The COP26 summit will need to work towards four key outcomes: increased finance for climate action; more ambitious emissions reduction commitments; fiscal and policy framework for strengthening climate change adaptation efforts and addressing loss and damage; and enhancing international collaboration on energy transition, clean road transport, and nature, especially in relation to technology
This piece is part of the essay series, Towards a Low-Carbon and Climate-Resilient World: Expectations from COP26
At the United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, world leaders have the opportunity to shape an ambitious and collective climate action. Will the wealthy nations that reaped the benefits of industrialisation by burning fossil fuels and growing their economies for centuries, own up to the damage and lead efforts to correct it? While recognising that the only way forward is through radical and far-reaching changes to the way we live, the discussions at COP26 must go beyond the technical effort to cut global emissions and address social inequalities and the security of those who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, there is growing public demand for climate action and to align economic recovery with long-term sustainability and climate goals. Some countries—such as Germany, UK, France, Italy, Poland, and Spain—have implemented policy responses. There is a clear emphasis on resilience, development and adaptation to climate effects; averting further impacts by curtailing fossil fuel use; and conserving biodiversity hotspots and making room for more thorough reforestation. Given the renewed interest in collective action, COP26 offers a unique opportunity to enhance these ambitions and reiterate the global commitment to combat climate change.
There is a clear emphasis on resilience, development and adaptation to climate effects; averting further impacts by curtailing fossil fuel use; and conserving biodiversity hotspots and making room for more thorough reforestation.
Indeed, COP26 will be one of the most significant global conferences in the pandemic era. It brings together leaders from 197 countries, who are tasked to discuss collective action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The conference also marks six years since the landmark climate change treaty at COP21 in Paris, where countries had pledged to keep global warming well below 2°C. COP26 will assess the progress made by countries so far, and create a roadmap towards the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C. The conference also comes just months after the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which warns, that global warming is happening at a rate faster than previously thought. Stating unequivocally that human actions are causing global warming, the IPCC report noted that some of the damage caused by climate change may already be irreversible. It would therefore not be an overstatement to say that expectations from COP26 are far higher than in the predecessor meetings. After all, the previous edition held in Madrid, for example, achieved little as countries failed to reach consensus in many areas of the Paris Agreement.
The COP26 summit will need to work towards four key outcomes: increased finance for climate action; more ambitious emissions reduction commitments; fiscal and policy framework for strengthening climate change adaptation efforts and addressing loss and damage; and enhancing international collaboration on energy transition, clean road transport, and nature, especially in relation to technology. While these goals are significant, the roadmap towards achieving them will determine how effectively the international community can shift the scale on climate change.
Poor countries are unable to afford the cost of low-carbon and climate-resilient development while being extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. To offset this, rich countries pledged to deliver US$100 billion annually to help poorer countries adapt to this transition. However, this promise has yet to materialise. There seems to be little clarity on how developed countries will deliver on their commitments to scale up finance to US$100 billion and beyond in the years to come. Worryingly, some of the finance issued is in the form of repayable loans, rather than grants—meaning that developing nations will have to pay them back at some point. This is going to be a contentious issue in the COP26 negotiations. There are also serious questions that remain on the matter of fixing responsibility in case financial targets are not met.
So far, public finance for climate action is showing little progress and there are palpable signs of distrust. This makes financing negotiations at COP26 extremely challenging. The discussions on a new collective finance target that begins at COP26 must be agreed upon before 2025 and should aim to go well beyond the US$100-billion commitment. The outcome of these negotiations must take into consideration the needs of developing and vulnerable countries for adaptation, loss and damage, and mitigation. It is vital that developed countries give clear indications on how they will set up their funding and look at restoring trust by increasing the number of pledges and replenishing the funds of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s financial mechanisms (such as the Green Climate Fund, Adaptation Fund, and the Least Developed Countries Fund). As economies rebuild after COVID-19, compulsions to address national concerns will be high but the commitment to global climate action will need to be maintained.
There seems to be little clarity on how developed countries will deliver on their commitments to scale up finance to US$100 billion and beyond in the years to come.
The aim of the Paris Agreement is to strengthen the global response to climate change by keeping the temperature rise to less than 2°C, and preferably at around 1.5°C. If global warming is to be limited to between 1.5°C and 2°C by 2100, global emissions must peak before 2025 and then decline rapidly to near zero. To meet these ambitious goals, enhanced capacity building and resource mobilisation needs to be put in place to support nationally appropriate decarbonisation efforts such as moving away from non-renewable energy sources and deploying clean technologies. Countries must support the decarbonisation of urban infrastructure and the transportation sector.
One of the goals for COP26 is for the developed world to give up its coal habit entirely by 2030, and the developing world, by 2040. However, this is an unrealistic target for countries like India that depend primarily on coal for their energy needs. India’s reliance on coal is linked to its imperative of becoming a self-sufficient nation; a rapid transition away from coal at this stage is unlikely to be palatable to political constituencies across the country.
Developed countries need to reach net-negative emissions and front-load their decarbonisation efforts to allow some global carbon budget for emerging nations, such as India, as they move into a low-carbon development pathway. The financial commitments from developed countries will certainly help developing nations make the transition away from fossil fuels. A meeting on 26 July 2021 in London between 50 countries ended without any agreement on the end of coal use, the absence of which will create a hurdle in achieving the target of limiting global heating to 1.5°C. Another attempt failed just days prior (on 23 July) in Naples, Italy, when G20 ministers were unable to agree on the phasing out of coal power. India, China, and Russia—countries with high coal consumption—were among those who opposed the G20 commitment to phase out coal.
Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in September, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged that Beijing will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad. This was touted as a landmark decision that raised hopes for reduced dependence on coal; the question is whether China can fulfill the rhetoric. The country accounts for nearly 30 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, with much of it coming from coal use. Despite its plan to become carbon neutral before 2060, its domestic dependence on coal continues to rise, and it is building new coal-fired power stations in more than 60 locations in the country. Its coal consumption will likely grow till 2025 and will begin to go down only from 2026.
One of the goals for COP26 is for the developed world to give up its coal habit entirely by 2030, and the developing world, by 2040. However, this is an unrealistic target for countries like India that depend primarily on coal for their energy needs.
Although the roadmap to reduced domestic coal consumption is unclear, China’s target of becoming carbon neutral by 2060 will put pressure on India to define its own timelines for emission cuts. India’s dependence on coal as the primary domestic fossil energy resource, and having far less domestic reserves for oil and gas as compared to China, will mean that the roadmap towards abandoning coal is going to be more challenging and will justify setting deadlines beyond 2060. While transitioning away from coal remains a challenge, India must also evaluate a reasonable net-zero pathway, and while setting a binding deadline will be challenging, a clear articulation of short-, medium- and long-term measures towards this will be critical.
One of the most successful outcomes of the Paris Agreement was that it created a framework for global goals on adaptation efforts. By keeping climate adaptation on par with mitigation efforts, it has strengthened calls for national adaptation measures through support and international cooperation. Adaptation efforts by developing countries can be recognised and supported through various capacity-building and support programmes financed by developed nations.
The latest IPCC report painted a bleak image of the irreversible damage that has already been caused by climate change. Even if the world manages to limit global warming to 1.5°C, there will still be some long-term impacts, some of which are seen in extreme weather events such as excessive rains, cyclones, and storms. The rise in sea levels, the melting of Arctic ice, and warming and acidification of the oceans are affecting small island nations and poor countries significantly. In addition to the adaptation efforts that need to be ramped up in vulnerable areas, there must also be an effective mechanism to address loss and damage due to climate change.
A key outcome at COP25 was the establishment of the Santiago Network on Loss and Damage to spur the technical assistance that countries need to cope with unavoidable and irreversible climate damages. Developing countries are now calling for the network’s effective operationalisation so it can provide climate-vulnerable countries with approaches to respond to loss and damage from climate impacts, and explore ways to implement the recommendations of the Task Force on Displacement that was created under the Paris Agreement. Further, as the operationalisation of the Santiago Network on Loss and Damage is discussed, it must incorporate a streamlined approach for funding of loss and damage.
The transition to clean energy and decarbonising the key sectors of energy, transportation, and infrastructure needs collaboration at an unprecedented scale. These collaborations can be explored through the sharing of knowledge and technology, supporting programmes in developing countries through sharing best practices and resources, and adopting technological solutions.
Reducing Emissions from Transport Sector: The mission of COP26 is to address emissions from the road transport sector, which currently accounts for nearly 10 percent of global emissions and are rising faster than those of other sectors. To achieve the targets set by the Paris Agreement, decarbonisation policies will have to reflect passenger cars transitioning to electric vehicles for new sales by the early 2030s, which will lead to the deep decarbonisation of the sector by 2050. The conversation at COP26 must include not only cars, but also vans, trucks and lorries. This shift to zero emission is expected to create new jobs, bring cleaner air to cities, and decrease the costs of car ownership in the long run. This, however, will be easier for developed countries while developing nations struggle to make the transition. It is important that the summit focuses on discussions that allow for this shift towards zero-emission vehicles to be truly global, leaving no country behind.
Developing countries are now calling for the network’s effective operationalisation so it can provide climate-vulnerable countries with approaches to respond to loss and damage from climate impacts, and explore ways to implement the recommendations of the Task Force on Displacement that was created under the Paris Agreement.
This transition cannot be facilitated solely by technological solutions. There is a need to address a much deeper human behavioral change which can only be realised by incentivising the right choices that will ensure a quicker path to a low-carbon future. This scale of change needs a concerted effort from various sectors—government, manufacturers, businesses, and civil society. The creation of the Zero Emission Vehicle Transition Council, which includes countries with the largest and most progressive car markets, has spurred the pace of the global transition to zero-emission vehicles.
Nature-based solutions not a panacea but a way forward: There are extensive debates on how nature (forest, agriculture, and ecosystems) can become effective solutions for absorbing atmospheric carbon and offsetting carbon emissions. Increasingly, the term ‘nature-based solutions’ (NBS) is becoming more common in climate debates, and COP26 will start discussions on how to integrate NBS into the Paris implementation strategy. While recognising links between biodiversity loss and climate change, a push towards increasing forest cover in each country must take priority in the negotiations. COP26 talks must emphasise on actions that can make positive contributions towards stopping soil degradation, restoring carbon- (and species-) rich ecosystems, increasing agriculture and forestry practices, and eliminating subsidies that encourage activities harmful to biodiversity. This is perhaps the one area where there will be the most agreement and understanding among the participating countries. Furthermore, a few selective Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs)—which involve solutions using natural processes such as afforestation and reforestation, land management to increase and fix carbon in soils, and bioenergy production with carbon capture and storage—could be evaluated and scaled up to offset carbon emissions. However, for the wider development and adoption of NETs, appropriate institutional mechanisms at a local and global scale are essential.
COP26 is an opportunity to secure a better future for all. It is time for the developed nations to lead the most ambitious plan towards a resilient world that will not condemn the most vulnerable countries and communities to a dangerous future. This will require action plans that are bold and ambitious, along with solidarity among all countries and a willingness to share resources.
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Vikrom Mathur is Senior Fellow at ORF. Vikrom curates research at ORF’s Centre for New Economic Diplomacy (CNED). He also guides and mentors researchers at CNED. ...Read More +