Ministry of Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs, Tuvalu Government

COP26: The end of the fossil fuels era? Not here, not now

Despite some progress made, political interests once again prevailed over the urgent need for a collective response to the climate crisis. Neither the much needed cuts to greenhouse gas emissions to keep the rising global temperature at bay, nor the financial support to help developing countries address the climate challenges materialised. EEB Policy Manager for Climate, Barbara Mariani, analyses the outcomes of the COP26.

After two weeks of international negotiations among the 192 Parties which signed the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate, the 26th Conference of the Parties on Climate (COP26) ended on 13 November with the adoption of the Glasgow Climate Pact.

Hello, is anybody out there? 

The planet is warming up faster than expected, and climate change driven by human activities is already affecting every region across the globe. This was the message for all, delivered by the scientific community only a few months ahead of COP26 when the International Panel on Climate Change released its Sixth Assessment Report on Climate. The recommendation to policymakers was clear: global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep cuts in CO2 and other Greenhouse Gas emissions are delivered in the coming decades. Science shows that changes in several climatic impact-drivers would be more widespread with a 2°C, rather than just 1.5°C global warming, and even more widespread and mor eintense for higher warming levels. However, the current global commitments will lead to a 2.4°C rise.

Climate sceptics too got a clear message: it is by now beyond argument that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2000 years and that every tonne of CO₂ emissions adds to global warming. Evidence of observed changes in weather extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and their attribution to human influence, has strengthened. Failure to face all the above evidence is failure to tackle one of the most pressing concerns for the future of life on earth.  

The elephant(s) in the room? 

The climate challenge is the most impressive example of the multiple negative chain-effects driven by our current economic systems based on a continuous growth, which too often spreads benefits unevenly across our societies. Our economies are notably based upon massive exploitation of natural resources (coal, oil, gas, raw materials, water, land etc.) which most of the time are owned and managed by a blend of private business and national interests. In most cases, the State has a clear economic interest in these economic activities and the related value chains, including exports. Whether it is gas in Russia, oil in Canada or Saudi Arabia, coal in China, India or Poland, forests in Brazil or Finland, private companies make huge profits by exploiting resources under the State’s eye, or even with its full support.  

Such an economic system is still thriving on the fact that the cost of the environmental damage and pollution caused by the exploitation of resources is not fully or at all internalised (the polluter pays principle) in related economic activities. Moreover, the system relies upon existing national and global social inequalities and is creating new ones at an unprecedented rate. The poorest countries which are often rich in natural resources and raw materials – and provide cheap labour – are those paying the highest bill and the worst consequences. Despite the world being aware of the impacts of fossil fuels on climate, subsidies in many forms continue to feed them everywhere.

And there is more. When it comes to CO2 emissions based on consumption, statistics show that the richest one per cent of the global population accounts for more than twice the poorest 50 per cent, and the former will need to reduce its footprint by a factor of at least 30 to stay in line with the Paris Agreement targets. According to the UNEP Emissions Gap Report, the net flow of embodied carbon goes from developing to developed countries. Even if developed countries reduce their domestic emissions (like the EU is doing) this effect is only being partially compensated by carbon embodied in imports. This means that EU per capita emissions are higher than Chinese ones when we include consumption-based emissions. It is more and more urgent to align the global climate and trade agenda to fully capture the real situation. However, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and therefore the Paris Agreement, do not consider consumption-based emissions.  

All countries are experiencing climate impacts but some of them are in worse economic and social conditions than the richest part of the planet and therefore are less capable of acting for climate mitigation and adaptation. The picture of the Tuvalu Minister giving his COP26 speech knee-deep in the ocean tells us where we stand today. In many places of the world, it is already too late to repair the damage. 

The Glasgow Climate Pact adopted on Saturday pointed out “with deep regret” that the goal of developed country Parties to jointly mobilise USD 100 billion per year by 2020 to support developing countries has not yet been met. The gap between the urgency of the climate crisis challenge and the response of politics is widening. 

More global climate action now? Better tomorrow 

The Paris Agreement is notably based on a bottom-up approach whereby each country (Party) contributes with a pledge (Nationally Determined Contribution) to the global effort to reduce GHG emissions. The principles of equity and “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” are also enshrined in the agreement, as well as the principle of supporting developing countries to reduce their GHG emissions (mitigation) and to adapt to climate change impacts (adaptation). However, the NDCs per se are not binding and in order to bring any benefit, they need to be translated into effective national binding legislation. 

Moreover, just before the start of the COP26, the UNFCCC published an update synthesis report of climate action plans, as communicated and concluded that for all available NDCs of all 192 Parties taken together, an increase of about 16%, in global GHG emissions in 2030 compared to 2010 is anticipated. The UNFCCC pointed out that such an increase, unless changed quickly, may lead to a temperature rise of about 2.7°C by the end of the century. 

Fridays For Future rally, including Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, near to the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, in Glasgow, United Kingdom.

While the Paris Agreement target “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels” was reiterated in the Glasgow Climate Pact, global action is clearly way below what is needed today. The agreed commitment to review national pledges yearly is a meagre consolation and keeps postponing action to an undetermined point in time, while we know that we have already lost at least one key decade to invert the trend of dangerous climate change.  

Fossil fuels in the spotlight?  

The controversial negotiations on the pledges to phase out fossil fuels have been a striking example of the global leaders’ lack of recognition of the full implications of today’s political decisions. The Glasgow Climate Pact contains a generic commitment to “accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”. Strikingly, after 25 years of UN negotiations on climate, this is the first time that coal and fossil fuel subsidies are mentioned in an agreement. And still, the commitment is ambiguous as it clearly keeps fossil fuels on life-support for an indeterminate length of time by securing its future through the financing and uptake of carbon capture technologies.

The same goes for another pledge signed by the US, together with other 20 countries, to end public finance to “unabated fossil fuels projects abroad” – i.e. projects investing in coal, oil, gas – not combined with Carbon Capture and Storage technologies – by the end of 2022.  While there is no agreement on the need to put an end to the fossil fuel era, there is a strong consensus that countries can keep extracting or using fossil fuels “at home” undisturbed and that more financial support will flow to carbon capture technologies which are expensive, have clear environmental limitations and will divert resources needed to step up our mitigation efforts and increase the resilience of our energy systems.  

Under the Global Methane Pledge, over 100 global leaders pledged to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. However, the deal only covers around 45 percent of total methane emissions and leave out the emissions generated by the agriculture sector, which account for about 24% of global GHG emissions and are on a continuous rising trend.  

No surprise that at the COP26 there were more representatives from fossil-fuel industries than any countries’ entire delegations, let alone civil society.

Who’s in the driver’s seat?

Overall, the lack of vision and a sort of “menu à la carte” approach when it comes to the future of fossil fuels confirms that global climate politics are deeply intertwined with national and business interests.  

The fact that the COP26 will also be remembered for one of the highest rates of attendance by the business sector – and a plethora of ‘climate pledges’ tailored to everyone’s taste –  is a sign that we are at a turning point. Only 15 years ago, the business sector was hardly present during COP meetings, with the exception of a few global pioneers. Today, the business sector is populating the COP scene with hundreds of stands, events and initiatives and seems to be in the driving seat when compared to the presence and the means and resources of the no-profit community and the broader civil society. Isn’t this a sign of the times and a wake-up call?  

Next COP stop in Egypt: let’s hope the mummies won’t rise again!