COP26 (the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)) ran for two weeks in Glasgow in autumn 2021. As well as being the biggest intergovernmental gathering ever held in the United Kingdom, it helped raise awareness of climate change and related political negotiations within the Scottish Parliament and across society. This blog recaps on the outcomes of COP26 and developments in the last 12 months. It is linked to a second blog on this year’s COP27 – taking place in Egypt.
Recap on the COP process and COP26, and the Glasgow Climate Pact
COP meetings to discuss progress and agree ways forward on addressing climate change have been held annually since 1995. The most significant gathering thus far resulted in the 2015 Paris Agreement – a legally binding treaty within which almost all countries pledged to keep global average temperatures ‘well below’ 2°C, and ideally 1.5°C, above pre-industrial levels. Each country must set out their nationally determined contribution (NDC) to emission reduction and revise this NDC every five years.
Due to pandemic delays, COP26 was the first time the five year ‘ratcheting mechanism’ was tested. The updated NDCs and current policies submitted were, however, only deemed capable of achieving a 2.7oC rise in temperature by the end of the century. As a result, the Glasgow Climate Pact, the formal outcome of COP26, included a commitment that NDCs should be further strengthened by COP27. At COP26, the ‘Paris Rulebook’ (on what exactly an NDC should include) was also finally signed off.
Overall, COP26 finished with the COP President Alok Sharma stating that it was a ‘fragile win’ and that the 1.5oC goal was still alive (but that the pulse was weak). Despite the seeming unlikelihood of achieving the Paris goals some thought (considering the overall expectations) that it was a ‘broadly successful’ gathering.
Alongside these central agreements, there were a number of sector-specific, side-agreements. COP 26 was framed as having a focus on ‘coal, cars, cash and trees’:
- Coal: there were new or updated agreements on coal phase-out from various countries but notably not China and India.
- Transport: a pledge on having zero emission vehicles only by 2040 from 30 countries and 6 manufacturers.
- Finance: A $100billion annual climate finance fund for developing countries by 2020 that was pledged in Copenhagen in 2009 is, however, still yet to fully materialise (in 2019 this was estimated to be $80 billion, with suggestions that this year it has reached $90 billion).
- Deforestation: new countries joining the end (and reverse) deforestation by 2030 pledge.
A further financial outcome of COP26 was the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) which brought together 450 financial firms with about $130 trillion in assets to commit to aligning their operations with the 1.5oC target, i.e. ultimately having no fossil fuel projects on their books by 2050.
The concept of climate justice – roughly that the countries most affected by climate change are generally the least responsible – was first formally recognised as part of the Paris Agreement. In Glasgow, there were efforts to promote greater dialogue on the idea of ‘loss and damage’ payments; regardless of the speed at which climate change is addressed there will still be ‘loss and damage’, with developing countries most affected and developed countries most responsible. At COP26, Scotland became the first country to commit to a specific loss and damage fund, committing £1 million from their Climate Justice Fund, the overall amount of which was trebled at COP26 (£36million across this Parliament). Developed countries more widely are reluctant to accept accountability due to the potential for endless legal liability. A three year ‘Glasgow Dialogue’ was established to consider ways to fund loss and damage.
Scottish Parliament activities in and around COP26 were captured in a series of COP26 blogs, and in a SPICe and Scotland’s Futures Forum report.
What has happened since
2021-22 marks the Sixth Assessment reporting period (roughly every six to seven years) for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the main scientific adviser to the UNFCCC process. The Physical Science Basis report on the climate science preceded COP26, and 2022 has seen the publication of the linked Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (IAV) report and the Mitigation report.
The IAV report found that impacts will be more severe than previously predicted and that some will be irreversible. These include the melting of ice sheets, and possible cascading effects whereby events such as the drying of peatlands and the thawing of permafrost will amplify warming further. It also emphasised the increased awareness of possible tipping points, thresholds, that when exceeded can lead to significant change that is irreversible. Well known examples include the death of coral reefs and the collapse of Greenland ice sheet.
The Mitigation report found that global emissions are still rising with the IPCC believing that growth must cease by 2025 at the latest, and there must be a substantial fall of about 50% by 2030, if 1.5oC is to be achieved. Existing plans to address climate change are not ambitious enough (to limit warming to 1.5oC) with only 24 countries currently reducing their emissions (reduced CO2, GHG and consumption based emissions from the last 10 years ). The UK (and of course within that Scotland), is in this category. The experience of countries like Scotland is thus of keen interest to those yet to properly begin emissions reduction. A Synthesis report on all three IPCC reports was released in September 2022 and a summary of all Assessment Reports can be found in this SPICe blog.
While COP26 took place during the global pandemic (with the staging delayed for a year as a result) there have been geopolitical developments in 2022 that have further complicated global climate negotiations. The war in Ukraine and the tensions between the USA and China over Taiwan are thought to have made further multilateral breakthroughs more difficult.
The impact of the ongoing energy / cost of living crises on the overall low carbon transition is disputed; some think it will ultimately accelerate transition while others believe it poses an existential threat to decarbonisation. While in the short term there may be an ‘attention crisis’ with respect to climate action, the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency sees it as a historical turning point toward green energy.
Despite external forces acting to complicate further climate agreement, the actual impacts of climate change may be beginning to change the framing of negotiations. Although any particular extreme weather event cannot be definitively attributed to climate change, the overall increase in extreme weather events can be. The impacts of climate change have arguably hit the headlines much more in 2022, with unprecedented heat waves in Europe and flooding in Pakistan.
With respect to the COP26 agreements, the GFANZ commitment is thought to be under threat as it has recently emerged that some major banks do not want to be part of something where they could be sued for not achieving their divestment pledges. It has also recently been estimated that the 2030 deforestation target will be missed at current rates of change, although the recent election result in Brazil is thought to have returned a government with significantly stronger environmental credentials and commitments to reversing deforestation. Global low emission vehicle sales are, however, moving ahead, with the world’s largest market, China, jumping to 25% of new vehicle sales. The Scottish Government has also followed up its inaugural loss and damage payment at COP26 by jointly hosting a ‘Loss and Damage’ conference in early October.
Niall Kerr, Senior Researcher, Climate Change and Net Zero