By David Knowles and Ben Adler
GLASGOW, Scotland — For the past two weeks, world leaders and their representatives, lamakers, dignitaries, scientists, protesters, activists and business leaders gathered at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference to solve the most daunting challenge facing humanity: how to quickly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to keep temperatures from rising to even more dangerous levels.
While few at COP26, as it is known, disagreed on the seriousness of the problem, concrete solutions adequate to keep the world below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming — the conference’s goal — proved more elusive. The event’s organizers described the event as a qualified success, the ultimate outcome of which will be known only if countries keep their commitments made in Glasgow and then ramp up their ambition at future conferences in the years ahead.
“This is a fragile win,” said COP26 President Alok Sharma in his “We have kept 1.5 alive. That was our overarching objective when we set off on this journey two years ago, taking on the role of the COP presidency-designate. But I would still say that the pulse of 1.5 is weak.”
That isn’t to say that Glasgow did not produce its share of encouraging breakthroughs or signs that the world’s nations could yet come together to curb emissions enough to spare the planet the worst consequences of climate change. Yahoo News spent the last two weeks covering the conference and left with the following takeaways.
Overall temperature rise projections fall based on commitments made at COP26, but not as far as experts had hoped
The is the successor to the , hashed out at COP21 in 2015. In Paris, nations put forth the goal of “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels [3.6 Fahrenheit]” and “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C ” to stay below 1.5C. The science increasingly suggests that catastrophic effects of climate change will kick in at 1.5C, and the UN’s hope was that the Glasgow agreement would commit to a path to staying below 1.5C, but it didn’t quite get there.
The agreement instead “reaffirms” the goals set in Paris. And, as was the case in Paris, the actual commitments made by nations in Glasgow do not get the world to those goals.
But they come a lot closer. After Paris, the national pledges would have led to at least 2.7C of warming. Based on the national pledges made in Glasgow, the International Energy Agency projects 1.8 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of this century.
That’s an optimistic scenario, however, since there is no penalty for nations that don’t meet their commitments and some of the pledges are only abstract goals without concrete plans for how they would be fulfilled.
And the policies actually currently in place, as opposed to proposed future policy changes, leads to 2.7C of warming. That’s an improvement from Paris, where policies at the time would have led to 3.6C of warming.
The reason there has been increased ambition, but not enough to stay below 1.5C, is that countries are increasingly eager to promise big emissions cuts decades from now but less so in the next decade.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that a 45 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions is needed this decade to stay below 1.5C, but insteads the national plans cumulatively will lead to an estimated 16 percent increase. (None of these figures include very late-breaking announcements, such as China’s agreement announced Wednesday night, to join the U.S.-led effort to cut methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030.)
Over time, as world leaders hoped, the pledges and policies have increased in strength. So the last-ditch effort for averting catastrophe is now that future COPs in this decade will finally bring warming into line with the goals laid out.
Asked by Yahoo News whether he was optimistic that the final agreement at COP26 would be successful in keeping temperatures from rising above 1.5C, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said that goal would require decades of follow through.
“You can’t answer that question with certainty based on what happens at COP26,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., told Yahoo News in Glasgow. “The jury is out on this and it’s going to require more effort than just what we do in 2021.”
Biden administration reestablishes the U.S. as a world leader on climate
President Biden arrived at Glasgow with a clear objective: reestablish U.S. credibility on climate change following the disengagement by his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, who had withdrawn from the Paris agreement. Biden and the members of his administration made sure to underscore the sea change in Washington.
“I guess I shouldn’t apologize, but I do apologize for the fact that the United States, the last administration, pulled out of the Paris accords and put us sort of behind the eight ball a little bit,” Biden said in a speech to the delegates.
But Biden arrived at Glasgow with one hand tied behind his back. For the first week of the conference, neither his infrastructure plan, nor his Build Back Better agenda had been passed by a sharply divided Congress, which itself put the administration “behind the eight ball” when it came to, in Biden’s words, “leading by the power of our example.”
Still, even action plans to meet established in law, important pledges were made by the U.S. during the first week of the conference. Over 100 countries signed on to a U.S-led initiative to cut methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030, for example. And, during the second week, Sec. of Transportation Pete Buttigieg rolled out international pledges to reduce emissions from the shipping and aviation industries.
By the end of the first week, however, Congress had passed the infrastructure bill and congressional climate leaders were mostly confident they had found a and its sweeping climate provisions. That gave special presidential climate envoy John Kerry something to tout as he worked to secure greater commitments on emissions from other nations.
By the second week, India, the world’s third leading emitter of greenhouse gases, had, for the first time, pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2070.
While China’s President Xi Jinping did not attend COP26, Kerry met often during the conference with Chinese officials, and appeared to secure a virtual meeting between Biden and Xi in the coming days. By far the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China’s commitment to keeping temperatures from rising above 1.5C has come into question, and the U.S., the world’s second largest emitter, is pressing it to strengthen its pledges.
“Tonight I am pleased to announce on behalf of President Biden and Secretary [of State] Blinken that we have agreed to a basic framework for this cooperation going forward,” Kerry said, adding that the new declaration “includes strong statements about the alarming science, the emissions gap and the urgent need to accelerate the actions to close that gap.”
