It is difficult to assess the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, commonly referred to as COP26, and the resulting Glasgow Climate Pact as anything other than a failure.
Yes, it is the first U.N. climate agreement that explicitly targets fossil fuels, and coal in particular, as driving climate change. It recognizes that significant — near 50% — cuts in emissions over the next decade are required to hit the increasingly urgent goal of capping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. It produced new pledges on carbon trading, coal finance, deforestation and methane gas pollution.
But the final agreement is a disappointment. It is considerably diminished from drafts circulated only days before. More alarming are the omissions. If the United Nations Development Program is correct, then COP26 will result in a world that warms 2.5 degrees Celsius, which means that the key goal of the 2015 Paris agreement — holding warming to 1.5 Celsius — will not be met. That condemns millions, if not billions, of people to lives of greater misery, hardship and, in some cases, death.
A meeting heralded as “the last best hope” by the president of COP26, British lawmaker Aloc Sharma, fell short. Blame entrenched interests, political will or, perhaps most alarming, indifference to the plight of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. All reflect an inability to muster the courage and the clarity required to address an existential crisis.
United Nation Secretary-General Antonio Guterres laid out the core elements of any climate deal that hopes to arrest climate change: “end fossil fuel subsidies, phase out coal, put a price on carbon, protect vulnerable communities from the impacts of climate change and make good on the $100 billion climate finance commitment to support developing countries.” Surveying the results, he concluded that COP2 “did not achieve these goals,” but he took solace in laying “some building blocks for progress.”
The Glasgow Climate Pact calls for a “phase-down” of fossil fuels, considerably less than the “phase out” of unabated coal and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies of an earlier draft. Reportedly, China and India were responsible for the watered-down language. But, as one official insisted, “‘phase down’ is on the route to phasing out.” Nongovernmental organizations interpreted that phrase as a signal that coal’s time has passed.
More than 100 countries — including six of the world’s 10 biggest methane emitters — agreed to join a coalition to cut 30% of methane gas emissions by 2030 from 2020 levels. While the Global Methane Pledge does not include China, Russia and India, which together account for 35% of global methane emissions, its signatories do account for nearly half of global methane emissions.
World leaders that represent more than 85% of the world’s forests — Japan among them — agreed to halt deforestation over the next decade; 28 countries pledged to work to remove deforestation from the global supply chain for goods such as palm oil, soy and cocoa; while 30 financial institutions with more than $8.7 trillion in assets promised to end investments in commodity-driven deforestation.
In another important initiative, a coalition of governments at all levels — cities, states and countries — joined with automakers to pledge to make all new vehicles carbon neutral by 2040. It includes a quarter of the world’s cars and manufacturers such as Daimler, Ford, General Motors and China’s BYD. Striking by their absence are four of the world’s five top manufacturers — Volkswagen, Toyota, the Renault-Nissan alliance and Hyundai-Kia — and China, the world’s largest car market. Neither Japan nor the U.S. joined, but states like California, New York and Washington did.
Most observers will focus on what is not in the Glasgow Pact. Most striking is the failure to agree on a fund to help poor nations deal with the losses resulting from climate change. In 2008, wealthy nations pledged to provide $100 billion a year in funding by 2020, but they have fallen well short of that goal; official estimates put total assistance at just under $80 billion in 2019.
During his brief visit to the conference, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pledged an extra $2 billion a year for the next five years, which, with new commitments from Denmark, Italy and the U.K., could put the $100 billion target in reach next year.
Finally, the Glasgow agreement calls on governments to return at the end of 2022 with new and stronger pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide more monies for the nations hardest hit by climate change. Forgive us for being skeptical. Half the world’s major economies have not met goals they set in Paris six years ago, and greenhouse gas emissions continue to climb.
The surge of “net zero emission pledges” in the run-up to COP26 has been effectively canceled by the failure to make substantive commitments in the Glasgow talks. The inability to provide $100 billion over 12 years is a striking failure that has greatly damaged trust in the entire climate control process in the developing world and threatens to torpedo the dialogue launched in Glasgow over future funding.
Much now depends on the private sector. In addition to the pledges to end investment in commodity-driven deforestation and to cut vehicle emissions to zero, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, which represents more than 450 banks, insurers and other asset managers worldwide, promised to supply up to $130 trillion in financing to help the global transition zero net emissions by 2050. Moreover, another survey shows more than 250 Japanese corporations have pledged to reach net-zero emissions.
A trillion here and a trillion there adds up. But so too do greenhouse gas emissions. Global temperatures have already risen more than 1.1 degrees Celsius, and if trends continue unabated, they will increase 2.4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Many experts fear that the Paris goal is already out of reach. The time for talk is long past. Only action counts now.
The Japan Times Editorial Board