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STAYIN' ALIVE

After COP26, climate goals are on life support

COP26 President Alok Sharma gestures as he receives applause during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland.
Reuters/Yves Herman
COP26 president Alok Sharma oversaw the completion of a climate agreement that didn't satisfy everyone but made progress on many key issues.
  • Tim McDonnell
By Tim McDonnell

Climate reporter

Published

COP26 had one job: To keep 1.5 degrees Celsius, the global warming limit prescribed by the Paris Agreement, alive. After two weeks of frantic negotiations and a bewildering blizzard of carbon-cutting commitments, 1.5 still has a pulse. But it’s on life support.

“1.5 is still alive if we don’t rest on our laurels and see how things go,” Nigel Topping, a veteran climate economist tasked with drumming up private sector action during the COP, said in an interview on the summit’s last day.

What COP26 achieved on climate change

By the time the gavel fell at 8:07pm GMT on Nov. 13, COP26 had yielded a number of noteworthy achievements, including the first-ever (albeit watered-down) mention of fossil fuels in a UN climate agreement, India’s first commitment to reach net-zero emissions (by 2070), and an agreement by all governments to accelerate their deadline to publish more ambitious climate goals. Delegates also finally agreed on rules for a new global carbon market that completely ban the double-counting of carbon credits, an accounting loophole that had been sought by Brazil and was on the table until the last few minutes.

Overall, if countries follow through on their current commitments (admittedly a gigantic “if”), temperature rise by 2100 could be limited to 1.9°C, according to Carbon Brief. Based on existing policies, a more likely outlook is around 2.4°C. The best proof climate diplomacy is working is that before the 2015 Paris Agreement, the projection was as high as 3.7°C, a truly nightmarish future that’s now very unlikely. But now the lowest-hanging fruits for carbon abatement are plucked—bending the curve all the way to 1.5°C will be much harder.

How to make climate goals a reality

For that to happen, countries will need to ratchet up their commitments every year. Governments, the media, and civil society groups especially need to hold the private sector accountable for its net-zero commitments, and demand a climate action plan from every company. And rich countries need to finally follow through on their long-neglected promise to provide funding for clean energy and climate impact adaptation in poor countries—a promise so neglected in Glasgow that the failure was condemned in the formal agreement. The Glasgow agreement also left the issue of loss and damage—payments from rich countries for impacts that are too severe to adapt to, which was a key demand of developing country delegates—almost entirely unfunded, and with little clarity on how to proceed.

Scientific uncertainty about the atmosphere’s exact sensitivity to greenhouse gases leaves open the possibility that 1.5 may already be in a coma. But mounting public pressure—fueled by the deepening climate crisis itself—could wake it up.

“1.5 stretches credibility,” said William Pizer, a former US climate negotiator and current vice president for policy engagement at Resources for the Future, a think tank. “But 2 C is really possible, and just a few years ago it really wasn’t.”

An earlier version of this post said COP26 ended Nov. 14. It ended Nov. 13. 

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