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As the first week of Cop26 draws to a close, there has been plenty of rhetoric and a slew of announcements on climate action – but much of the hard work still needs to be done.
The world leaders’ summit, attended by around 120 heads of state and government, kicked off with a series of stark speeches warning of the need for urgent action – with the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres telling delegates “we are digging our own graves”.
Then the world leaders got their turn at the podium to announce their domestic climate action, with India’s announcement of a later-than-others 2070 target to hit “net zero” but with efforts to cut emissions and boost renewables up to 2030 one of the most notable.
There were also a series of sector-based announcements with countries signing up to commitments on protecting and restoring forests, phasing out coal power, driving green investment, and cutting methane.
US special presidential envoy for climate, and veteran of the UN climate process, John Kerry said: “I have never, in the first days of any of the Cops I’ve been to, counted as many initiatives, as much real money being put on the table”.
The International Energy Agency said that if everything on the table was delivered it could curb temperatures to 1.8C – within the range of 1.5C to “well below” 2C that countries have signed up to under the Paris Agreement to avoid dangerous warming.
These initiatives are aligned with the 1.5C pathway, they're in the right ambition range, but they need to be delivered
Nick Mabey, E3G
Nick Mabey, chief executive of climate think tank E3G, said Cop26 had overperformed in terms of the level of support for concrete announcements.
“The biggest thing is these initiatives are aligned with the 1.5C pathway, they’re in the right ambition range, but they need to be delivered,” he said.
He said that among the most significant announcements were a pledge by more than 20 countries to end international fossil fuel funding from 2022, shifting 18 billion US dollars (£13bn) to cleaner energy and finance deals to support countries including South Africa and Indonesia to move from coal.
And he said that it appeared that world leaders were getting the scale of what needs to be done, but now the question was how it translated into the negotiated outcome of the talks.
Coming into the talks it was widely recognised that the action countries had committed to in their national plans – or nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – left the world far off track to meet globally agreed temperature limits under the Paris climate deal.
So the negotiated text needs to address how countries will close the gap between ambition and action required up to 2030, with the most vulnerable countries calling for nations to revisit their action annually, and Mr Kerry saying he wants to see it done as often as possible.
An updated assessment published on Thursday of countries’ national plans for climate action up to 2030 shows the mountain that still needs to be climbed.
The analysis including 14 new, updated or more detailed plans, including from Saudi Arabia, Australia, China and Brazil submitted to the UN in the past 10 days, shows emissions are set to be 13.7% above 2010 levels with the new efforts, down fractionally from the 16% in the previous update.
But it is still far off track from the 45% cut in pollution by the end of this decade that scientists say is necessary to prevent warming of more than 1.5C which will bring increasingly severe storms, floods, droughts, fires and rising seas.
Mohamed Adow, director of Nairobi-based African climate and energy think tank Powershift Africa, warned that if countries were serious about the announcements made in recent days they must include them in revised and enhanced NDCs.
“There’s no point having an announcement which isn’t open to scrutiny, which isn’t binding, that you can’t be held accountable for,” he said.
Delivering on finance for poorer countries to develop cleanly and cope with climate impacts is a key part of the talks, but in the run-up to the summit it was revealed rich nations would not mobilise the long-promised 100 billion dollars a year until 2023 – three years late.
During the week, Mr Kerry has said that moves by Japan to increase its financial contributions means the goal will now be achieved in 2022.
But there are still issues of future finance, how much goes to helping developing countries adapt to the changing climate and the issue of “loss and damage” – paying for destruction that already cannot be avoided.
And while the focus has been on the world leaders and the announcements, negotiations continue on sorting out outstanding issues about how bits of the Paris Agreement are going to work.
Although there have been positive steps inside the conference halls, the first week of the talks has been marred by accusations Cop26 is not inclusive or accessible, with queues, room limits and even problems with disabled access.
That comes on top of questions of how difficult it has been for people from some of the world’s most climate vulnerable countries to attend in the middle of a pandemic.
Mr Adow, who has attended UN climate conferences since Copenhagen in 2009, said: “Infrastructure wise, this is the worst Cop ever, in my view, and in terms of inclusion, this is the most exclusionary Cop I have ever seen.”
Out on the streets, there have been protests and mass marches calling for climate action, with activist Greta Thunberg accusing Cop26 of being a “two week festival of business as usual and blah, blah, blah”.
The talks continue through next week, and while Cop26 President Alok Sharma has said he wants the conference to end on time on Friday evening, that seems unlikely with so much still to decide.