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COP26 president Alok Sharma at the summit yesterday. DPA/PA Images

'It's not nearly enough': Some positives to COP26 deal, but experts say much more is needed

The reaction to the Glasgow Climate Pact has been mixed across the world.

THE DUST HAS settled on the COP26 climate summit after two weeks of negotiations, events, talks and protests. 

The UN conference began on 31 October and ended yesterday evening after negotiations ran into overtime.

All countries involved in the process agreed to a number of decisions as part of the Glasgow Climate Pact. 

Countries agreed to come back with updated nationally determined contributions (NDCs) next year and the deal included other terms deemed relatively progressive including explicitly mentioning fossil fuels.

However, activists and experts have said the agreed plans still don’t go far enough to limit the impacts of global warming. 

Here are some of the key points about the outcome of COP26:

  • The package still leaves future global warming above the crucial 1.5 degrees Celsius limit goal based on current pledges.
  • In a last-minute change to the final agreement, China and India called for altered wording around the mention of coal. Instead of accelerating the “phase out” of coal, the final text calls for countries to “phase down” coal usage.
  • In spite of this, it is the first time coal and fossil fuels have been mentioned in a COP deal.
  • After six years, consensus was reached on the details around carbon markets and transparency meaning the Paris Agreement can now be fully implemented.
  • Developed countries have been called on to “at least double” their funding by 2025 to help developing nations adapt to climate change.
  • Several agreements were reached in the first week on methane, deforestation, phasing out coal use in South Africa and ending fossil fuel funding overseas.
  • Countries agreed on the science – the discussion is no longer around whether climate change is real but rather what to do about it.
  • The $100 billion finance goal long-promised by developed nations for developing countries was not reached.

Professor John Sweeney from the geography department at Maynooth University said the text around fossil fuel subsidies and coal “doesn’t really compel anybody to do anything”. 

He said the final package had some positive “sentiments” regarding adaptation funding and an indication of heightened focus on loss and damage in the future.

“But really, I think the writing was on the wall when we had India and China complaining about coal abatement,” Sweeney told The Journal

Between the various different drafts, the fossil fuel subsidies wording was “watered down to the extent that it’s pretty meaningless”.

At the end of the day, it’s nearer the Greta Thunberg blah, blah, blah than it is a meaningful document in some respects.

un-climate-conference-cop26-in-glasgow-protest People gathered in Glasgow calling for financial compensation for people severely impacted by the effects of climate change. DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

He pointed out that India and China have some “legitimate arguments that their share of the remaining carbon budget should be recognised moreso than the developed countries” due to lower historic emissions. 

“So it was a non-event and although it will be spun as a success, I think the reality is it won’t change the direction of global emissions to any significant extent.”

COP26 president Alok Sharma said after the deal was agreed: “We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees alive. But, its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action.”

Speaking to RTÉ radio’s This Week programme, Environment Minister Eamon Ryan described the change of wording around coal as “gut-wrenching”. 

“But what was significant in Glasgow, coming out of it, was effectively it has taken us six years, which is too long, this is too slow, but it does actually put legal bones on the Paris Climate Agreement,” Ryan said. 

“It does actually give us real strong confidence that the whole economic system, the finance system, is going to have to switch to this decarbonised direction.”

Listening to the science

Experts who attended many COP summits in the past pointed out that a crucial difference at this conference was that countries were all listening to the available science around climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sixth assessment report published in August showed that greenhouse gas emissions must be drastically cut to avoid disastrous levels of warming in the decades to come.

This was a hugely significant report described as a “code red for humanity”. 

Sadhbh O’Neill, assistant professor at the school of law and government in Dublin City University, said: “The problem we have now is not climate denial anymore.

“There was no sense of that, I didn’t pick that up anywhere at the conference. There was no sense that you had to argue with anyone about whether climate change was real.

“The biggest problem we have is greenwashing. That’s the new climate denial.”

In terms of the Glasgow deal, she said it was relatively predictable compared to previous COP summits.

“It was always going to be difficult to get the kind of major breakthrough that a lot of activists would want to see,” she said.

The complex architecture of the Paris Agreement doesn’t really enable that kind of major breakthrough to happen within the context of the agreement. 

“It requires unanimity to go forward. Everything has to be agreed by everybody, and the advantage of that is that everybody is on board with whatever the outcome is. 

“So even if the outcome is somewhat weak, you have to remember that this is something that Russia and Saudi Arabia, China, India, the United States have all signed up to, and that is never to be dismissed.

My instinct is that we need to lean into the outcomes. We need to take all the positives that are there. 

“Now, getting countries to do what they promised is always going to be the big challenge.”

Dr Diarmuid Torney, associate professor at the school of law and government in DCU, said the agreement is “more or less as strong as could have been expected given the preferences of the key players” such as China, India, the US and the EU. 

“More broadly, it reflects the fact that governments around the world are not yet taking climate change sufficiently seriously. The ambition of the overall agreement is a reflection of where governments are,” he told The Journal

He said reference to the science through the texts is “really quite strong” in specifically mentioning the goal to lower emissions by 45% by 2030 and putting the 1.5 degree temperature limit “at the centre”. 

But despite some positive elements, Dr Torney added that he “wouldn’t at all quibble with anyone who says it’s not nearly enough because, unambiguously, it’s not nearly enough”.

Kenyan climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti said the decisions reached at COP26 “protect business as usual, the interests of rich countries and the greed of the fossil fuel industry”.

“It is painful to see delegates applauding and cheering an outcome that sacrifices the wellbeing and livelihoods of communities like mine,” she said on Twitter.

Mohamed Adow, director of energy and climate think tank PowerShift Africa, also said that “the needs of the world’s vulnerable people have been sacrificed on the altar of the rich world’s selfishness”.

“The outcome here reflects a COP held in the rich world & the outcome contains the priorities of the rich world.”

On common criticism that COP summits are all talk and no action, Sadhbh O’Neill said: “I don’t think we can afford to think like that.”

“I think we need to really fight indifference and despair and the adults need to kind of prove to the youth that we’re completely serious about implementing these cuts at home,” she said.

“The focus was on the international process in the last couple of weeks, which is totally right and proper, but now the focus needs to be on the domestic level.”

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