COP26: What Did it Accomplish and How Was it Received?
Earlier this month, global leaders and international ambassadors met in Glasgow, Scotland for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP). This COP was the 26th in a line of global climate conferences to discuss and set goals for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Previous COPs yielded the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, both of which set emissions targets and developed the funding mechanisms for emissions reduction and clean growth in developing countries. Paris additionally set a goal to limit global average temperature rise to “well below” two degrees Celsius (above pre-industrial levels), with 1.5 degrees as the ideal target. 1.5 degrees is considered the tipping point where climate impacts become broad-scale climate catastrophe.
Global average temperature currently sits at 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. At COP26, delegates hoped to create ambitious 2030 emissions targets that will help keep that 1.5 degree marker within reach. Other goals included finalizing the Paris Agreement “rulebook,” which would outline an international carbon market, as well as committing to fossil-fuel phaseouts, climate finance and renewable investment, adaptation assistance for developing nations, and more.
Upon conclusion, however, many were disappointed with the COP26 outcome. There were a few positive aspects:
● Completion of the Paris Rulebook relating to Paris Agreement Article 6 and carbon markets;
● The Glasgow Climate Pact, which explicitly mentioned limiting fossil fuels (a first in international climate policy) and outlines strategies that keep 1.5 degrees within reach;
● 100+ countries committing to limit the greenhouse gas methane by 30 percent (compared to 2020 levels) by 2030;
● 100+ countries committing to end deforestation by 2030; and finally,
● Countries looking to revisit and strengthen their 2030 Paris Agreement targets; their “national determined contributions” (NDCs) must “ratchet up” by next year.
Despite these positive outcomes, strong language to phase out fossil fuels (particularly coal) was weakened in a last-minute change. Funding commitments for loss and damages in developing countries were weak and/or nonexistent. Following COP26, climate pledges (if countries completely follow through) will only limit warming to 2.4 degrees. And, enforcement mechanisms are slim to none. The U.N. Secretary General noted that delegates showed “remarkable expertise in reaching consensus among parties.” However, he also emphasized that we must do more—“our fragile planet is hanging by a thread.”
How do you take action on a collective problem with catastrophic consequences when everyone’s individual economic interests are not the same? Therein lies the dilemma.
The United States at COP26
President Joe Biden campaigned on climate action, and on day one signed an Executive Order to rejoin the Paris Agreement. He established a National Climate Task Force, announced targets to achieve 50 to 52 percent reductions (from 2005 levels) on economy-wide net greenhouse gas pollution by 2030, and vowed to reach net zero by 2050. Proposed infrastructure planning includes provisions for clean energy and climate action, though much has been derailed by partisan opposition. And, he has pledged $11.4 billion per year by 2024 to help less-developed countries fight climate change. But is it enough?
The United States is the second-largest global emitter overall, and the largest per capita. At COP26, President Biden vowed to “lead by example” and touted the $1.75 trillion American spending bill that will, if passed, help tackle the climate crisis. He doubled down on the commitment to cut 50 percent of U.S. emissions by 2030, and pledged to cut methane emissions and end deforestation within the next decade.
But global leaders—particularly those from the countries that contribute the least to climate but are experiencing the worst impacts—collectively agreed that the U.S. and other large emitters still have not put forth enough commitment or ambition. What’s more, the United States failed to join an international alliance to halt new oil and gas drilling; days after COP ended, the Administration sold new oil and gas leases. In light of U.S. commitments, this may not have been the best decision. Both President Biden and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry announced that “America is back,” but other countries want to see that in action. Some see America as comprised of “two forces” on climate: “each takes turns driving, and they’re going in different directions.”
Can Politicians Across the Aisle Collaborate on Climate?
Even though President Biden’s climate commitments are our biggest to date, they are not on the scale to eradicate climate change impacts. If the U.S. climate package passes and executes correctly, we would only make it about halfway to the President’s 2030 commitments. Reaching those goals will require further executive action and action from state governments. All of this requires bipartisan cooperation.
Democratic politicians tend to be more climate friendly, but even their commitments have recently been strained. A few Democrats held up the Biden Administration’s infrastructure package and limited financial resources for climate resilience. They, along with Republicans, also scrapped $150 billion for power grid decarbonization. The second infrastructure package, the Build Back Better Act, designates $555 billion to combat climate change and cut emissions, but its fate again rests in the hands of potentially hostile politicians.
Allowing political leanings to hold up climate action spells trouble. How can we move forward if we’re in a political stalemate? What happens when the political pendulum swings back to less climate-friendly leadership? Though Republicans as a whole don’t necessarily prioritize climate change when they vote, many (particularly younger populations) do support climate-friendly initiatives. Sixty-two percent of Republican/Republican-leaning adults say developing alternative energies should be a higher priority than expanding fossil fuels. Those who live in climate-impacted communities are even more likely to support climate action.
The majority of Americans say the federal government is not doing enough to protect the environment and reduce climate effects. These numbers are increasing, but not quickly enough. Most Republicans still weigh other issues over climate, and continue to elect politicians who adamantly oppose climate action. Some Congressional Republicans have begun to acknowledge that the earth is warming, but most still prioritize fossil fuels and economic gain over climate action. If we want to preserve a liveable planet, that can’t be the case.
If climate action on a global scale does not solve our climate problems, what should be our takeaway? Though a lot of problems are caused at a higher level, and as important as federal programming and COP26 are, local and individual actions are extremely important. Local and state-level leadership and advocacy can pave the way for the clean energy transitions, environmental protections, and community justice that are essential to combat this crisis. Regional leadership must understand how to utilize federal funding once disbursed and deploy where it is most needed. Individuals can take action too: divesting from dirty resources where possible, taking advantage of clean local programming, amplifying vulnerable and disproportionately-impacted voices, voting and holding politicians accountable...the list goes on. We absolutely must do as much as we can, wherever we can, to keep 1.5 degrees within reach.