Carbon Critical

Dec 03, 2021

COP26: Quite Successful, for a Conference

In the days since the COP26 climate summit, it’s become clear that international conferences can only do so much to determine national climate policy. That’s no reason to despair.  

A graph showing the share of coal in electricity generation in the US, EU, China, India
Attribution CC BY

The COP26 climate conference in Glasgow achieved a lot. In the formal talks, negotiators finalized the Paris Agreement rulebook by determining the rules for Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which governs international carbon markets. They also agreed on common standards for reporting their climate data and common timelines for their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). 

After difficult negotiations that took the conference into overtime, countries adopted the Glasgow Climate Change Pact, wherein they reaffirmed their commitment to “pursue efforts to limit the temperate increase to 1.5C” and called on one another to “phase down” unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. This was progress because, remarkably, like most previous climate summit texts, the 2015 Paris Agreement had made no reference to fossil fuels. The Glasgow Pact also requested that countries strengthen their 2030 climate pledges by the end of 2022 and contained a new pledge from developed countries to double adaptation finance. 

Side Deals and Mixed Results

Beyond the official negotiations, Glasgow also brought a whole host of side pledges. 130 countries promised to reduce deforestation, and countries representing half of global methane emissions took the Global Methane Pledge to cut these by 30 percent by 2030. A number of nations, including large emitters such as Indonesia, South Korea, and Vietnam, pledged to not build new coal power plants. An even larger emitter, India, encouraged and surprised observers with its announcement of a net-zero target for 2070.

What to make of it all? While British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared Glasgow “the beginning of the end of climate change” and Fridays for Future Scotland criticized the pact as “infuriating and disappointing,” most saw COP as something in between.

Predictably, the most vulnerable countries did not get their desired finance facility for “loss and damage”—essentially climate reparations—and had to be satisfied with a new “dialogue" and minor donations from Scotland and Wallonia. Fearing legal liability for their past emissions, which will fatally submerge places like the Marshall Islands or the Maldives, rich countries or blocs like the United States and the EU have long resisted loss and damage financing. Small island nations are in danger.

The pledges at COP did at least move the world forward when it comes to the headline warming figures. The IEA declared on November 4 that new COP26 pledges would limit warming to 1.8C, down from 2.1C before the conference. There is considerable uncertainty here, not just because of the usual doubts around implementation but also because many countries have been underreporting their emissions and because different approaches to emissions modelling lead to quite different results: Climate Action Tracker’s post-COP26 projections  suggest warming could be anywhere from 1.7C to 2.6C. It’s still too much, but the worst outcomes are increasingly unlikely.

In Their Own Interest

By now, though, Glasgow is far in the rearview mirror. Climate watchers have shifted their attention back to Washington, Beijing, Brussels, and New Delhi. Developments since the end of COP26 have made clear that nations mainly take climate action when it is in their own interest. The climate negotiators at these conferences operate within bounds set by their own energy supply situations and their domestic politics, with rhetorical pressure from negotiating partners making a difference at the margins. This is as true for a democracy like the EU as it is for authoritarian states, which have their own political stability to maintain and key constituencies to please.

In short, domestic politics and self-interest are the decisive factors in climate policymaking—and that’s not exclusively a bad thing.

Take India, whose Prime Minister Narendra Modi said during COP that India would only update its official climate goal if rich countries gave it $1 trillion in climate finance by the end of the decade. India will not get what it wants here. But a few days after COP26 ended, Indian regulators temporarily closed most of the coal power plants near Delhi in order to reduce the outrageous levels of toxic smog in the area. India’s Supreme Court has been demanding action against pollution, closing factories and banning farmers from burning fields. India shutting down power plants with no replacements ready is not good news—it is climate policy à la lockdown. But it is at least further evidence that India is prepared to address the negative consequences of its coal burning.

India and China’s last-minute intervention in the Glasgow Pact negotiations to change the plans for coal from “phase-out” to “phase-down” had brought COP26 President Alok Sharma to tears. China’s subsequent announcement of a $31 billion lending facility for supposedly “clean” coal – which according to Lauri Myllyvirta of the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air will not support coal plants with carbon capture but merely continue current high-carbon practices – must have further saddened the conference president.

Reasons for Optimism

But in the spirit of optimism that characterized this column’s COP26 preview, there is reason to think that Chinese self-interest, too, can advance the energy transition. China is seriously concerned about energy security, and the country’s recent energy crisis will only have alarmed Beijing further. These worries push it not only to do “whatever it takes” to secure fresh supplies of fossil fuels, but also to make gigantic efforts to support its electric vehicle industry. In fact, 10 percent of global car sales are now electric vehicles—how many of those consumers bought electric primarily to protect the climate?

Given that renewables are generally cheaper than the cheapest fossil fuels, there is real potential for countries like China and India to transition to a cleaner power sector regardless of whether they get the help from the rich world that they want and arguably deserve. Even if Chinese President Xi Jinping had attended COP26, there was no magic speech US climate envoy John Kerry could have given to persuade him to ignore the reality that about 70 percent of Chinese electricity comes from coal. And although China failed to join the Global Methane Pledge that US President Joe Biden unveiled in Glasgow, it nevertheless released its own methane emission controls days later, while Americans were sitting down for their Thanksgiving meal.

COP26 made quite a big difference to the world’s climate trajectory, for a conference. But the energy transition won’t accelerate enough until every country sees climate action as being in its short-term self-interest.

Noah J. Gordon is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY’s climate columnist.

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