As the second week of the annual UN climate talks in Glasgow—also called COP26—gets underway, negotiations are entering the crunch period. After all the speeches and a flurry of voluntary initiatives announced by politicians in the first week, it’s now time for real talk about what countries will actually commit to doing as part of an agreement. Specifically, will Glasgow deliver a transparent, robust and inclusive agreement to help keep global climate goals within reach, ramp up climate finance for developing countries and address the loss and damage caused by extreme unavoidable climate impacts?
First, a quick recap of what happened during the first week
COP26 began with the World Leaders Summit which included several fiery and sobering speeches, including a powerful plea from Kenyan youth activist Elizabeth Wathuti, who urged leaders to open their hearts and act. Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados gave a stirring speech in which she called out COVID-19 vaccine inequity and the lack of climate ambition to date:
“I ask to you: what must we say to our people, living on the frontline in the Caribbean, in Africa, in Latin America, in the Pacific…When will leaders lead? Our people are watching, and our people are taking note. And are we really going to leave Scotland without the resolve and the ambition that is sorely needed to save lives and to save our planet?… Are we so blinded and hardened that we can no longer appreciate the cries of humanity?”
Leaders from richer countries, including U.S. President Joe Biden, spoke clearly to the urgency of the science and the many benefits of embracing a clean energy future. Yet domestic political uncertainties and the sway of the fossil fuel industry loomed large in the background.
A flurry of voluntary initiatives were announced, including the formal launch of the Global Methane Pledge, a effort by 100+ countries to cut highly potent heat-trapping methane emissions by 30 percent below 2020 levels by 2030, and a commitment to stop global deforestation by 2030. Dozens of countries, including the United States, also pledged to stop new overseas public financing for unabated fossil fuel energy by the end of 2022 and shift funding to clean energy instead. And more than 40 nations committed to phasing out coal, though major emitters including the United States, China, India and Australia were conspicuously absent from this pledge.
However, not nearly enough progress was made on the core issues: enhancing ambition on emission reduction pledges, growing climate finance commitments, and addressing loss and damage in a meaningful way. Nations have significant work to do in the second week of COP26 to lay the groundwork for closing the ambition gap quickly so that global climate goals remain within reach in this consequential decade.
Five things to watch for in week two of COP26
Here are five questions I have as we enter week two of these climate talks:
- Will major emitting countries agree on clear pathways to increase their current emission reductions commitments? We know they’re currently falling short of what science shows is necessary to keep the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius within reach—although new pledges announced would bring us closer if they are fully implemented . The question now is how to ensure concrete actions to deliver on current pledges, how to close the remaining gap with additional actions, and how to create a transparent, common framework for holding countries accountable for following through. We’re not going to get steep emission reductions without a firm commitment from major emitters to sharply phase down fossil fuels, including coal, oil and natural gas. As we make this transition, nations must also invest in supports for fossil fuel workers and communities, as called for in the recommendations of the Global Commission for People-Centered Clean Energy Transitions. And to make all this credible, nations must implement domestic policies in line with their international pledges. On that front, Congress should act quickly to secure the Build Back Better Act which would be a significant win for both the people of the United States and for global climate action.
- Will richer nations make a commitment to significantly ramp up climate finance for developing countries? The climate finance delivery plan shared ahead of COP26, on behalf of richer countries, was disappointing. It delayed the timetable for meeting a long-promised goal for richer countries to mobilize $100 billion annually, made no attempt to compensate for the past deficit, and did not put enough emphasis on scaling up public grant funding particularly for adaptation. Now we need clarity on ensuring how richer nations intend to meet that $100B per year goal, making sure that the funding flows equally towards adaptation and emission-reduction measures. Additionally, the bulk of those funds need to come in the form of grants, not loans. Developing countries shouldn’t have to foot the bill for a problem to which they contributed very little, especially as many are reeling from the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, private sector aspirational announcements—such as the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero—are not a substitute for richer countries’ obligations and should be held to a high standard to avoid greenwashing attempts by some actors.
- Will Loss and Damage be meaningfully addressed? Many climate-vulnerable countries are already experiencing unavoidable climate impacts that cannot be ameliorated by ordinary adaptation measures and this loss and damage will worsen in the years to come. They face loss of land, livelihoods, ecosystems and cultural heritage—peoples’ lives and their health and well-being are at risk. UCS has joined over 300 organizations calling for concrete action at COP26 to address loss and damage, and it is encouraging to see it finally starting to get more attention from political leaders and the media. Operationalizing the Santiago network for loss and damage, which would provide technical assistance to developing countries, is clearly vital and has broad support from countries. Going further, richer nations must also pledge to provide additional financing to address loss and damage and put it on the COP agenda on an ongoing basis. Antigua and Barbuda and Tuvalu have also called for a new UN Commission to determine if they can claim legal damages from those responsible for climate pollution.
- Will the cover agreement from Glasgow be strong and fair? A strong agreement coming out of Glasgow must create a clear pathway to closing the ambition gap on emissions reductions and finance, while also ensuring a transparent, robust framework for accountability for all nations that takes into account equity and human rights. Richer nations particularly have an outsize responsibility to act and must implement strong policies back home to deliver on their high-minded words in Glasgow. The science is clear: we have no time to waste.
- Will the outcomes from Glasgow acknowledge calls to action from scientists, youth and those on the frontlines of the climate crisis? The latest science continues to be incredibly sobering: The Global Carbon Budget 2021 report shows that if we continue to emit CO2 at the level we are in 2021, we have approximately 11 years left before we exhaust our carbon budget to limit global warming to 1.5C. Of course, richer nations are responsible for a majority of the historical emissions of CO2. The US is by far the largest contributor to cumulative heat-trapping emissions and is also one of the highest per-capita emitters (see graph below). Young people have been marching in the streets of Glasgow and around the world calling for world leaders to step up and safeguard their futures. Indigenous leaders, civil society groups and political leaders from climate vulnerable countries have been sharing their stories from the frontlines of the climate crisis. Now it remains to be seen if the political outcome in Glasgow matches the needs of the hour.
Per Capita CO2 emissions
Source: Global Carbon Budget 2021
Adaptation, Loss and Damage Day at COP26
Today is Adaptation, Loss and Damage Day at COP26. We live in a world of human suffering driven by dire climate impacts already all around us—from the United States, where 538 people lost their lives this year from extreme weather- and climate-related disasters, to Madagascar where over a million people including children face catastrophic drought, famine and hunger (Please donate to the World Food Program if you are able and thank you). We are also reminded of Typhoon Haiyan, the deadly super-typhoon that hit the Philippines this week in November 2013. That happened during COP 19 in Warsaw, Poland and many of us remember being brought to tears by Philippine delegate Yeb Saño’s speech highlighting the devastation his country and his own family were facing. At COP26, we have heard similar stories of loss from Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate and many others.
How much more human misery and planetary harm must we see before political leaders have the courage to do the right thing? How much worse does the climate crisis need to get before we are willing to stand up to the power of fossil fuel companies and say no more?
Let’s put pressure on our policymakers to deliver the better, brighter future we so desperately need–at home and around the world. And may COP26 in Glasgow be a turning point.