Equilibrium & Sustainability

Five takeaways from the Glasgow climate pact

President Joe Biden speaks during the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit
Associated Press/Evan Vucci

World leaders approved a climate pact on Saturday after two weeks of negotiations at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

Here are five takeaways from the agreement.

Historic mention of fossil fuels included but weakened in last-minute change

For the first time, fossil fuels, which are the main driver of climate change, are mentioned in the agreement.

It calls for a “phasedown” of unabated coal use and a “phaseout” of “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies. This is somewhat watered down from an earlier draft, which called for a phaseout of coal and fossil fuel subsidies at large.

But Jennifer Haverkamp, who was a climate negotiator during the Obama administration, said it’s extraordinary that the language made it in at all and that she doesn’t think there will be significantly different outcomes because the language was weakened.

“The fact that it is a phasedown, not a phaseout, and that there are qualifying adjectives around coal and fossil fuel subsidies doesn’t take away from the fact that it is … a clear recognition by all the parties of the critical role fossil fuels have played in the problem,” Haverkamp, who is now a professor at the University of Michigan, said.

“The fact that the language got in is a reflection of the increased sense of urgency and public pressure on the parties to show that they are seriously addressing the problem,” she added.

In a dramatic, last-minute push, India moved to switch the coal language from “phaseout” to “phasedown.”

Bhupender Yadav, representing India, said developing countries deserve a chance to use fossil fuels to bolster their economies since developed countries have already done so.

COP26 President Alok Sharma apologized to nations that expressed disappointment in this change, saying he was “deeply sorry” for the last-minute switch.

Climate funding bolstered but meets skepticism from developing nations

Language in the deal increases climate financing to help developing nations but stops short of granting them a specific reparations fund they were seeking.

It calls for developed countries to “at least double” their collective climate finance payments from 2019 levels by 2025.

But the promise comes amid a high-profile failure from the developed world to meet a prior pledge — that rich nations would deliver $100 billion per year on climate for developing countries by 2020.

The deal additionally calls on developed countries to provide funds for technical assistance to help nations minimize the loss and damage they’ve suffered from climate change.

However, it failed to deliver on a major call for developing countries — the establishment of a fund that would essentially give reparations for the climate loss and damage they suffered.

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry defended the decision not to establish this fund in a press conference on Saturday.

“Obviously an increase in resources ultimately is going to be necessary for people on the front lines. We think that can be delivered more efficiently, probably, through some existing channels,” Kerry said.

But Pedro Martins Barata, senior director of climate policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, argued that even if the same level of funding is mobilized, having a loss and damage fund would have been a symbolic win for developing countries.

He also noted the distrust from developing countries of existing institutions.

“We, as in developed countries, cannot go on like this,” he said.

Carbon offset market rules finalized

A major accomplishment of the agreement reached in Glasgow is a framework for carbon offset markets — in which countries can pay for activities such as planting trees that remove carbon from the air in order to count against some of their emissions.

The finalization of these rules completes a final outstanding piece of the Paris agreement known as Article 6.

“It’s a way for countries to have the confidence to take on more ambitious targets knowing that they can meet those targets both through their own emission reductions and through financing emission reductions in developing countries,” Haverkamp said.

The rules create new standards that prevent double counting. They do so by applying “corresponding adjustments” so that countries where purchased emissions reductions actually take place subtract them from their overall total. 

It also sets up the automatic cancellation of 2 percent of the credits that are issued — meaning that countries would essentially be paying an extra premium for these offsets and that the funds could go to assist developing countries.

“Countries needed some kind of deal on Article 6 because they need some clarity on how to move forward, and they got that,” said Nat Keohane, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, adding that the most important thing is that they got “strong rules” against double counting.

But he also raised concerns about the fact that older credits where emissions reductions have already happened will be included in the deal.

Greater ambition provided overall but with caveats

The agreement calls for greater ambition from countries, particularly calling on them to come back next year with updated emissions reductions commitments for 2030.

But the language, which requests that countries “revisit and strengthen the 2030 targets … as necessary,” doesn’t necessarily require every country to come back to the table with a new agreement.

Kerry, during a Saturday press conference, hinted that the U.S. might not necessarily come back with an updated commitment, known as a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC).

“You don’t automatically have to come back with a new NDC. … You have to review it, and, as necessary, you make a judgment about it.” he said.

Keohane said that isn’t necessarily a bad thing and that the U.S. really has to prove it can live up to its existing pledge.

“We really need to be focused on delivery. And in the U.S., that means … passing Build Back Better,” Keohane said, referring to Democrats’ social spending and climate bill.

He said that even though countries aren’t mandated to come back with new targets, this language adds pressure on certain countries to step up their ambitions.

“There’s a lot of people who think that China could do much more,” he said. “Australia is certainly another which has really been a laggard. Brazil is a third.”

Observers optimistic about meeting Paris temperature goals

Following the summit, many observers expressed optimism that meeting the Paris agreement’s target of limiting the planet’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would still be in reach.

Haverkamp said that both the push for increased ambition and the message to the fossil fuel industry will help to keep that goal on the table.

“There is an increasing focus on not just the long term targets that countries have but their commitments for this decade,” she said. “I also think the strong signal to the fossil fuel industry, especially to coal that we’re moving away from it, is an important piece of all this.”

Rick Saines, who worked on the Paris agreement, said that both the increased ambition laid out in the framework and the pledges countries made during the course of the two-week summit are keeping that goal in play.

“There’s a significant move from where we started two weeks ago in terms of the pledges when you add them all up,” said Saines, who is now a partner at Pollination, a climate-focused advisory and investment firm.

“The other thing that has been renewed is a commitment to come back next year and not just wait another five years to update NDCs,” he added. “So this is a decision that the parties have taken to keep the pressure on and keep the focus on increasing the ambition to bring us in line with 1.5.”

Tags Climate change COP26 Glasgow John Kerry Scotland United Nations climate summit

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