Image showing the COP26 logo and a view of the Glasgow skyline

COP26: A fragile win – but for whom? Coal, fossil fuels; loss and damage

Reading Time: 5 minutes


Alongside what COP26 President Alok Sharma has described as a “fragile win” in the recently concluded negotiations, a number of associated agreements and announcements have also been made. This blog attempts to set out what the key agreements (and disagreements) have been and to summarise the battle of narratives on the outcome of the negotiations and the Glasgow Climate Pact.

This month’s multi-lateral climate negotiations in Glasgow have attracted a significant amount of criticism from young people and civil society for not adequately listening to scientific advice, and for not recognising and acting upon the scale of the climate and ecological emergencies. Many are bitterly disappointed – SPICe Blog: Emerging from COP26 – the ‘fight of our lives’ provides further detail.

Whilst their pleas for action have been heard by world leaders and negotiators, such is the complexity of the United Nations process that it does not lend itself to implementing immediate, rapid and far reaching emissions reductions. Moving from ambition, to pledge, to Nationally Determined Contribution, to domestic policy, to innovation, to finance, to action and then to monitoring is a behemoth of a task that must be repeated across 197 parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Some have therefore been asking what other mechanisms are available if the UN fails to deliver agreements demanded by science?

Agreements and likely outcomes

A number of key commitments have come out of the formal process, including:

Whilst these can rightly be considered to be significant in their own right, collectively Climate Action Tracker highlights a credibility gap “between talk and action”. The central objective of the Paris Agreement aims to hold global temperature increases to “well below 2°C above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”. Currently, taking the last two weeks into account, the best-case scenario is for 2.4°C of warming, assuming full implementation of all announced targets. The graphic below shows a range of scenarios:

Currently, taking the last two weeks into account, the best-case scenario is for 2.4°C of warming, assuming full implementation of all announced targets.

A fragile win – but for whom?

With success, can also come great loss – some NGOs have noted that national and (in the case of the EU) collective interests took precedence over the definitive scientific evidence for the urgent need to equitably reduce greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors and in all countries.

As widely noted, and for the first time at 26 years of UN climate talks, the Glasgow Climate Pact explicitly mentions coal power, fossil fuel subsidies, and a “just transition”. However, in a dramatic last-minute intervention from India and China, the language changed from “phasing out” to “phasing down” coal use. Decision -/CMA.3 of the Glasgow Climate Pact:

Calls upon Parties to accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies, and the adoption of policies, to transition towards low-emission energy systems, including by rapidly scaling up the deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures, including accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, while providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances and recognizing the need for support towards a just transition.

Whilst it is clear that “phasing down”, rather than” phasing out” attempts to provide a lifeline to coal fired power stations (assuming that global markets continue to finance them), it is less clear what “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” means, and is open to interpretation. Recent work on the subject has highlighted examples of Indonesia shifting from subsidising electricity prices “for a majority of consumers as a means to help alleviate poverty, address inequality and enhance energy access” to one more closely targeting the fuel poor.

The concept and definition of a just transition from fossil fuels is reasonably well developed in a Scottish context, however less so internationally, and this will require further development and implementation. COP26 agreed a Just Transition Declaration to “ensure that no one is left behind in the transition to net zero economies – particularly those working in sectors, cities and regions reliant on carbon-intensive industries and production”; it was signed by the US, UK, all 27 EU member states, Norway, Canada and New Zealand.

Another apparent sticking point in the negotiations was whether, and how, the world’s wealthiest nations, which are disproportionately responsible for global warming to date, should compensate poorer nations for the damages caused by rising temperatures. The New York Times provides the following infographic:

23 rich, developed countries are responsible for half of all historical CO2 emissions.

Developed countries are wary of the framing of discussions around loss and damage as a call for compensation or reparations, which they say they cannot accept as it would lay them open to endless legal liability. Therefore, after resistance from the US and the EU, the Glasgow Climate Pact agrees to a “dialogue” on loss and damage payments (which, if agreed are likely to amount to trillions of dollars) rather than a specific new damages fund and a transparent mechanism for payment.

Some have scapegoated China and India for their last-minute changes to the key text, but scrape below the surface, and there lies a complex geo-political battle over wealth, resource use and liability, with climate justice at its heart. Simon Lewis, Professor of Global Change Science at University College London suggests that the “China-India last-second play wasn’t necessarily centrally about coal”, and proposes two theories:

1) This was a way of demonstrating their anger at the imbalance between calls for increased mitigation from the EU/US/Umbrella without a match in increased finance. Essentially, you don’t get increased global mitigation ambition without increased finance ambition.

2) This was a way of demonstrating to the world that the power of the US is slipping away. To see the EU and US versus China and India, and the West back down is a geopolitics moment, one nakedly showing the changing power dynamics of the world.

In this case it is too early to tell whether India and China, or the US and EU have won this battle, but it is certain that there will be ongoing loss and damage for all sides; financial, human and for the planet itself.

What does COP26 mean for domestic policy?

Scotland has become the first country to commit to paying reparations for historical emissions by specifically providing £2m of loss and damage funding as well as boosting its climate justice fund to £36 million; this has swiftly been followed by a €1m commitment from the Belgian state of Wallonia. Whilst tiny in comparison to the trillions that have been estimated, Scotland’s move has been welcomed by climate activist Vanessa Nakate, and by Saleemul Huq, Director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development.

The First Minister has also indicated that the Scottish Government is determined to raise its ambition; but where?

Domestically, Scotland has a relatively clear and ambitious programme of policies and proposals to reach an interim target of 75% reduction in emissions by 2030 and to achieve net-zero by 2045. However, there are also significant hurdles, not least the failure to achieve statutory emissions reduction targets for the last three years, and the challenge of significantly reducing emissions from heat in buildings, transport and agriculture.

Closing reflections from the Clyde

The role of the Scottish Parliament and its committees is to focus on the design and delivery of domestic policy, and rightly so, however it is also easy to become bogged down in the minutiae, losing track of the bigger international picture; which, for the last two weeks, Glasgow and Scotland have been at the heart of.

Despite the climate and ecological crises, and the many challenges of hosting an event such as this, Glasgow has risen to the challenge admirably, and made many new friends along the way.

Alasdair Reid, Senior Researcher, Climate Change, Energy and Land Reform