COP26 - Despite progress, threat of catastrophic climate change remains unacceptably high

15 November 2021

The Socialist International closely followed developments in Glasgow during the COP26 Summit, which focussed on crucial issues that have long been at the heart of the SI’s global agenda. Members of this political family could be found among national delegations attending the conference, and the SI Secretary General was present, holding wide-ranging exchanges on the expectations of our International from the COP26 and the ongoing work of the SI to ensure that tackling the climate crisis remains a priority.

The single most important objective of the summit was for the countries and leaders of the world to make binding pledges on reducing emissions that would give a realistic chance of achieving the target agreed in Paris of limiting global warming to 1.5C. Keeping 1.5C alive requires, at a minimum, a 45% reduction in global emissions by 2030. As urged by the SI in advance of COP26, developed economies that are responsible for the bulk of current and historical emissions need to commit to reductions far in excess of that figure over this period.

As stated in the Glasgow Climate Pact, it is estimated that current nationally determined contributions (NDCs) would lead to greenhouse gas emissions that are 13.7% higher than 2010 levels in 2030. Analysis by Climate Action Tracker (CAT) of the NDCs show that the world is heading for at least 2.4C of heating, and that by 2030 it will already be too late to stay within the 1.5C target. This would be a catastrophe for the planet, and it is evident that deeper and earlier cuts to emissions are required. The inability or unwillingness of parties to commit to NDCs in line with the Paris Agreement temperature goal, means that COP26 is not the success we had hoped for, but it is nonetheless important that the declaration explicitly calls on parties to submit new or updated NDCs in advance of COP27, and that the UNFCCC secretariat will henceforth monitor progress towards these goals on an annual basis. Though COP26 has not delivered the required commitments on emissions reductions, the framework is in place to make this happen if the political will can be found. It therefore remains vitally important to maintain pressure on all governments that have not delivered 1.5C Paris Agreement compatible NDCs to urgently scale-up mitigation ambition in advance of COP27.

The importance of action by the world’s largest economies cannot be understated. As recognised by the High Ambition Coalition, if all G20 countries were to commit to a 1.5C pathway, this could be enough to limit warming to 1.7C by 2100. Yet with regard to the immediate and deep cuts to emissions that are a precondition for limiting global temperature rises, too many of these high-emitters have shown insufficient ambition and in some cases an alarming lack of engagement, focusing on pledges to reach net zero emissions by much later in the century. Net zero targets should be acknowledged and are an important part of the overall solution, but long-term ambition cannot compensate for the short-term inadequacies of current targets. Reaching net zero in 30 or 50 years will be in vain if short-term commitments are not dramatically increased. Still worse is the danger that the promise of net zero in the future gives rise to a “burn now, pay later” approach whereby short-term emissions remain unacceptably high as countries rely on untested and often unrealistic CO2 removal techniques and offsetting strategies.

COP26 has seen some incremental progress in a number of significant areas that will contribute to the future inhabitability of the planet. For example, real headway has been made towards ending the use of coal worldwide, with more than 40 countries now committed to phasing out coal power and over 100 countries, organisations and financial institutions pledging to end financing of new coal, which should make it financially unviable. Nonetheless, the timeframe for ending coal-fired power needs to be brought forward in order to be in line with what is required to stay within 1.5C, and the large coal-dependent economies including Australia, China, India and the US need to commit to phasing out coal. Last minute changes to the text of the Glasgow Climate Pact, to remove any reference to a phase out of coal are disappointing and reflect the scale of the challenge that remains in moving towards a future free of fossil fuel. A swift and comprehensive end to all fossil fuel subsidies is an essential part of this process.

A landmark pledge by over 100 countries to reduce global methane emissions by 30% below 2020 levels by 2030 could, if met, prevent 0.2C of warming by the middle of the century. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), human-caused methane emissions can be reduced by up to 45% this decade, preventing 0.3C of warming, so it is crucial that this is seen as a starting point, with focus on increasing ambition, quantifying policies and goals that can be monitored on a national level, and encouraging major emitters of methane that are yet to sign up, such as China, Russia and India, to join the pledge.

A deal to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030, including over 100 world leaders representing 85% of the planet’s forests is a substantial step in the right direction, and includes countries with significant tracts of forest and deforestation activity such as Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Forests naturally capture billions of tonnes of carbon annually, and deforestation activity accounts for approximately 10% of all global carbon emissions, making an end to deforestation an important component of emissions reduction, which will also boost efforts to safeguard biodiversity. Crucial to the success of this deal will be delivering the promised funding to protect forests, restore damaged land, tackle wildfires and support indigenous communities.

Funding remains a contentious issue, as wealthy nations have broken the promise made in Copenhagen in 2009 to deliver US$100 billion per year to developing countries by 2020, to help adapt to climate change and mitigate further temperature rises. This failure to deliver on the target, recognised by all parties in the Glasgow Climate Pact, endangers trust and prevents progress.  It is no secret that many countries’ emissions reduction goals are conditional on international support, making climate finance one of the most important components in delivering what has been pledged. As the SI has always stated, it is a matter of climate justice - the problem was largely created by countries in Europe, North America and east Asia, yet it is the southern hemisphere and in particular countries with low historical emissions that are suffering, and lack the means to cover heavy losses and humanitarian disasters, even if promised climate finance is delivered. The Glasgow Pact recognises the need for a stronger loss and damage mechanism to compensate vulnerable countries for climate impacts, but does not go far enough in ensuring funding to enable countries to help their citizens deal with regular climate-caused devastation.

The deadly effects of climate change and global warming are already upon us. Powerful testimony has been given at COP26 by those suffering from extreme weather events and others whose very existence is threatened by sea level rises. Though the science has been clear for many years, too many decision-makers have remained sceptical until they have witnessed record-breaking temperatures and the increased frequency of natural disasters. Following decades characterised by prevarication, denial and inaction there is now a sense of urgency and important impetus given by coalitions of countries united by their determination to safeguard the future of the planet.

Nonetheless, there remains a disconnect between the gravity of the situation and the consequences of not taking immediate action, and the pledges emerging from Glasgow. Half-measures and vacillation today cannot be put right in the future, and there is palpable frustration and anger around the world as millions have raised their voices in defence of the right of generations to come to an inhabitable planet. Though significant breakthroughs have been achieved at COP26, the scale of the climate emergency as a result of prior inaction means that there is a grave danger that the measures agreed are too little, too late, and will be seen in years to come as the moment when the last chance to step back from the precipice of irreversible and catastrophic climate change was missed. As COP26 comes to an end, there is still hope that the countries of the world can raise their collective ambition and unite to confront the greatest threat to humanity. The Socialist International and its members will continue to dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to this goal.