The biggest climate summit since the Paris agreement was forged in 2015 ended on Saturday night, with substantial progress on greenhouse gas emissions cuts, climate finance and international cooperation – but not enough to ensure that the world can meet the goal of limiting global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
Although the world’s biggest emitters came forward with plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, taken together the current commitments would still lead to temperature rises of about 2.4C. So nations agreed to return next year to revise their targets upwards – a difficult task to manage when the only levers are public pressure.
That may seem meagre, but considering that two years ago when the last Cop (conference of the parties, under the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) was held the heating forecast was more than 3C, and only a scattering of countries had a net zero emissions target compared with more than 90% today, it is a sizeable improvement that still leaves much hanging on next year.
Alok Sharma, the UK cabinet minister who led the conference, said the 1.5C goal was still viable but “the pulse is weak”. António Guterres, UN secretary-general, said 1.5C was “on life support”.
A resolution to phase out the use of coal power was weakened at the last minute to a phase down, at the insistence of China and India – but still represented a powerful signal that the dirtiest fossil fuel must be severely curtailed, the first such commitment in any UN climate conference decision since the Kyoto protocol in 1997. The share prices of some leading coal companies slid, and carbon prices in the EU emissions trading system rose strongly, in the wake of the Glasgow decisions.
There were several important side deals, too: an agreement to cut emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas methane by 30% by 2030, which if achieved would cut temperature rises by 0.2C; more than 130 countries signed up to halt deforestation this decade; more than 450 banks will align their assets to a net zero target; and some of the world’s biggest carmakers agreed to switch to electric vehicles.
At Cop26, the UK also managed to get through the main outstanding issues of the “Paris rulebook” – such as Article 6 (see climate jargon below), which governs how carbon markets and carbon trading can be used to help countries meet their emissions targets – and rules on transparency, setting out on how countries measure and report on their emissions. These issues have dogged the annual Cops for six years. Settling them means the Paris agreement can now be put into operation in the ways intended, and should also free up negotiating time next year to concentrate on the substantive problems of emissions cuts and finance.
Developing countries were disappointed not to receive better assurances on climate finance, which they need to help them cut emissions and cope with the impacts of extreme weather. However, most welcomed the final deal as a platform as showing promise and a platform to build on.
The Climate Vulnerable Forum, made up of 55 developing countries with a combined population of 1.4bn people, said: “More will, of course, continue to be asked of the international community, to deliver climate justice and effective protection of the world’s most vulnerable nations. We remain, though, reaffirmed that core calls of the most vulnerable nations are strongly reflected in the Cop26 outcome.”