Before COP26, the world was on course for 2.7°C of warming – now it’s at 2.4°C, which is a significant improvement. Future summits will need to push further on cutting emissions and funding climate adaptation
Here we are at the end of the line – sort of. Today is notionally the last day of the COP26 climate summit, but it now seems almost inevitable that the talks will run into extra time. So while this is the final daily update, the conclusions are necessarily provisional. We’ll have more, conclusive analysis next week when the summit is really, truly over.
It’s the final countdown – blah-blah-blah blah?
We don’t yet know what the final decision texts from COP26 will say, but we do have the latest drafts. Expected last night, they were actually released a little after 7am GMT, after another overnight session. Hopefully the negotiators had plenty of caffeine. It does remind me of Jim Hacker on the BBC programme Yes, Prime Minister mentioning “statesmen such as myself jetting all over the world, attending major conferences on the future of mankind and we’re zonked”.
The original draft referred to phasing out coal. This has been softened to “unabated coal”, meaning coal-fired power plants that don’t have a carbon capture and storage (CCS) system to trap their greenhouse gas emissions and bury them underground. Your mileage may vary on this, depending on your faith in the usefulness of CCS. The technology would allow some fossil fuels to be burned without impacting the climate. It does seem to work, but it needs a lot of infrastructure and is consequently expensive. Most scenarios for limiting warming to 1.5°C do use some CCS, but there is a strong case that it ought to be reserved for processes like steel manufacturing that are inherently difficult to decarbonise, rather than to keep dirty coal-fired power stations running. At any rate, it seems clear that a world without unabated coal will be better than one with it, so this bit of the text does represent progress.
Perhaps more seriously, a push to get rid of subsidies for fossil fuels has been watered down: it now refers only to “inefficient” subsidies. What this means is beyond me. If we want to rapidly reduce and eventually halt the use of fossil fuels, governments ought not to subsidise their use in any way. There is no such thing as an efficient fossil fuel subsidy. So this change seems like an unambiguous weakening of the text.
Events surrounding the summit have only reinforced the sense that the fossil fuel industry still has too much influence on governments. Campaign group Friends of the Earth criticised the European Commission for opting to back 30 major gas projects to the tune of €13 billion. In the UK, the Mirror newspaper revealed that the ruling Conservative party has taken £1.5 million from oil and gas donors since 2019.
On the positive side, one of the most crucial bits of the COP26 text seems to have survived. This is the push for countries to come up with new 2030 emissions targets by the end of next year. The language has changed: the text now “requests” countries to do this, where previously it said “urges”. A lot of Twitter ink was spilled this morning on which is the stronger verb. If this sort of linguistic tomfoolery makes your head hurt, just ignore it. As New Scientist’s Adam Vaughan says, the key thing is that the instruction to come up with new plans by the end of 2022 has come through the most recent round of edits, and may well make it to the final text.
Another key area where the text has improved is finance. Higher-income countries have agreed to double the money they give to help lower-income countries adapt to climate change, by 2025. They currently give about $20 billion per year. There is also the related question of the higher-income countries’ promise to deliver $100 billion a year of climate finance to lower-income nations by 2020. This promise wasn’t kept, and in the latest draft the higher-income countries have agreed to express “deep regret” for this. The text now “urges” them to meet the annual target by 2025.
Finally, there is loss and damage: the notion that people who have been harmed by climate change, and who cannot adapt, ought to be compensated for the losses they experience. We are a long way from any money actually changing hands, but COP26 saw some movement. The draft text includes a decision to create a “technical assistance facility”, and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pledged £2 million for loss and damage. These are baby steps.
A tentative ending
Bearing in mind that this is all still provisional, how might we sum it up? The first thing to say is that, overall, a lot of the bigger statements have survived and there are some new ones. It isn’t a nothingburger. There are still a lot of loopholes for fossil fuel emitters, but some have been closed and others are closing. New Scientist’s Richard Webb puts it like this: “Weaker on mitigation [cutting emissions] than we would have wanted, stronger on adaptation than we would have thought.”
Since it’s my last day writing these newsletters, I’ll offer my own take, predicated on the final text being largely the same as the current drafts. My feeling is that COP26 would have been universally viewed as a highly successful climate summit if it had been held in 2001 or 2011, rather than in 2021. Why would I say that? After all, the international plan that is emerging is obviously inadequate to the situation at hand, putting us on course for 2.4°C of warming instead of 1.5°C. However, the fact we aren’t on course for 1.5°C is more a reflection of the failure of so many of the previous 25 COPs. Before COP26, we were on course for 2.7°C of warming: now we are looking at 2.4°C. That is a real, significant improvement. It’s just that most of the other summits didn’t achieve anything like as much.
Unless you actually believe that a single one of these summits ought to be enough to get all the world’s countries to agree to a wholesale transformation of their infrastructures and economies, there is no way that the problem could ever be solved outright by COP26 – or COP25, COP24 or any of the others. The actual progress made here has been pretty solid, knocking 0.3°C off the expected warming. There are also the more unquantifiable symbolic shifts, like the text actually calling out fossil fuels by name. These don’t directly translate to emissions cuts but may give political leaders some impetus. If all of the previous COPs had made as much progress as COP26, we would have this climate change problem sorted by now.
Some of you will nevertheless be feeling pretty upset at the outcome. You may be sad, frustrated or enraged. I feel pretty much all of those emotions. The answer is to get angry. There have been global protests about climate change over the past few years, and it seems likely that they provided at least some of the fuel for the progress that has been made. If COP26 infuriated you, tell your representative. Go join a protest. The more we demand action, the more action our leaders will take. Next year’s COP will be in Egypt and the one after will be in the United Arab Emirates. Book your train tickets now and go make some good trouble.
What to watch for
This is the last of New Scientist’s daily updates from COP26, but it isn’t the end of our coverage. Look out for more stories on the website as the summit winds to a close, and a final analysis from chief reporter Adam Vaughan next week.
Quote of the Day
“I’m actually here to beg you to prove us wrong.” Climate activist Vanessa Nakate spoke for many young people when she told the assembled delegates at COP26 that she simply didn’t believe the promises they were making, nor did she believe that they were sincere about wanting to help.
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