Credit: Lucy Dunn

Week one is done: what has COP26 achieved so far?

By Lucy Dunn

A week has passed since the UN climate conference began, and a myriad of talks with names big and small have taken place over the last seven days. Which subjects are the big ones, and what has been said? And are we actually making progress? Editor-in-Chief Lucy Dunn summarises.

Powerful remarks

Many countries have made a number of interesting, and hopeful, pledges this week. Shifts in attitudes have been most apparent, starting with Boris Johnson’s initial welcome speech urging world leaders to seriously work towards changes – despite his football analogies and James Bond references. Appearances and speeches from Prince Charles and Sir David Attenborough made a strong show at the start of the conference.

2030 has become a key milestone in the race to combat the climate emergency. The UK has pledged to contribute more money towards the fund for developing countries: initially, a sum of $100bn was promised to those in the Global South by 2020, however this hasn’t yet been achieved. But, in the opening ceremony on Monday, discussing the role of large companies, Boris said: “There is no doubt in my mind the private sector is ready to play its part.” Joe Biden approached the week brightly too: “Let this be the moment that we answer history’s call here in Glasgow.” The role of the United States is a large one, too: historically, it is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, but it also has the largest economy. 

It wasn’t all light displays of optimism, and some of the feelings from leaders inside the conference echoed those of protestors on the outside. The prime minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, was forceful, and more cutting, in her remarks, discussing the “lies” of other, richer countries, and how “immoral and unjust” their actions have been. “What must we say to our people living in the Caribbean, Latin Americas, the Pacific…?” she asked. “Some of the most needed faces at Glasgow are not present.”

“Some of the most needed faces at Glasgow are not present.”

“Put simply,” prime minister Mottley said, “When will leaders lead? Our people are watching, and our people are taking note.”

Forestry commitments

Deforestation contributes to the climate crisis because reducing forest cover reduces the capacity for carbon dioxide absorption by the trees. Currently, the rate of forest clearance is obscene, at a rate of “30 football pitches’ worth a minute”. Agriculture is reared on cleared lands, and so sustainable farming, and diets, go hand-in-hand with discussions on forestry. Previously, in 2014, leaders have discussed slowing deforestation but it didn’t happen, so a certain degree of scepticism, and urgency for more, was levelled at COP26’s talks. 

Credit: Lucy Dunn

Boris Johnson hosted the forest talks, with appearances from the Presidents of Colombia, Indonesia, and the US, alongside Jeff Bezos from Amazon. Collectively, $12bn will be specifically put towards forest-related climate finance, “between 2021-2025”, from both public and private funds. 133 countries have stated their commitment to “working collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 while delivering sustainable development and promoting an inclusive rural transformation”.

Countries have also pledged to “halt and reverse” loss of forestry by 2030. An emphasis was placed, as it has been in many of the COP26 talks, on the importance of communication with indigenous peoples with the countries in the deal, pledging “forest and land governance and clarifying land tenure and forest rights for Indigenous Peoples and local communities”. 

“An emphasis was placed on the importance of communication with indigenous peoples…”

Farming “sustainable deforestation-free” agriculture sustainably was also discussed, the financial impact affecting the private sector, with leaders “leveraging significant private investment in sustainable forest management”. Forest fires couldn’t be left out either, given the horrific footage that has emerged in recent years from Australia and the US, and countries pledged to take more action to reduce incidences of these, however exactly how this was going to happen has been left slightly in the dark. A positive spin, though, is that 90.07% of the world’s forests are covered by the countries that endorsed the Global Forest Pledge. 

Cutting back on coal

Over 40 countries, led by the UK, have agreed to phase out coal-fired power. Making coal power a historical artefact has been key to Britain’s climate goals, with its use being one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. Wealthier countries will aim for the phase out to happen in the 2030s, with developing countries looking to make changes by the 2040s. But, once again, big names were missing, significantly: the US, China, India and Australia. 

“Making coal power a historical artefact has been key to Britain’s climate goals…”

However, prime minister Modi of India, emphasised the switching of the country’s energy to renewables as a priority. India is planning to generate half of its electricity by renewables at the famous 2030 landmark point, and, optimistically, it aims to meet a net-zero target by 2070. Doubt has been voiced about whether this is actually feasible, but the intentions are positive. More than what can be said about those of Saudi Arabia and Russia, the second biggest oil and gas producers in the world, respectively. 

The methane mandate

A less talked about greenhouse gas, methane is more potent than carbon dioxide with its concentration in the atmosphere climbing. As a result, the Methane Pledge has committed to lower methane emissions “by at least 30% from current levels” by 2030. Cited as being “one of the most effective things we can do to reduce near-term global warming” by Ursula von der Leyen, it was disappointing that large emitters – China, India, and Russia – were not part of the pledge. 

Are we getting anywhere?

The majority of COP26 is discussions of finance, and for most of those inside this year’s COP, the issue of raising funds is what deals boil down to. Rishi Sunak said that London will help develop a new capital markets mechanism, to issue more green bonds. The US has pledged its support too, aiming to raise large funds to ensure clean energy is at the forefront, whilst other developed countries also acknowledged the importance of sending funds to the Global South to help in their efforts. The focus on the use of renewables has been strong, and predictions from research expect 50% of the planet’s fossil fuel assets to become “worthless by 2036” – however, warnings have been issued about the knock-on economic impacts of this. The mobilisation of funds to specific climate crisis issues is pertinent to help reduce and delay global warming, but will these measures be enough?

“Predictions from research expect 50% of the planet’s fossil fuel assets to become “worthless by 2036″…”

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has said that, all going to plan, “fully achieving all net zero pledges to date [and] the Global Methane Pledge by those who signed it would limit global warming to 1.8 [degrees]”. Meant as an encouraging statement, as tweeted by the director of the IEA, it’s still over the 1.5 degrees mark, which means countries, especially those in the Global South, will continue to feel the worsening impact. The special adviser to the UN secretary general, Selwin Hart, expressed his pessimism too, on a worrying note: “Based on the nationally determined contributions that have been submitted, the world is on a 2.7 degree pathway… A catastrophic pathway.”

Climate activists have been out in droves this week to echo this sentiment. Greta Thunberg said at the Fridays for Future march through Glasgow on Friday that COP26 has already failed; it postures more as a “PR exercise” than a fostering of productive conversations, she proclaimed. There is still another week of talks, though, and hard discussions are yet to be had. Despite the departure of the world leaders, perhaps there’s still time for more progress yet. 


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