once-and-for-all solution to climate change. It laid bare the wide gap between the transformational change required and the current level of global ambition, but made important progress and sets a framework for strengthening the global response to the climate crisis.
The Glasgow Climate Pact – the central outcome of the conference – provides a framework for countries to strengthen their climate pledges on an annual basis. This is a key change from the Paris Agreement, which required such updating only every five years. The pact includes a reference to coal for the first time, and to fossil fuel subsidies. Both references were progressively weakened over the final days of the conference but the reference to coal is the first such reference in a UN climate agreement and is historically significant.
Some negotiators expressed deep concern for their children and grandchildren and the world that today's leaders are bestowing on them
Cop26 also finalised the so-called Paris rule book – the detailed set of rules to implement the 2015 Paris Agreement. Other aspects of the negotiations of particular concern to developing countries on the front lines of climate impacts, including climate finance and “loss and damage”, failed to satisfy their demands, though some progress was recorded.
Was the outcome enough? By any objective measure, the answer must be no. This was illustrated in the plenary on Saturday afternoon, when a range of developing and small island states repeatedly called attention to the inadequacy of the proposed agreement. Some negotiators expressed deep concern for their children and grandchildren and the world that today’s leaders are bestowing on them.
Challenging global backdrop
The progress achieved at Cop26 should be assessed against a challenging global backdrop for climate action. While the urgent need to take radical action to tackle the climate crisis has never been clearer, governments around the world have spent much of the past two years battling a different crisis: the Covid-19 pandemic. The geopolitical context was also largely unfavourable, with simmering US-China tensions and concerns over energy shortages this coming winter among a range of distractions.
Negotiations were also hampered by the basic fact that the current level of global climate ambition is far below a level consistent with limiting global heating to even the higher 2 degree goal contained in the Paris Agreement, let alone the lower 1.5 degree target. Initial analysis of the set of national climate pledges announced before and during Cop26 suggest that, if fully implemented, they would limit warming to somewhere between 1.8 and 2.4 degrees, depending on the assumptions used.
The Glasgow Climate Pact’s framework for strengthening national climate pledges is anchored in a strong endorsement for the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the key 1.5 degree temperature goal of the Paris Agreement. The need to reduce global emissions of CO2 by 45 per cent by 2030 relative to 2010 levels, and to net zero around mid-century is recognised, as is the need for “deep reductions” in other greenhouse gases such as methane. These are all important elements of the text, because they set the benchmark against which countries’ strengthened climate pledges will be measured.
The tortuous negotiations over the past two weeks revealed three essential characteristics of international climate negotiations. First, as a consensus-driven process, the pace is often set by the most reluctant countries. This is deeply frustrating given the necessity of urgent and transformational change. But it is an inescapable fact of the global climate regime, where decisions are taken by consensus.
A last-minute amendment to language on coal on Saturday illustrates this point. India, supported by China and South Africa, requested to change the language from a “phase out” to a “phase down” of unabated coal. This was in fact the fourth softening of the language on coal and fossil fuel subsidies over the course of last week. Many other countries voiced their deep disappointment in the plenary discussion but had no real choice but to accept it.
The need to take transformative action to combat the climate crisis has never been clearer, but the real work of bending the emissions curve downward – in Ireland and globally – is only beginning
A second essential characteristic is that equity and fairness considerations profoundly shape the dynamics of global climate negotiations. At the heart of the climate crisis is a deep injustice: those least responsible for causing climate change through greenhouse gas emissions are on the front lines of the impacts of the climate crisis. This plays out in various ways. It was heard in the desperate pleas from vulnerable developing countries and small island states whose very future is at stake.
It was also evident in the pushback from India on the language around coal in the final agreement. India complains that an undifferentiated coal phase-out is unfair on developing countries that have historically polluted less and are more reliant on coal. A fairer approach, according to this view, would give developing countries more time to transition away from coal and would also target the fossil fuels most central to industrialised economies, namely oil and gas.
Third, words matter. Negotiators fought hard over the exact language that would be contained in the final agreed texts. Some condemned the Cop26 as just another talking shop, but the time and effort diplomats spent negotiating the text illustrates that language does indeed matter.
In this context, the language relating to coal and fossil fuel subsidies is important. Despite the fact that the relevant language was weakened in the final version, Cop26 sent a clear message to the global economy about the phase-out of fossil fuels. The language was watered down, but the direction of travel is clear.
Of course, commitments announced in the glare of the global media are only meaningful if they are put into action. The focus now shifts to implementation at domestic level. As a rich developed country, Ireland has a particular responsibility. Our emissions per capita are stubbornly high, even by the standards of developed countries.
Ireland’s national climate law passed earlier this year provides a domestic framework for scaling up climate action and holding Government to account if it fails to do so. The recently-published Climate Action Plan takes initial steps to chart a pathway forward. The need to take transformative action to combat the climate crisis has never been clearer, but the real work of bending the emissions curve downward – in Ireland and globally – is only beginning.
Dr Diarmuid Torney is an associate professor in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University, and a co-director of the DCU Centre for Climate and Society.