GLASGOW, Scotland — Negotiators from nearly every country on Earth reached an agreement Saturday evening at the United Nations Climate Change Conference to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming and to assist developing nations coping with the effects of rising temperatures.
The final agreement, which came following contentious negotiations over issues like ending fossil fuel subsidies, the creation of a crisis response fund for developing nations and the insistence that nations return in a year with steeper targets for emissions reductions, arrived more than 24 hours after the conference officially ended. But it did not go as far as many in the scientific community have said is necessary to keep the world from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius rise over preindustrial levels, which was the main goal of the conference itself.
What emerged from two weeks of meetings at COP26, as the conference is also known, was a series of compromises that left many of the representatives of nations already on the frontlines of climate change angered.
“We have 98 months to halve global emissions,” Aminath Shauna, environment minister of the Maldives, said as the final wording of the document was being hammered out on Saturday. “The difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees is a death sentence for us.”
But the deal reached goes further than any before it, in no small part because scientists have made clear that without a significant and sustained effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions, the world is poised to embark upon an era of catastrophic consequences. If the signatories all follow through on their promises and return in 2023 with even stronger emissions targets, it is still possible that mankind could spare itself the worst effects of climate change. For that reason, some nations sought to emphasize the positive aspects of the agreement.
“You can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” climate envoy John Kerry said of the agreement.
For the first time ever, a climate agreement includes language explicitly calling for the phaseout of a fossil fuel, coal. It also explicitly endorses the concept of “loss and damage,” meaning an expectation that rich countries like the U.S. and those comprising the European Union will provide some compensation for the damage wrought on poorer countries by climate change.
Still, environmental advocates and experts and representatives of some of the countries most vulnerable to climate change viewed the outcome as only partially successful because the national pledges made in concert with the conference will lead to an estimated 1.8 degrees Celsius of warming if they are all fulfilled. The U.N. had hoped for an agreement that would set the world on a path to staying below 1.5°C of warming, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends.
“The request to strengthen 2030 reduction targets by next year is an important step. The work starts now. Big emitters, especially rich countries, must heed the call and align their targets to give us the best possible chance of keeping 1.5 degrees within reach,” Gabriela Bucher, executive director of Oxfam International, said in a statement. “Despite years of talks, emissions continue to rise, and we are dangerously close to losing this race against time.”
Developing nations also continue to fret that their financial needs for adapting to climate change, recouping losses from the damage it causes and investing in a more sustainable approach to economic growth remain less than fully met.
Activists also complained that the text included no mention of eliminating oil and gas usage, and said that the loss and damage language lacked specifics.
“Developing countries, representing over 6 billion people, put forward a loss and damage finance facility to build back in the aftermath of extreme weather events linked to climate change,” Bucher said. “Not only did rich countries block this, all they would agree to is limited funding for technical assistance and a ‘dialogue.’ This derisory outcome is tone deaf to the suffering of millions of people both now and in the future.”
The progress made at the Glasgow conference, however, builds on its predecessor, the Paris Agreement, which was signed in 2015. After Paris, the world was on course for an estimated 2.7°C of warming by 2100 if all countries lived up to their commitments made there, and 3.6°C of warming based on the actual policies in place at the time.
Now, projected warming is 1.8°C if each country keeps its promises, and 2.7°C if nations stick with their policies currently in place. While both figures, especially the higher one, distress climate scientists, the world still has some hope of averting catastrophic climate change if further actions are taken at future COPs in the next few years. (COP stands for Conference of the Parties, as each annual meeting is a conference of parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.)
President Biden made a successful outcome in Glasgow a core goal of his first year in office. He immediately rejoined the Paris agreement upon his inauguration and appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry as the first-ever presidential envoy for climate.
Leading up to COP26, Biden increased significantly the size of American pledges to reduce its emissions and to contribute to financing climate action in developing countries. During the conference, the United States joined agreements between dozens of nations to take actions such as ending the financing of coal power plants abroad and reducing emissions from sectors such as shipping and aviation.
Kerry was everywhere in Glasgow, at multiple events daily and meeting privately with counterparts from other nations. His diplomatic efforts paid off when, on Wednesday, he made a joint announcement with China that the two countries would work together to reduce emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that is especially damaging in the short-term, and to phase down the use of coal. Of that agreement, Kerry offered an optimistic assessment.
“Even in a world where there [is] conflict and competition, and differences between nations, that this issue can bring people together in an effort to reach above those and to find a way forward,” he said.
Members of the Biden administration were a constant presence in Glasgow: nearly half of the Cabinet visited. Large delegations from both the House and Senate — overwhelmingly Democrats, but including a few Republicans — also made appearances.
While the specter of former President Donald Trump, who had withdrawn the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, loomed over American efforts to promote cooperation on climate change, it seemed that the global community was eventually able to move beyond it.
Glasgow was the site of numerous demonstrations during COP26, many of them led by young people. Protesters often alleged the event and the government officials participating in it were too cozy with fossil fuel interests. But within the halls of the Scottish Exhibition Center, the insiders seemed to welcome the pressure from outside. Former President Barack Obama, in an official address to the conference, took much of his time to encourage young climate activists to continue their work, albeit with a pragmatic and open-minded approach.
But if Glasgow participants made progress in the fight against climate change, for many it was inadequate enough to be judged at least a partial failure. Climate policy experts note that the midcentury targets of reaching net-zero emissions are implausible if nations actually stick with their current plans to allow global emissions to actually rise in this decade, because transitioning economies entirely away from fossil fuels is a decades-long project.
While much of the work of dramatically slowing the pace of temperature rise will be pushed off to future conferences, COP26 did result in notable accomplishments as well as compromises.
“In a year marked by uncertainty and mistrust, COP26 affirmed the importance of collective global action to address the climate crisis,” Ani Dasgupta, president and CEO, World Resources Institute, said in a statement. “While we are not yet on track, the progress made over the last year and at the COP26 summit offers a strong foundation to build upon. The real test now is whether countries accelerate their efforts and translate their commitments into action."
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