COP26, laboriously back on the Paris Agreement tracks

Olivier ABULI, advice and analyses consultant

November 14, 2021

All the conditions seemed to be in place for COP26 to reach a global « new deal » to limit global warming to a level close to 1.5°C : the return of the United States as a signatory of the 2016 treaty at the beginning of this year ; then a succession of strong international focuses on climate issues from the summer onwards (presentation of the EU's « Fit for 55 » package,
synthesis of the IPCC's 6th report, final declaration of the G20 summit in Rome).

The Glasgow COP, claimed as « the last hope to limit global warming to +1.5°C » by its President brought together 40,000 accredited people thus catalyzing very high expectations. This initial enthusiasm vanished as the days went by, leading to the publication of an open letter from 200 climate scientists condemning the COP trajectory on November 11th, and creating an exodus of delegates joining the street demonstrations the following day.

A financial tug-of-war between the countries that are most affected by global warming and the industrial powers, plus commitments considered insufficient because they were not binding, and the announcement of carbon neutrality horizons after 2050 by several large emitters are at the heart of the disappointment and confusion that prevailed in the final hours of the conference.

These episodes will certainly leave a feeling of unfinished business and a mixed record. Officials and pragmatists will of course remember the confirmation of the objectives and trajectories of the Paris Agreement.

But skeptics point out that the future is still well above 2°C, even when taking into account the advances made in Glasgow. Could it really be otherwise at the end of a new five-year cycle of inertia marked by a global pandemic ?

COP26 main topics and progress Fairness and aid mechanism for emerging countries impacted by global warming
On the eve of the Conference, the G20 Rome Declaration reaffirmed the commitment of the G20 member states to mobilize 100 billion dollars per year from 2020 to 2025 to meet the needs of developing countries facing the effects of climate change. The return of the United States to the Paris agreement seemed to guarantee that the missing 20 billion since the first deadline would be obtained. However, this point caused indeed the main tensions delaying the adoption of the COP closing statement. As they were disgruntled by a partially kept promise, a hundred or so countries called for the establishment of a more robust « loss and damage » mechanism. As they fear potential legal consequences, the United States and several of their partners vigorously opposed it.

Ending the sale of new combustion engine cars and light trucks
Several major manufacturers, countries, local authorities and mobility fleet owners have announced that they will finish selling light-duty combustion engine vehicles by 2035 in major markets and by 2040 in the rest of the world. Unlike the process initiated by the European Union, this statement is not legally binding.

Energy transition and use of nuclear energy
As it is faced with the growing need for electricity generated by decarbonisation of travel or heating of buildings, the question of nuclear energy was addressed, for the first time at a COP, in a dispassionate manner. The following topics,- risk management, substitution for coal, preservation of the existing reactor fleet, and a new generation of small units -, have been discussed.

Reducing the use of coal
Although coal is extremely polluting, it still represents more than 35% of the world's electricity production. Its abandonment in the medium term is mandatory to achieve the present day climate objectives. During the COP26 first week, some 40 countries committed themselves to replacing coal with clean energy by 2030. But for the time being, the main producers and consumers of coal (China, The United States, Australia, India...) have not joined this declaration. It is in fact the wording « accelerate efforts towards » the exit from coal that was finally imposed in the text of the closing statement.

Agreement on methane (CH4)
Methane is 30 times more damaging than CO2, but it also has a much shorter lifetime in the atmosphere. A significant reduction of its emissions would allow to gain some precious fractions of degrees and to support the global warming restriction strategies. In Glasgow more than 100 countries signed an agreement to reduce CH4 emissions by 30% over 10 years. This initiative focuses on the energy and waste sectors, excluding at this stage the field of livestock farming, which accounts for a quarter of CH4 emissions.

Fight against deforestation
This was the first practical announcement of the 2021 Conference : the signing, by more than 100 countries that are home to 85% of the world forest area, of an agreement to preserve forests. As it is supported by 10 billion dollars international public funds, this is an undeniable positive signal. The challenge now is to provide these commitments with an effective monitoring framework : in fact, similar objectives that were agreed in 2014 have not been reached. This is the case in Brazil, where deforestation caused by illegal activities and fires did not decrease over the last ten years.

The outcome of this COP26 will only be known in a year's time, when the plans and timetables that countries will produce to support their commitments will be tested.
This exercise is essential to restore the credibility of the States towards their partners, populations, economic agents and NGOs. To date, only Europe has been able to establish these frameworks and the appropriate conditions allowing to accelerate the pace of transitions.