World leaders signed off on a new climate change agreement after two weeks of intense negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland. While some countries committed to more ambitious cuts to heat-trapping pollution, many nations did not agree to rein in emissions fast enough for the world to avoid the worst damage from climate-driven storms, heat waves and droughts.
Still, the summit’s progress means that goal could still be within reach, experts say — if countries follow through on their promises.
The agreement was built from compromises on many fronts, including a last minute effort by India to weaken efforts to phase-out coal. Still, it broke new ground in creating a worldwide consensus to transition away from fossil fuels and to speed up countries’ ambitions to cut emissions faster.
As negotiators met in closed-door sessions, thousands of activists filled the streets to remind them the world has less than a decade to get greenhouse gases under control. Emissions need to fall around 45% by 2030 to give the world a chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100 (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Instead, they’re expected to rise almost 14% over the next nine years.
“The negotiations have been far from easy,” said COP26 President Alok Sharma. “Each and every one of you and the nations you represent have stepped here in Glasgow, agreeing to do what it takes to keep 1.5 alive.”
After four years of absence under former President Trump, the U.S. sought to regain its climate credibility at these talks, urging other nations to be more ambitious while trying to ensure its own policies aren’t killed by a divided Congress.
Developing countries, already suffering damage from more intense hurricanes and droughts, made a unified plea for climate justice. Richer countries are responsible for the bulk of climate emissions, they said, but poorer countries are suffering the most. In the end, they were among the most disappointed as COP26 ended, leaving mostly with promises that their pleas would be addressed in the future.
“For us, this is a matter of survival,” said Aminath Shauna, Minister of Environment, Climate Change and Technology of the Maldives. “Please do us the courtesy to acknowledge that it does not bring hope to our hearts but serves as yet another conversation where we put our homes on the line, while those who have other options decide how quickly they want to act to save those who don’t.”
What didn’t happen: nations still aren’t cutting emissions fast enough
As the start of COP26 approached on Oct. 31, major polluting countries released a flurry of new pledges about future emissions cuts. India, a state heavily reliant on coal power, agreed to reach net-zero emissions by 2070. Saudi Arabia pledged to go net-zero by 2060, and Brazil announced 2050.
More than 100 countries signed a pledge at the summit to cut methane emissions 30% by 2030. The potent greenhouse gas has 80 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide when first emitted into the atmosphere. Another coalition of countries agreed to halt deforestation by 2030, including the heavily-forested nations of Brazil and Russia.
China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, held firm to its plan allowing emissions to rise until 2030, eventually declining to net-zero by 2060. But in a surprise announcement, the U.S. and China agreed to work together to “strengthen and accelerate climate action and cooperation” in the near-term.
“It’s the first time China and the United States have stood up — the two biggest emitters in the world — and said, ‘We’re going to work together to accelerate the reduction,’ ” Kerry told NPR.
Still added together, the pledges will not reduce emissions fast enough to keep the world within the crucial limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, as agreed to in the Paris climate talks. Instead, the world would be on track for 1.8 degrees Celsius of warming, according to an analysis from the International Energy Agency.
1.8 degrees Celsius is an improvement over the previous pledges. But it depends entirely on countries following through on their promises, and many have provided few concrete details. Even with past commitments, many governments haven’t backed up words with actions. Based on what countries are currently doing on the ground, the world is headed toward 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming, or almost 5 degrees Fahrenheit.
What did happen: countries agreed to speed up their climate planning
The Glasgow summit marked a major moment for global action — it was the first time nations updated their plans to limit emissions since the historic Paris agreement in 2015. Generally, countries have agreed to release new plans, known as “nationally determined contributions,” every 5 years.
But with current climate commitments falling short, many developing countries advocated for speeding up that schedule, arguing that waiting another 5 years would mean crucial time is lost. Coalitions of poorer nations, like the Climate Vulnerable Form, urged richer countries to come back with stronger pledges every year to cut their emissions.
“The safety of my children and yours hangs in the balance,” said Marshall Islands climate envoy Tina Stege in the final days of negotiations. “It’s time for us to level up. We need to keep returning to the table.”
China was one of several delegations heavily reliant on fossil fuels that pushed back on that idea, urging that countries be given “space and time” to decide on and implement their climate plans.
In the end, the final agreement held as firmly as a consensus agreement can on speeding up progress, saying it “requests” countries “revisit and strengthen” their plans by 2022. Some climate experts say, while it’s not binding, it at least keeps political pressure on major emitters in the near-term.
What didn’t happen: no compensation for climate losses in developing countries
As higher temperatures fuel more destructive storms, heatwaves and fires, many poorer countries face disasters that can cost billions of dollars and add up to far more than the size of their economy. Intense droughts are wiping out crops, and rising seas are forcing entire villages to relocate.
