COP26?- Success or Failure?

COP26 has been the focal point of discussion amongst the media and citizens of different countries around the world. The COP26 started a day early this year on the 31st of October. The Conference of Parties 26 was held in Glasgow this year. This article details everything you need to know about COP26- seeking to enforce global response to the climate emergency. 

What is COP26? 

 Over the last 3 decades, world governments have met nearly every year to forge a global response to the climate emergency. Under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC),every country on Earth is treaty-bound to “avoid dangerous climate change”, and find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally in an equitable way. The Conference of Parties (under the UNFCCC), has resulted in the formation of the Paris Agreement in 2015 which could be considered as an occasional triumph. The conference meetings have also witnessed moments of high drama amongst the environment ministers and leaders of different countries. This year (2021) was the year of its 26th iteration. This was supposed to be held in Glasgow last year, but was postponed to this year on account of the havoc that Covid-19 caused, worldwide. 

When did COP26 take place? 

 COP26 started on 31st October, 2021 and continued for 2 weeks till 12th November, 2021. Around 25,000 people were at the conference. More than 120 world leaders attended (for the first few days) and the negotiations were left to the environmental ministers and other senior officials of the different countries, attending the conference. 

Why did we need COP26? 

 In accordance with the landmark Paris Agreement (2015), nations committed to hold global temperature rises to ‘well below’ 2 degrees C- above pre-industrial levels, while pursuing efforts to limit heating to 1.5 degrees C. These set goals are legally binding and held in high regard, in the treaty. 

In order to achieve these targets, countries have also set non-binding national goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the near term (by 2030 in most cases). These targets resulted in being inadequate. On account of this, it was decided that countries would have to return to the table every five years to discuss and decide on new commitments.

We know that emissions from the use of fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil are increasing the temperature of the Earth. The last decade was the warmest on record and governments agree that urgent action is required from all countries as a collective. These emissions have also led to various climate change related incidents like- heat waves, forest fires and floods around the world. 

The end goal of the Conference of Parties is to achieve Net Zero Carbon by 2050 and pave the way for sustainable and eco-friendly living. 

What happened during COP26? 

 Leaders and environmental ministers of many countries promised to hold their end of the climate action pact by creating new ambitious targets to reduce emissions by 2030. The pact lays great focus on developed countries to increase the money they give to those countries most affected by climate change (beyond the $100 billion target). 

The agreement will aid in the phasing out of “inefficient subsidies” for fossil fuels and will set the global agenda on climate change for the next decade. 

 The USA and China cooperate with the climate change initiatives. 

 The US and China cooperation was the most surprising, yet paramount in achieving the climate change targets. The USA and China gave assurance that over the next decade, they will boost their climate cooperation. 

The agreement laid out targets to cut methane emissions, transition to cleaner energy sources and henceforth aid in the decarbonization of the countries. 

Greenpeace international and other independent climate action organizations welcomed the joint declaration, although the US and China have been warned they would need to set stricter goals and show a greater commitment to reach the agreed climate goals. 

The US and China agreed to recall their firm commitment to achieve the 1.5 degrees C temperature goal (which was previously set out in the Paris Agreement 2015). USA and China are 2 of the biggest emitters in the world, and their co-operation could expedite the net zero carbon targets. Although previously, China has been reluctant to tackle its coal emissions and haven’t agreed to ‘shift away from coal’ in this COP26. 

Trees

Over 100 countries (representing 85% of the world’s forests) agreed to stop deforestation by 2030. 

Trees and forests absorb carbon and also reduce the average temperature of cities. They also prevent flooding and reduce pollution. Focus must not only be laid on stopping deforestation but also planting more trees. This will aid in making our climate change goals more achievable.

In comparison to previous deforestation initiatives, this initiative is better funded. Although, there is little clarity on how this would be monitored. 

Methane

During COP26, schemes were put in place to cut 30% of the current methane emissions. This was agreed by over 100 countries. 

Methane when produced from non-fossil fuel sources like food and green waste could quite literally absorb the carbon out of the air. However, when methane is produced from burning fossil fuels, it traps heat in the atmosphere. This increases the average temperature of the Earth and is a major contributor to climate change. Over a 100-year period, methane is 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the earth. Over 20 years, that comparison jumps to approximately 80 times.

China, Russia and India haven’t joined the agreed schemes to cut methane emissions, but it is hoped they will soon conform. 

Coal

More than 40 countries including Poland, Chile and Vietnam agreed to shift away from coal, to cleaner energy sources. A few countries like the UK have already announced the ban of house coal and the phasing out of loose coal by 2023.

There are numerous damaging environmental impacts of coal that occur through its mining, preparation, combustion, waste storage, and transport. When burnt, it releases more carbon dioxide than oil or gas, so it’s a big problem when it comes to climate change. Coal also produces toxic elements like mercury and arsenic, and small particles of soot which contribute to air pollution.

Although over 40 countries were in agreement to shift away from coal; the world’s most coal-dependent countries- Australia, India, China and the US haven’t signed up to this scheme. 

Funding

Private companies pledged financing green technologies in order to meet the Net Zero Carbon target (although this is not binding by law). Over 450 financial organizations agreed to back ‘clean’ technology like renewable and sustainable energy.

During COP26, organizations pledged directing finance away from industries using/burning fossil fuels; there are no definitive net zero carbon targets laid out. With these targets not set in stone, the initiative of increasing funding for cleaner fuel sources and green technologies could be futile. 

Will the countries actually meet their targets and fulfil their promises? 

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “We have made progress on the three objectives we set at the start of COP26: First, to get commitments to cut emissions to keep within reach the global warming limit of 1.5 degrees. Second, to reach the target of 100 billion dollars per year of climate finance to developing and vulnerable countries. And third, to get agreement on the Paris rulebook. This gives us confidence that we can provide a safe and prosperous space for humanity on this planet. But there will be no time to relax: there is still hard work ahead.” 

Only a few countries have actually made their commitments and pledges legally binding. For the rest, any promises and agreements will have to be self-policed. 

Rich nations once again resisted acknowledging financial liability for their years of emissions that drove climate change as they rose to economic prosperity.

While the Glasgow agreement laid out a pathway for addressing the issue by establishing a new secretariat dedicated to the issue, vulnerable countries said that represented a bare minimum of acceptability.

“This package is not perfect. The coal change and a weak outcome on loss and damage are blows,” said Tina Stee, climate envoy from the Marshall Islands. Still, “elements of the Glasgow Package are a lifeline for my country. We must not discount the crucial wins covered in this package.”

Is the UK doing enough for climate change? 

 The UK Govt. have announced the ban of gas boilers in all new homes by 2025. This scheme also goes as far as phasing out the use of gas boilers completely by 2035. 

Although the UK is still reliant on fossil fuels to generate electricity, domestic heating (like oil/gas heating) emits twice as much CO2 as all power stations. A lot of UK consumers are turning to Solar PV and battery storage to live sustainably and cut energy costs. 

Although research and testing is currently being conducted on the viability of hydrogen boilers for domestic heating, the UK energy minister- Lord Callanan does not have a lot of faith in the project.

Unlike hydrogen, electricity has proven to be a viable, safer and more efficient form of domestic heating as compared to hydrogen.

In order to phase-out the use of fossil fuels for electricity generation, the appropriate infrastructure needs to be set up. If this process is expedited, the UK could reach their net zero carbon target before 2050.