What happened at COP 26?
COP 26 refers to the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference which was held at the SEC Centre in Glasgow from 31 October to 13 November 2021. As it was held in Scotland, the conference president was UK cabinet minister, Alok Sharma, formerly the Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy. Attending the conference were 25,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries, including around 120 heads of state. As well as diplomatic representatives, there were also industry and business delegations. The largest of these was from the fossil fuel industry, with 503 accredited attendees. Among the heads of state not attending were Chinese President, Xi Jinping, and Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, both of whom already faced criticism for their governments’ emissions and deforestation records respectively.
One crucial intention of the conference was for countries to revisit the climate pledges made under the 2015 Paris Agreement at COP21. In 2015, countries were asked to make significant changes that would keep global warming below 2C. They were also asked to aim to keep the rise as low as 1.5C. Ahead of COP 26, the 200 countries were asked for their plans to cut emissions by 2030. By repeatedly doing this, every five years, the international community can determine whether countries are on track to bring global emissions to net-zero by 2050. Even though COP 26 was postponed to 2021, having been originally scheduled for 2020, due to the COVID pandemic, several countries still had not updated their climate pledges as late as October 2021.
For the first time at any COP conference, an explicit plan was agreed that would reduce the use of coal, the burning of which is responsible for 40% of CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, countries only agreed to a weaker commitment. Officially, the agreement only commits to ‘phase down’ the use of coal rather than to ‘phase out’ after a late intervention by China and India, which together are responsible for roughly 62% of global fuel consumption.
The agreement pledged to significantly increase money to help poor countries cope with the effects of climate change and make the switch to clean energy.
The COP 26 agreement also raised the prospect of a trillion dollar a year fund for developing countries from 2025, after a previous pledge to provide $100 billion a year by 2020 was missed by the richer countries. In 2019, only $76.6 billion was raised. While some observers hailed the COP 26 agreement as the ‘start of a breakthrough,’ some developing countries felt the pledges did not go far enough. Examples of where this money could be spent include coastal defences to protect against floods and agricultural systems that are less vulnerable to drought. This funding would also provide significant investments for renewable energy, such as wind and solar, so that developing countries can remove fossil fuels from their economies and mitigate the effects of climate change.
At the conference, it was agreed that countries will meet in 2022 to pledge further cuts to carbon dioxide emissions with the intention of keeping temperature rises at 1.5C. According to scientists, current pledges, if they are met, will only limit global warming to about 2.4C, resulting in a ‘climate catastrophe.’ This can be achieved by, not only reducing emissions, but absorbing an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to offset remaining emissions.
Fossil fuel subsidies
It was also agreed that world leaders would begin to phase-out subsidies that artificially lower the price of fossil fuels, either by tax breaks and direct payments or with consumer price cuts. Countries spend $423 billion annually to subsidise fossil fuels. This is over four times the missed pledge of $100 billion meant to help developing countries fight the climate crisis. Despite the pledge to phase out these subsidies, no firm dates have been set.
Many other agreements were made at COP 26, including 100 countries pledging to stop deforestation and cut 30% of methane emissions by 2030. However, China, Russia, and India have not joined this agreement, despite their being the world’s top emitters of methane.
As well as this, the US and China have pledged to work together over the next decade to tackle emissions, support clean energy, and limit climate change to 1.5C. Considering China’s reluctance to tackle its own coal consumption, this should be seen as an important step.
Finally, financial organisations controlling $130 trillion, 40% of the world’s financial assets, agreed to back ‘clean’ technology and reduce their support for fossil fuel burning industries. This initiative is chaired by former Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney.
The 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference was supposed to take place in November 2021, but due to the postponement of COP 26, it will now be held in 2022 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Concerns have arisen over whether demonstrators will be permitted to protest at the conference due to the country’s restrictions on dissent. Many worry that this will limit the pressure that could be exerted on the leaders who will be in attendance.