Sam Hall is Director of the Conservative Environment Network
After months of media build-up and political focus, COP26 concluded on Saturday with the Glasgow Climate Pact.
The stakes were high, as were expectations. Having agreed high-level goals and a framework for international climate action in Paris six years ago, the Glasgow COP was about action and delivery. But while climate change was never going to be solved at this one conference, the government can justifiably claim that serious, tangible progress has been made on each of their main goals.
Keeping 1.5 degrees alive
Countries were asked to come to this COP with strengthened national commitments to get the world on track for 1.5 degrees – the goal agreed in Paris. Many nations have been publishing new climate plans for well over a year, including, at COP26, India, which committed to getting half its energy from renewable sources by 2030 and reaching net zero emissions by 2070.
As a result of these new commitments, experts believe that we are now on track for between 1.8 and 2.4 degrees’ warming, depending on how effectively countries turn targets into concrete policy. This shows a significant improvement since the UK’s diplomatic efforts began in 2019, when the UN estimated that we were heading for over three degrees’ warming by the end of the century.
Going into Glasgow, the amount by which national pledges would need to have increased was so significant that it was impossible that the gap to 1.5 degrees would be closed completely. China’s refusal to strengthen its 2030 goal of peaking emissions in particular has been a major barrier.
The parts of the final text acknowledging that action this decade needs to be accelerated and committing to reviewing national commitments next year at COP27 are critical, and the UK deserves great credit for leading agreement on this.
Coal and cars
There has been good progress too on the Prime Minister’s ambitions of ending coal power and the sale of new combustion engines, although these were always going to be difficult areas to achieve complete consensus on.
On coal power, a number of Asian economies, including Vietnam and Indonesia, committed for the first time to stop building new coal plants and phasing out their existing ones. Similarly, South Africa, another major coal polluter, agreed to move away from coal power in return for financial assistance for developing clean energy alternatives and supporting their coal mining communities through the transition.
Impressively, the UK presidency was successful in getting an historic agreement on phasing down unabated coal power in the final agreement, although the language was weakened by India and China at the last minute. Despite China ending its overseas financing of coal plants and India cancelling new coal projects domestically, both countries remain blockers of the global coal phase-out the climate urgently needs.
After COP, car manufacturers responsible for 31 per cent of global car sales have commitments to end petrol and diesel car sales, up from effectively zero at the start of 2021.
In both these areas, the ever improving economics of renewable energy projects and electric cars, which continue to fall in cost and improve in performance, will see the private sector increasingly drive progress rather than governments. New coal projects especially will struggle to attract private investment.
Probably the highlight of the COP has been the commitment by countries which are home to 85 per cent of the world’s forests, including Brazil, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. This was reinforced by agreements to provide almost £14 billion in finance to protect forests, to eliminate illegal deforestation in supply chains (which the UK has led the way with through the Environment Act), and to tackle the financing of illegal deforestation. Zac Goldsmith and Boris Johnson in particular deserve huge credit for securing this groundbreaking deal.
While wealthier nations have missed the 2020 deadline for delivering on their commitment to provide $100 billion a year in climate finance for developing countries, it is now believed that the target will be achieved by 2022 (a year earlier than expected), while the final agreement recommits that an average of $100 billion will be provided each year from 2020-2025.
The failure to follow through on this commitment, which was originally made in 2009, has undoubtedly had significant consequences, given the importance of climate finance to unlocking greater commitments from developing countries.
There’s been a welcome acknowledgement that future COPs will need to deliver much more climate finance beyond the $100 billion a year goal, and that private finance in particular will need to be scaled up. Just as we won’t deliver net zero at home just through state spending, the developing world won’t decarbonise and become more resilient to climate impacts without significantly more private capital.
It’s easy to be cynical about COPs and their impact, but this one has delivered measurable successes. With over 90 per cent of the world’s GDP now covered by net zero targets (up from 30 per cent in 2019) and financial institutions controlling over $130 trillion dollars’ worth of capital now having climate change commitments, the direction of travel has never been clearer and the momentum behind climate action, particularly from the private sector, has never been greater.
Follow-through will be critical to Glasgow’s legacy. Pledges must be translated into policies and actions. Countries must honour and be held accountable for their commitments. And the private sector must not meet their targets through greenwashing.
While there’s no doubt that we’re closer to a greener, cleaner, safer planet after Glasgow, the real success of COP26 will only be determined in the months and years ahead.