COP26, a laborious return to the rails of the Paris Agreement

Olivier ABULI, advice and analyses consultant

November 14, 2021

All the conditions seemed to be in place for COP26 to result in a global "new deal" to limit global warming to a level close to 1.5°C: the return of the United States as a signatory of the 2016 treaty at the beginning of the year; then a succession of strong international focuses on climate issues from the summer onwards (presentation of the EU's "Fit for 55" package, summary prior to the IPCC's 6th report, final declaration of the G20 summit in Rome)

Bringing together 40,000 accredited people, announced as "the last hope to limit global warming to +1.5°C" by its President, the Glasgow COP has thus catalyzed very high expectations. An enthusiasm that diminished with each passing day. This enthusiasm waned as the days went by, leading to the publication of an open letter from 200 climate scientists denouncing the trajectory of the COP on November 11, and an exodus of delegates joining the street demonstrations the following day.

At the heart of the disappointment and confusion that prevailed in the final hours of the conference: a financial tug-of-war between the countries most affected by global warming and the industrial powers, commitments considered insufficient because they were not binding, and the announcement of carbon neutrality horizons after 2050 by several large emitters.

These episodes will certainly leave a feeling of unfinished business and a mixed record. Of course, officials and pragmatists will remember the confirmation of the objectives and trajectories of the Paris Agreement. But skeptics point out that the future is still well above 2°C, even with the advances made in Glasgow.

Could it really be otherwise at the end of a new five-year cycle of near inertia marked by a global pandemic?

Main themes and advances of COP26

Equity and aid mechanism for emerging countries affected by global warming
On the eve of the Conference, the G20 Rome Declaration reaffirmed the commitment of the countries concerned to mobilize 100 billion dollars per year from 2020 to 2025 to meet the needs of developing countries facing the effects of climate change. The return of the United States to the Paris Agreement seemed to guarantee that the 20 billion missing since the first deadline would be made up. However, it is this point that caused the main tensions delaying the adoption of the COP's closing declaration.
Disgruntled by a partially kept promise, a hundred or so countries called for the establishment of a more robust "loss and damage" mechanism. Fearing potential legal consequences, the United States and several of its partners vigorously opposed it.

Ending the sale of new combustion-powered cars and light trucks
Several major manufacturers, countries, local authorities and mobility fleet owners have announced that they will end the sale of light-duty combustion vehicles by 2035 in major markets and 2040 in the rest of the world. Unlike the process initiated by the European Union, this declaration is not legally binding.

Energy transition and recourse to nuclear power
Faced with the growing need for electricity generated by decarbonization (travel, heating of buildings), the question of nuclear energy was for the first time addressed in a dispassionate manner at a COP. It was a question of risk management, substitution for coal, preservation of the existing reactor fleet, and a new generation of small units.

Reducing the use of coal
Although extremely polluting, coal still represents more than 35% of the world's electricity production. Its abandonment in the medium term is inseparable from the achievement of climate objectives. In the first week of COP26, some 40 countries committed to replacing coal with clean energy by 2030. But for the time being, the main producers and consumers of coal (China, United States, Australia, India...) have not joined this declaration.
It is in fact the term "accelerate efforts towards" the exit from coal that was finally imposed in the text of the closing declaration.

Agreement on methane
Methane is 30 times more warming than CO2, but it also has a much shorter lifetime in the atmosphere. A significant reduction of its emissions could allow to gain some precious fractions of degrees to the strategies of limitation of the global warming.
More than 100 countries signed an agreement in Glasgow to reduce emissions by 30% over 10 years. The initiative focuses on the energy and waste sectors, excluding at this stage the field of livestock farming, which accounts for a quarter of emissions.

Fight against deforestation
This was the first concrete announcement of the 2021 Conference: the signing of an agreement to preserve forests by more than 100 countries that are home to 85% of the world's forest area. Supported by 10 billion in international public funds, it was undeniably a positive signal.
The challenge now is to provide these commitments with an effective monitoring framework: similar objectives agreed in 2014 have remained unfulfilled. This is the case in Brazil, where deforestation caused by illegal activities and fires has not decreased in the last ten years.

The outcome of this COP26 will only be known in a year's time, when the plans and timetables that countries will produce to support their commitments will be tested. This exercise is essential to restore the credibility of the States with their partners, populations, economic agents and NGOs.
To date, only Europe has been able to establish these frameworks and the appropriate conditions for accelerating the pace of transitions.