The climate crisis is only worsening, and there is still no global consensus on the basics of what needs to be done: whether to financially help the most vulnerable nations suffering from damaging impacts today, or what to do about fossil fuels, the primary source of the problem.
After intense negotiations spilled into the weekend, the 26th United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP26) in Glasgow ended Saturday with minimal progress on either front, beyond an agreement to continue the heated discussions in coming years, much to the sadness and frustration of many developing nations and activists.
“We were told that COP26 was the last best chance to keep 1.5 C alive”— the key goal of the Paris climate agreement — “but it’s been placed on life support,” Amanda Mukwashi, chief executive officer of the relief organization Christian Aid, said in a statement. “Rich nations have kicked the can down the road and with it the promise of the urgent climate action people on the front line of this crisis need.”
The resulting deal, signed on by roughly 200 countries, calls on parties to accelerate “efforts towards the phasedown" of coal power and some fossil fuel subsidies; urges developed nations to deliver on a $100 billion annual goal by 2025 to help developing nations adapt to and mitigate the crisis; and asks countries with weak climate plans to come back to the table in 2022 with stronger ones. The language on coal power and fossil fuel subsidies was watered down in the final hours of the talks; earlier drafts called for their phaseout.
Frans Timmermans, a top climate official for the European Union, was among the many diplomats disappointed by the text change. “We all know that European wealth was built on coal," he said. "And if we don’t get rid of coal, European death will also be built on coal. We know full well that coal has no future."
Notably not included in the deal, however, was any commitment to fully phase out oil and gas. Nor was there support to explicitly provide more aid for the most vulnerable countries to adapt to climate change, or any money for what’s called “loss and damage” — essentially climate reparations to help those countries that are already reeling from climate impacts but did little to cause the crisis. The US and European Union are largely blamed for shutting down the talks on money.
“We’re extremely disappointed,” Lia Nicholson, a climate negotiator for the Caribbean island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, said on the summit’s final day. “Know what is at stake for our membership, our homes, and our cultures. We strongly question whether elements of this package could undermine our 1.5 C march, but we trust we have to go through this journey.”
Since there’s no stopping the crisis at this point, the lingering question at these annual climate talks has been, How hot will the planet get?
The decisions made in Glasgow were meant to help steer the world on a specific temperature course: ideally, toward 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming. This was not achieved. But after Glasgow, if everyone keeps their word, Earth will be on track to be slightly less hot than it was before, and there’s still hope among diplomats that further progress down the line keeps the 1.5 C goal alive.
“COP26 will not — by itself — put the world on track to meet the Paris Agreement goals,” Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist from the Breakthrough Institute, tweeted Friday. “But it does meaningfully move the needle.”
The meaningful movement Hausfather referenced largely happened on the sidelines of the conference, not as part of the formal negotiations.
Upwards of 109 countries, including the United States, pledged to reduce their methane emissions at least 30% by 2030 compared with 2020 levels. Methane accounts for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Because it has a short lifespan in the atmosphere, cutting methane levels now is anticipated to quickly reduce the rate of global warming. China, the largest current greenhouse gas emitter, was not part of this coalition, although the country later agreed to “develop additional measures to enhance methane emission control” before next year in a joint declaration with the US.
A separate, overlapping coalition of at least 141 countries, accounting for more than 90% of the world’s forests, agreed to “halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.” In addition, a subset of these countries pledged to provide about $12 billion in public finance through 2025 to support developing countries in meeting this goal and, separately, offered $1.7 billion to Indigenous people and their efforts to protect forests. A similar deforestation goal was made back in 2014, critics have pointed out. What’s new here is the addition of money to help make the goal a reality.
Two other coalitions of countries — the Powering Past Coal Alliance and signatories of the Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement — announced plans to phase out coal use, with a range of different phaseout dates. But the US, China, and India, the three largest coal users globally, did not participate in either of these deals.
Cutting methane emissions, stopping deforestation, and ending coal use are all considered critical steps for keeping the 1.5 C target alive.
Despite these announcements pushing the conversation forward, they are, crucially, all voluntary efforts and lack clear accountability mechanisms, which is also true of many pieces of the formal COP26 agreement.
And the stakes for getting this right could literally mean the difference between life and death for some communities. “For those who have eyes to see, for those who have ears to listen, and for those who have a heart to feel,” Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley said in recent weeks, “1.5 is what we need to survive.”
For this reason, some climate activists didn’t need to see the final text to deem the negotiations a failure. “It is not a secret that COP26 is a failure,” said superstar youth activist Greta Thunberg at a rally halfway into the Glasgow talks. “It should be obvious that we cannot solve a crisis with the same methods that got us into it in the first place.”
This was increasingly the consensus among youth, Indigenous, and other climate activists, who have complained that the growing chorus of climate promises by governments and big businesses are empty and the needs of the most vulnerable populations are ignored. Instead, they wanted to see the end of fossil fuels, more money fronted for developing nations, and the exclusion of corporate interests from the conference.
Moreover, earlier this week, a coalition of 100 environmental and civil society groups issued a joint statement lambasting the talks. “Instead of a multilateral agreement that puts forward a clear path to address the climate crisis,” they wrote, “we are left with a document that takes us further down the path of climate injustice.”
At the conference's end, even its key champion, COP26 President Alok Sharma, seemed defeated. “May I just say to all delegates, I apologize for the way this process has unfolded and I am deeply sorry. I also understand the deep disappointment. But I think as you have noted, it is also vital we protect this package,” he said at the final negotiating session. Sharma then paused, visibly overcome with emotion, before gaveling in the final deal.