A View from Glasgow


The 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26)

The 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), held for the first time in Glasgow, Scotland, spanned the fortnight October 31 through November 13. About it, the piercing British columnist George Monbiot (2021) opined that “it is too late for [merely] incremental change.” By that legitimate measure, the Conference can only be deemed a failure. And yet, in fuller consideration, I think the failure was not entirely abject.

Originally published in Sustainability and Climate Change Vol. 14, No. 6 on December 14, 2021

Article link: https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/scc.2021.0079

Citation: Daniel M. Galpern.Sustainability and Climate Change.Dec 2021.360-365.http://doi.org/10.1089/scc.2021.0079

First, from the perspective of the climate system, the major emitting nations entirely failed to establish or deepen their commitment to timely decarbonization of the economy and atmosphere. And they have no excuse of ignorance, given the wide understanding, voiced in the lead-up to Glasgow, that commitments submitted to date, filed pursuant to the Paris Agreement to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, are simply inadequate.

The recent Emissions Gap Report (United Nations Environment Programme, 2021a) observed that “new national climate pledges combined with other mitigation measures put the world on track for a global temperature rise of 2.7°C by the end of the century. That is well above the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and would lead to catastrophic changes in the Earth’s climate. To keep global warming below 1.5°C this century, the aspirational goal of the Paris Agreement, the world needs to halve annual greenhouse gas emissions in the next eight years.”

Similarly, the World Energy Outlook 2021 report (International Energy Association, 2021), released in late October, demonstrated that even if all nations achieved their pledges, the resulting “doubling of clean energy investment and financing over the next decade” would remain insufficient “to overcome the inertia of today’s energy system.” In particular, “over the crucial period to 2030, the actions…fall well short of the emissions reductions that would be required to keep the door open to a Net Zero Emissions by 2050 trajectory.”

Success in this regard—that is, positioning the world community to restrict global warming above pre-industrial temperature to less than 1.5°C—requires strong leadership by the major historical greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters, the United States foremost among them. That should have been possible.

On taking office, the newly elected President Biden immediately rejoined the Paris Agreement, and his talented climate team got to work on an updated Nationally Determined Contribution, the better to “exercise leadership to promote a significant increase in global climate ambition” (White House, 2021). Toward that end, the White House announced new economy-wide, near-term GHG emissions reduction targets of 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and 100 percent carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035. And the US State Department packaged up these and other determinations in a new submission to the UNFCCC (United States, 2021). But in terms of actual policy changes through law or regulation, as required to put the nation firmly on a path to meet the new targets, not much has been achieved, in part because select members of Congress revere their fossil fuel patrons over humanity and the natural world. And so, the president went to Glasgow virtually empty-handed. And it showed.

Second, the Conference failed because, as before, wealthy nations committed no resources to help hard-hit least-developed nations to deal directly with climate-associated losses and damages.

True, the Glasgow Conference once again directed world attention to the fundamental question of climate injustice, namely, that communities in least-developed nations may be among the first hard hit by climate disaster, even as they have contributed little to the GHG overburden. See for example, a statement by Marshall Islands climate envoy and poet Kathy Jetn¯il-Kijiner, that her nation “is only 2m above sea level and…one of the most threatened countries in the world due to the sea level rise caused by climate change. Unlike other island nations, we have no mountains and there’s no higher ground to go to” (Jetn¯il-Kijiner, 2021). Similarly, consider Maldives Special Envoy Sabra Nordeen’s point that “[n]o matter what we do in the Maldives, it’s not going to be enough to save us. If temperature rises continue above 1.5 degrees, that’s it” (Drury, 2021).

But aside from their funding of the Warsaw International Mechanism, the major emitters at COP26 simply would not agree to help poor states deal with climate-related losses and damages. For its part, the Warsaw fund pays only for expert risk management advice and efforts to “strengthen dialogue, coherence, and synergies among relevant stakeholders” (Thunberg, 2021). At best it gives new meaning to the aphorism “talk is cheap.” Why do the major emitting nations withhold what is minimally required by climate-impacted poor nations? Because they wish to establish no precedent, in the face of climate damages that will only mount with time, absent a fundamental change in direction.

Still and all, COP26 secured some genuine progress, particularly as it, for the first time, expressly targeted fossil fuels and clarified several important rules of the road going forward:

