Cop26 summit keeps 1.5C temperature goal alive – for now

·4-min read
(PA) (PA Wire)
(PA) (PA Wire)

As exhausted delegates made their way from the sprawling Cop26 conference venue on Saturday night, there were mixed emotions about what it had achieved.

Glasgow had been billed as the last, best chance to keep the goal of limiting temperature rises to 1.5C within reach – and avoid the worst impacts of climate extremes – and the moment to deliver on the Paris Agreement.

That deal, secured on a December night in 2015, committed the world to curbing global warming to “well below” 2C and to pursue efforts to limit temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

But when leaders arrived in Glasgow six years later, the world was clearly well off track to meet the goal, based on the pledges countries had made under the agreement, and instead was facing warming of at least 2.4C.

At the same time, the warnings over climate change had become ever louder, with UN scientists highlighting the dangers of going above 1.5C, in what was described as a “code red” for humanity earlier this summer.

Despite insisting the Cop26 presidency was not trying to renegotiate the Paris Agreement, UK officials have been clear they wanted to push for ambition that kept the 1.5C goal within reach.

And the world leaders summit at the beginning of the two-week talks gave the highest profile stage to climate vulnerable countries, including Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley who warned that failing to act urgently on climate change would be a “death sentence” for people in island nations like hers.

So the pressure was on negotiators to secure more action in the “critical decade” up to 2030 when emissions must nearly halve to meet the 1.5C goal.

In addition to the uphill task of getting countries to come back with more ambitious action up to 2030, the Cop26 summit faced huge logistical challenges as a result of the pandemic – which had delayed the summit by a year.

Organisers faced accusations of a lack of access, transparency and inclusion as delegates struggled to get through quarantine measures on their way to Cop26, and into rooms where negotiations were taking place at the summit due to social distancing and capacity limits.

It did not add to a positive atmosphere around the conference, which also faced accusations from activists outside that it was full of greenwash and – in Greta Thunberg’s words that were widely taken up – “blah blah blah”.

Still, the first draft of the “cover decision”, the overarching agreement that became the Glasgow Pact on the final day of the talks, contained provision to get countries to come back by the end of 2022 with strengthened plans for action up to 2030.

It also included unprecedented language on phasing out coal power and fossil fuel subsidies that was not expected to survive later drafts, but was still in the final pact – albeit in a watered down form – sending a signal on the end of the coal era.

In a flurry of announcements alongside negotiations, countries and businesses committed to a range of initiatives from cutting methane emissions to curbing oil and gas exploration, protecting forests and shifting from coal to clean power.

The announcements, outside the main negotiations, only had a limited impact on actually reducing emissions – with analysis showing they closed the gap between pledged action and what is needed by 2030 by only 9%.

But their greater significance is the potential message they send to the private sector about the direction of travel.

The negotiations also secured moves on finance, adaptation and loss and damage for developing countries, but developed nations missed their promise to deliver 100 billion a year for poorer countries to cope with the crisis, and there was disappointment about the scale of the action achieved.

Key parts of the Paris Agreement were finalised after six years of negotiations, helping make the deal operational and effective.

The general sense from campaigners and senior figures around the talks was that the Glasgow Pact and the decisions surrounding it, is that the 1.5C goal is still alive but only just, and its fate is still uncertain.

With countries now expected to come back by the end of next year with new 2030 targets and long term plans for cutting emissions to net zero, 2022 will be crucial to see if 1.5C pulls through – and all the while the clock is ticking for the planet.

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