Developing countries brought a firm message to the Glasgow summit: we’re suffering from a problem we’ve done little to cause. They proposed that wealthier countries compensate them for climate change-related “loss and damage.”
At the summit, Scotland offered the first contribution for a loss and damage fund, two million pounds, a sign that many thought could pave the way for more nations to join in.
Developing nations argued, at the very least, a COP26 agreement could establish a fund, or “facility” in United Nations jargon, with details to be worked out in the years to come. But in negotiations, the idea ran into a brick wall. Wealthier countries, including the U.S., didn’t support it.
Instead, the final compromise is that discussions, named the “Glasgow dialogue,” will begin between nations about how loss and damage funding might work. Countries also agreed to provide more “technical assistance” for loss and damage issues by supporting the Santiago Network, a U.N. entity created in 2019 to provide advice and guidance for developing countries to minimize damage from climate change.
With 2 million people at risk of starvation in Kenya due to an extreme drought this year, Keriako Tobiko of the country’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry called the compromise a disappointment.
“What we have in mind is not giving money to consultants to fly around and to come educate us, teach us about what loss and damage is,” he says.
What did happen: the world agreed to phase out fossil fuels… sort of
World leaders have met 26 times since the 1990s to hash out complex climate agreements. While COP delegates have called for increased use of cleaner energy sources, they’ve shied away from explicitly calling on the world to stop using fossil fuels. Oil-and-coal-producing countries, like Saudi Arabia and Australia, have historically objected to any mention of phasing them out.
But scientists warn that to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, at least 90% of coal reserves and 60% of oil and gas reserves must stay underground by 2050.
As early drafts of the COP26 agreement were released, climate activists were thrilled to see that it urged countries to “accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels.” In negotiations, the U.S. spoke out about ending subsidies for oil and gas at home.
“That’s the definition of insanity,” Kerry said. “We’re allowing [it] to feed the very problem we’re here to try to cure.”
In later drafts, the language was tweaked to reference phasing out “unabated” coal power and “inefficient” subsidies. That opens the door for some coal power to remain, if its emissions are captured before reaching the atmosphere. China, Iran, South Africa, India and Nigeria still opposed it, arguing that developing countries have a right to use fossil fuels as richer countries have done.
“How can anyone expect that developing countries can make promises about phasing out fossil fuel and coal subsidies?” said Bhupender Yadav, India’s Cabinet Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change. “Developing countries still have to deal with their development agenda and poverty eradication.”
In a last minute move, India sought to further weaken the wording by changing the “phase-out” of coal to “phase-down.” Other countries reluctantly conceded in order to prevent the entire agreement from falling apart.
“It hurts deeply to see that bright spot dim,” said Stege of the Marshall Islands. “We accept this change with the greatest reluctance. We do so only, and I really want to stress only, because there are critical elements of this package that people in my country need as a lifeline for their future.”
What didn’t happen: wealthier countries still haven’t provided $100 billion
Developing countries arrived at the Glasgow summit deeply distrustful of a process that has done little, over the decades, to match the urgency of the climate threat—and the damage they’re already enduring.
Twelve years ago, wealthier countries like the U.S. promised to provide $100 billion in “climate finance” — funding to help vulnerable nations reduce their emissions with renewable energy, cleaner transportation and other projects. The money is also earmarked for adaptation projects to help communities protect themselves from climate impacts like storms and sea level rise.
By 2020, richer nations pledged to provide that amount annually through both government and the private sector, but so far, have fallen short of that goal. In 2019, countries hit about $80 billion in climate finance. Much of that funding came in the form of loans, instead of grants, which developing countries say further strains their climate efforts as they struggle to repay them.
The majority of the funding has also gone to emissions reductions projects, commonly called “mitigation.” Countries with fewer resources say that’s left a major shortfall in adaptation funding, which helps prevent damage from future climate disasters.
The U.S., Japan, Norway, Sweden and others announced new climate finance pledges this year, but the $100 billion goal is still elusive and likely won’t be met until 2022 or 2023. That amount is also far below the need. A U.N. report estimates that funding for climate adaptation should be five to 10 times greater than what’s being spent now.
To help fill that gap, negotiators from a group of African nations tried to focus countries on a climate finance goal beyond $100 billion. In early drafts, the agreement included a number: at least $1.3 trillion annually by 2030, with half dedicated to adaptation projects.
In the final compromise, countries agreed to begin a two-year work plan ending in 2024 to settle on how climate finance will ramp up to meet the needs of the most vulnerable nations in the future. In the meantime, developed countries agreed to collectively double funding for climate adaptation projects by 2025.
“It is inexcusable that developed countries failed to meet their commitment to deliver $100 billion annually starting in 2020 even as they provide hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies for fossil fuels each year,” said Ani Dasgupta, President of the World Resources Institute, in a statement.