The main objective of the United Kingdom’s presidency of COP26 was to secure an agreement that would keep alive the 1.5C goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement. So, did it succeed? Barely – the goal hangs by the most fragile of threads. Despite the new pledges announced during the Glasgow meeting, emissions still need to be cut by around a further 20 gigatonnes by 2030 compared to where they are currently heading. For this reason, the most critical outcome at COP26 was the request to all countries to return with stronger nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to global emissions cuts by COP27. But will any do so?
We have been here before. After COP16 in 2010, similar efforts were made to spur an increase in pre-2020 ambition. Ministerial meetings, stock-takes, and roundtables all took place. But ultimately none of the major emitting countries formally increased their pre-2020 pledges, as attention focused on negotiations towards the Paris Agreement and its first round of post-2020 NDCs. A decade was essentially lost in strengthening those near-term commitments.
Many things have changed that mean this decade could be different. Renewable energy prices have plummeted, private sector commitments have proliferated, and the vast majority of the world’s emissions are now covered by mid-century net-zero emissions goals (although many are dangerously vague). Perhaps most significantly, the strength of civil society mobilisation is growing, as is broad public support in many countries for climate action.
But to translate these positive trends into a step-change in international climate commitments in the next year, the UK presidency will have to redouble its efforts before handing over to the Egyptian presidency of COP27. Exhausting as preparation for COP26 was for UK civil servants, the real work begins now.
We have already seen worrying signs of governments seemingly ruling out increases in their NDCs. US climate envoy John Kerry informed reporters before leaving Glasgow that he does not think that the US should increase its target. The Australian government issued a written statement within 24 hours of COP ending that claimed the Australian 2030 target is “fixed”. It is hard to imagine middle-income countries such as India and China deciding to move if the world’s biggest historic and per capita emitters refuse to budge.
This means the UK presidency still has its work cut out. The first lesson the British government can learn from the French presidency of COP21, therefore, is not to begin 2022 by cutting resources from climate diplomacy. Instead, it must support deeper national dialogues with governments, civil society, and private sector stakeholders on implementing the Glasgow Pact. The world’s eyes will remain on the UK government in the months ahead to see whether the gains it has championed come to fruition.
But, just as importantly, the UK and partners in the European Union will have to consider options for further increasing their own NDCs and structuring financial packages to unlock strengthened commitments from others. A big global player will need to move first to show that the era of continually increasing climate ambition is under way. During the final COP26 plenary, European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans, who leads on the European Green Deal, said that “if the EU needs to do more, we will”. It is vital that those words are backed up over the coming months.
COP26 saw agreement on some building blocks that could help. Pledges to reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 from 2020 levels are welcome, although the lack of attention from governments to the cuts required in agriculture and especially livestock seriously undermines that effort. The EU could use its Common Agricultural Policy Strategic Plans to address this if member states choose to align them with climate objectives.
Perhaps most critical to strengthening the climate equity that must underpin enhanced ambition were the commitments made in Glasgow related to financial support. These included pledges by rich countries to double the provision of finance for adaptation and by the EU, Germany, France, the UK, and the United States to support a just transition from coal in South Africa. For all the media attention on the last-minute change in the Glasgow text from “phasing out” to “phasing down” coal, it is concrete financing packages such as this that will determine the speed and fairness of the world’s exit from coal power.
The EU and UK should start work immediately to broker similar partnerships with coal-dependent countries, and make good on the promised further increases in adaptation financing. For the EU, committing a share of the revenues from its proposed carbon border adjustment mechanism for international climate finance would help to further build trust. It could also set a precedent for any similar schemes that may be developed, whether in Canada or elsewhere.
Finally, none of the rich countries should be in any doubt after Glasgow that the developing nations are united in their demands and expectations that financing will be committed at COP27 for climate-related loss and damage. Sub-national actors in the UK and EU – Scotland and Wallonia – were lauded for putting the first public finance for loss and damage on the table in Glasgow. Now the UK and EU should follow their lead. A first step would be to formally respond to the proposal made at COP26 by the prime minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, to make use of special drawing rights, combined with an offer on debt relief. Addressing this deepest of climate inequities by COP27 will be essential to enabling stronger mitigation action around the world.
No COP agreement can deliver everything needed to fight the climate crisis, but the real test of the one brokered in Glasgow is still to come. The UK presidency, together with the EU, will need to be at the forefront over the next year if the 1.5C goal is to be kept alive.
Céline Charveriat is executive director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), and a Council Member of ECFR.
Tim Gore is head of the Climate and Circular Economy Programme at the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), and a member of the board of the Climate Action Network Europe.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.