  • Coal: COP26 featured a veritable welter of pronouncements regarding coal, starting with the UK government’s claim that, because of its leadership, “the end of coal” was now “in sight” with “a 190-strong coalition of countries and organizations at COP26 [including] Indonesia, South Korea, Poland, Vietnam, and Chile announcing clear commitments to “phase out coal power” and an end to “all investment in new coal power generation domestically and internationally” (Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, UK, 2021).
    • However, within hours of the UK announcement, as summarized in Carbon Brief’s (2021) review, at least two of the named nations (Poland and Indonesia) had backtracked, seeking to reserve the option to continue building out coal in their own countries. Similar hedging on coal later infected the final Glasgow Climate Pact in which the parties committed merely to “efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power [emphasis added]” (UNFCCC, 2021, 20). The careful reader is left to wonder: If coal power is merely going to be “phased-down,” and not “phased-out,” how much will be retained? And by whom? Also, does partly abated coal power get a free pass? And what do the words “efforts towards” even mean?
  • Fossil fuel subsidies: The final Glasgow Climate Pact called upon the parties to “accelerate” technologies and policies aimed at “transition towards low-emission energy systems,” including a “phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies [emphasis added]” (UNFCCC, 2021, 20). Again, the careful reader may be excused from wondering several things. For instance, if it is only “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies that should be phased out, just what, at this late stage, constitutes an efficient fossil fuel subsidy that should be retained?
    • The point was made by Andrea Meza, Costa Rica’s environment minister, who argued that “[w]e need clear language on the need to eliminate all fossil fuel subsidies, not only the inefficient ones” (Friedman, 2021). We might have expected John Kerry, the US special envoy for climate change, to agree, since he described fossil fuel subsidies as the “definition of insanity.” But he instead defended the vague final language as necessary because “commercial technology to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions could be developed in the future” (Friedman, 2021).
  • Methane: COP26 action on methane, a highly potent, short-lived greenhouse gas, was preceded by a May 2021 Global Methane Assessment (UNEP, 2021b) released by the UN Environment Programme. The Assessment report argues that as much as 30 percent of human-caused methane emissions could be reduced by 2030 through “readily available targeted measures,” and nearly half of those cuts could be secured by action in the fossil fuel sector. Building on the Assessment, the EU and the US announced during the COP their formal launch of the Global Methane Pledge, “an initiative to reduce global methane emissions to keep the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius within reach” (European Commission, 2021). Impressively, 100 countries had signed on, though China, Russia, and India were conspicuously absent.
    • These developments on methane are hopeful, but we also should be undertaking a more serious effort to investigate and scale-up, to the degree feasible, methods of removing excess atmospheric methane. Stanford’s Rob Jackson and Methane Action’s Daphne Wysham strongly argued as much during COP26 (Jackson & Wysham, 2021).
  • Forests: During the Conference, some 141 nations signed onto a strong “Declaration on Forests and Land Use.” Among other things, the declaration commits signatories “to work[…] collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 while delivering sustainable development and promoting an inclusive rural transformation,” including to “conserve forests and other terrestrial ecosystems and accelerate their restoration” (UNFCCC & UK, 2021).
    • The declaration appears to sharply conflict with practices in a number of nations, including the United States, that continue to encourage the clear-cutting of mature and old growth forests that sequester prodigious quantities of carbon. This apparent conflict may be useful, as a matter of law.
  • Voluntary Cooperation—Article 6: The parties finally agreed on rules to implement Article 6 of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Article 6 governs voluntary cooperation efforts between nations aimed at lowering emissions and developing funding for climate adaptation efforts. These involve the establishment of 1.) a consistent international system of trading in emissions reductions to “ensure environmental integrity, transparency” and “the avoidance of double counting,” among other things, 2.) an international carbon market, and 3.) an ongoing program for nonmarket approaches to climate mitigation and adaptation including finance, technology-sharing, and capacity building (Carbon Brief, 2021).
    • One of the specified agreed-upon rules settled the question of carry-over to the Paris mechanism of a portion of carbon credits developed since 2013 under the older Kyoto Protocol. It could have been worse as the agreed-upon compromise allowed only a maximum of 320 million tons of CO2-equivalent credits, out of a potential of “4bn credits [that] might have been carried over [had] the transition been unrestricted” (Carbon Brief, 2021).

Outcomes, Looking Toward a Different Future

The COP26 actions on moving past coal and fossil fuel subsidies were long, long overdue. Indeed, action is urgently required to retire not only coal, but also oil and gas. Thankfully, at the Conference, the nations of Denmark and Costa Rica announced formation of the Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance, “an international coalition of governments and stakeholders [aiming] to facilitate the managed phase-out of oil and gas production” (Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance, 2021).

The two major GHG emitting nations—the United States (most historical emissions) and China (most current emissions)—released a Joint Glasgow Declaration during COP26 (US Department of State, 2021). As UCLA professor Alex Wang noted, the agreement mostly “embodies potential,” but it is also “a positive sign that rising geopolitical tensions have not made cooperation in areas of mutual interest impossible” (Wang, 2021). It is worth noting that the declaration affirmed the parties’ determination to work together to tackle what the US-China communique properly called “the climate crisis,” and expressly signaled an intent to cooperate on “deployment and application of technology,” along with “policies to encourage decarbonization.” In theory, the latter phrase is broad enough to encompass a ramp-up of joint research, development, and possibly, financing, in the areas of energy storage and advanced nuclear technology.

On the question of US leadership, there are reasons why President Biden and his team pressed so hard for new Congressional action, including through the federal budget process in the run-up to COP26. Regrettably little has come of that, but it is critically important to understand that existing statutory authority can and should be put to use, by the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency, to commence the necessary rapid phaseout of fossil fuel emissions in the US. (Hansen & Galpern, 2021). Their use of that authority to forge a workable centerpiece US decarbonization policy depends not on any new act by Congress, but rather on the determination and will of the president, his climate team, and his expert agency. Leadership, that is. It is required with respect to the climate crisis even more now, in the wake of COP26. Because there remains an entire world to restore and protect.

Daniel M. Galpern serves as the legal and policy advisor to famed climate scientist James E. Hansen, and as General Counsel and Executive Director of Climate Protection & Restoration Initiative.