Throughout the conference, Kerry could be seen darting back and forth throughout the venue, helping to secure agreements on financing and emissions, supported by multiple cabinet secretaries and congressional delegations. The United States really was back in the game.
Even the co-author of the Green New Deal seemed to agree with that assessment.
The U.S.’s climate policy was still controversial. Ocasio-Cortez herself voted against the infrastructure bill, which pro-environment Democrats say offered too much subsidies for . And, towards the end of the conference, climate justice activists and developing nations expressed frustration with the U.S. and European Union for blocking the creation of a fund to distribute reparations for the loss and damage in developing countries from climate change.
Developing nations say more money is needed to deal with climate change
This year’s conference also focused on how climate change would hit the developing world hardest, even though those countries are only responsible for a very small percentage of cumulative greenhouse gas emissions.
Rich countries like the United States have not fulfilled their past promise to provide by 2020 more than $100 billion a year in loans and grants to help poorer countries deal with the impacts of extreme weather events and develop fossil fuel-free economies.
While some additional climate finance pledges, from both the government and private sector were made immediately before and during COP26, the current figures show the $100 billion target won’t be hit until 2023.
India a block of developing nations that refused to increase the ambition of their emissions reduction targets unless more money was produced. That lack of funding for climate finance was a major reason that large developing nations such as India and Indonesia didn’t offer big-enough emissions cuts to set the world on a path to stay below 1.5C.
Developing nations and activists also remain that climate finance is disproportionately tilted towards measures to help developing nations lower emissions — which is the thing that most helps rich countries too, by lowering climate change — and not for preventing, or simply being reimbursed for, the damage of climate change impacts that are already happening or will be soon.
“It comes down to how much resilience you have in your system. In developed countries, we don’t feel like we have a lot as we see our subways flooded and droughts on our farms, but we have so much more resilience built in through insurance schemes, through excess capital, through FEMA, that’s able to swoop in and offer emergency support to families,” USAID Administrator Samantha Power told “.” “Much of that infrastructure does not exist in developing nations.”
For the first time, the principle that loss and damage in developing nations should be compensated by richer countries has been included in the draft agreement. But it only is a general goal, without metrics for how much money is needed, who will donate it and how it will be distributed.
Pledges are a start, but they aren’t action
A stark illustration of the uncertainty about pledges made in Glasgow came during the first week of COP26, when 133 nations signed an agreement to end deforestation by 2030.
Officials hailed the news, saying that the governments that had signed on accounted for 85 percent of the world’s forests, which are vital in absorbing carbon dioxide and keeping temperature rise in check.
While similar pledges had been made in years past to end deforestation, hope sprang eternal that the world had finally woken up to the importance of preserving forests. Yet one day later, Indonesia, which is home to the third-largest rainforest on the planet, announced that it was having second thoughts about signing the pledge.
“Forcing Indonesia to zero deforestation in 2030 is clearly inappropriate and unfair,” environment minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said.
Suddenly, the deforestation pledge felt a lot less impressive.
Further underscoring the questionable nature of the non-binding pledges made at the conference, three days after Indonesia’s about-face, the Washington Post reported many nations were concerning their greenhouse gas emissions. Malaysia, for example, reported that its trees absorb carbon four times faster than those in neighboring Indonesia. Using those figures, Malaysia has been able to set more lax emissions goals, potentially saving it millions of dollars while offering an overly optimistic picture about how much it is polluting the atmosphere.
Another significant pledge came from India, whose representatives said for the first time that the world’s third-leading emitter of greenhouse gases would achieve carbon neutrality by 2070. Yet India’s pledge was sorely lacking in details for how this would be accomplished, prompting some environmental groups to .
A common refrain at the conference has been that actions, not words, are what matters. From to diplomats like Kerry, the consensus is that agreements won’t end up having an impact unless countries follow through on their promises.
“The words don’t mean enough unless they are implemented,” Kerry said at the end of the first week of the conference. “All of us have seen years of frustration for promises that are made but not kept. We understand that. But I believe what is happening here is far from business as usual.”
Though the pledges themselves should be viewed skeptically, they are a necessary starting point, Kerry said.
“The alternative is you don’t say anything, you don’t do anything, you don’t have any promises or commitments, and you’re sitting there just waiting for the deluge,” he added.
The real work of the ‘decisive decade’ has already begun
Time and again in Glasgow, everyone from heads of state to the scruffiest activists described the 2020s as the crucial moment in the effort to avert climate disaster.
"Scientists tell us that this is the decisive decade — this is the decade we must make decisions that will avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis," Biden said in his address to the conference’s opening session.
The problem, however, as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told , is that because humans continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at such high levels, the goal of keeping global temperatures from rising above 1.5C is now “on life support.”
Yet there was a recognition of the seriousness of the problem in Glasgow, and nations, businesses and the general public have begun to take action to distance themselves from fossil fuels.
So, while all this news from Glasgow represents progress in the fight to limit the extent of climate change, until the policies are actually in place, it can’t be said that the world is yet on course to avoid catastrophe. The Glasgow Climate Pact, like the Paris Agreement before it, is instead best understood as one step further in that direction.