Glasgow climate summit: A glass half full

In a remarkable spirit of compromise, the parties at the COP26 climate summit concluded their negotiations in Glasgow on Saturday —motivated in part by fear of climate impacts, now and in the future, and in recognition that there is indeed a climate emergency.

Countries pledged to take urgent action to keep alive the goal of limiting global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid what Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados called the “death sentence” of 2 degrees Celsius for vulnerable communities and ecosystems, and probably the rest of the world as well.

For many veterans of these annual climate summits, the glass will be more than half full. Once the parties have the toast they deserve, they’ll start tomorrow with the vital work that must begin immediately to implement and strengthen the Glasgow commitments.  

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This includes the heroic task of cutting carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels by 45 percent in the 98 months to 2030, as well as making “deep reductions in other greenhouse gases,” which includes methane, a super climate pollutant. The deal also includes “accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, … recognizing the need for support towards a just transition.”

These and other outcomes of COP26 are sending a powerful and hopeful signal to the world that profound changes are coming, and coming fast, in the way energy and all goods and services are produced, in the way they are financed, as well as in the way they are consumed. Markets will be changing, and the opportunity for innovation for new and better climate solutions will be accelerating, including innovation in technologies to remove carbon dioxide and methane from the atmosphere.  Other changes include the shift to adaptation and resilience, especially for the most vulnerable.

The COP26 outcomes reflect and deepen a long overdue evolution in the architecture for climate policy, led in considerable part by President Joe BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE and his Climate Envoy John KerryJohn KerryKerry calls out countries that need to 'step up' on climate change Those on the front lines of climate change should be empowered to be central to its solution To address China's coal emissions, the US could use a little help from its friends MORE over the past 10 months. 

The new climate architecture includes: first, the acknowledgment that there is, today, a climate emergency that will quickly become unmanageable without fast mitigation, as well as a focus on 1.5 degrees Celsius as the outside limit for further warming, and the recognition that this, the 2020s, is the decisive decade for fast action.

The new architecture also includes cutting not just carbon dioxide but also non-carbon dioxide climate emissions, with a specific focus on methane, a super climate pollutant responsible for 0.5 degrees Celsius of today’s observed warming of 1.1 degrees Celsius. Cutting methane presents the single biggest and fastest mitigation action the world can take to keep warming from breaching the 1.5 degrees Celsius guardrail. This makes fast reductions of methane essential for adaptation as well. 

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Another aspect of the new architecture is a shift to sectoral agreements — a second front in the climate war — using strategies that focus on individual sectors of the economy.

One of the sectoral strategies emerging from COP26 is a pledge by more than 100 countries to collectively cut global methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030 below 2020 levels. Another is a pledge to halt deforestation by 2030, also joined by more than 100 countries. A third sectoral initiative, aimed at restricting trade in climate polluting steel and aluminum, was announced by the United States and the European Union at the G20 summit in Rome the weekend before COP26 opened.

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Stratospheric Ozone Layer is the preeminent sectoral agreement which — besides putting the ozone layer on the path to recovery by 2065 — has already avoided as much warming as carbon dioxide contributes today. The Montreal Protocol’s 2016 Kigali amendment, to phase down hydrofluorocarbons, another super climate pollutant, is the single most significant mitigation measure of the last decade. With this record of climate success, it’s time we ask what else the Montreal Protocol can deliver for climate, and it’s a lot.

The new architecture also is reflected in the U.S.-China Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s announced at COP26, where the two largest economies and two largest climate emitters agreed to cooperate on “accelerated actions in the critical decade of the 2020s…to avoid catastrophic impacts.”

In addition to cooperating to halt illegal deforestation “through effectively enforcing their respective laws on banning illegal imports,” the U.S. and China agreed to work together to reduce methane, including developing “additional measures to enhance methane emission control, at both the national and sub-national levels” before COP27 next year. China is also developing “a comprehensive and ambitious National Action Plan on methane aiming to achieve a significant effect on methane emissions control and reductions in the 2020s.” 

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The U.S. and China also “intend to establish a ‘Working Group on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020’… to address the climate crisis and advance the multilateral process, focusing on enhancing concrete actions in this decade.”

There is still a steep and challenging mountain to climb, but at least we have a better idea of which path to take, thanks to the new policy architecture and the COP 26 outcomes. Now we need to take this path, together, without leaving anyone behind. Our journey will be successful if we deliver on fast mitigation and finance this decade, including issuing Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) from the International Monetary Fund. Mottley, of Barbados, has suggested $500 billion a year in SDRs, while the G20 has been discussing a climate fund of at least $50 billion a year.

In the end, a glass half full still needs to be filled. For the young climate activists, they know that half-full is not sufficient. They will ask why the now-acknowledged climate emergency is not being attacked with the same force and finance used to address the COVID-19 pandemic. This is their future, and they have every right to maintain their anger and their demands to hold leaders accountable for achieving the safer and more equitable future they deserve. 

Durwood Zaelke is president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development (IGSD) in Washington, D.C. and Paris, as well as adjunct professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is co-author of “Cut Super Climate Pollutants Now!: The Ozone Treaty’s Urgent Lessons for Speeding Up Climate Action.

Gabrielle Dreyfus, Ph.D., is senior scientist at IGSD and has been an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. 

Romina Picolotti is president of the Center for Human Rights and Environment and former secretary of environment for Argentina.