5 takeaways from the Glasgow climate change conference

GLASGOW, Scotland — For the past two weeks, world leaders and their representatives, lawmakers, dignitaries, scientists, protesters, activists and business leaders gathered at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference to solve the most daunting challenge facing humanity: how to quickly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to keep temperatures from rising to even more dangerous levels.

Few at COP26, as it is known, disagreed on the seriousness of the problem. However, finding concrete solutions adequate to meeting the goal of the conference — how to keep the world at under 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels — proved more elusive. The event’s organizers described the event as a qualified success, the ultimate outcome of which will materialize only if countries keep to their commitments made in Glasgow and then ramp up their ambition at future conferences in the years ahead.

“This is a fragile win,” COP26 President Alok Sharma said in his concluding statement. “We have kept 1.5 alive. That was our overarching objective when we set off on this journey two years ago, taking on the role of the COP presidency-designate. But I would still say that the pulse of 1.5 is weak.”

Meanwhile, Glasgow did produce some encouraging breakthroughs and some signs that the world’s nations could yet come together to curb emissions and spare the planet the worst consequences of climate change. Yahoo News spent the last two weeks covering the conference and left with the following takeaways.

Ice from Svinafellsjokull glacier in Iceland floats in a lake of meltwater.
Ice from Svinafellsjokull glacier in Iceland floats in a lake of meltwater. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Temperature projections fall based on commitments made at COP26, but not as far as experts had hoped

The Glasgow Climate Pact is the successor to the Paris Agreement, hashed out at COP21 in 2015. In Paris, nations put forth the goal of “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit]” and “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C,” in order to stay below 1.5°C. The science increasingly suggests that catastrophic effects of climate change will kick in at 1.5°C, and the United Nations’ hope was that the Glasgow agreement would commit to a path to staying below 1.5°C, but it didn’t quite get there.

The agreement instead “reaffirms” the goals set in Paris. And, as was the case in Paris, the actual commitments made by nations in Glasgow do not get the world to those goals.

But they come a lot closer. After Paris, the national pledges would have led to at least 2.7°C of warming. Based on the national pledges made in Glasgow, the International Energy Agency projects 1.8°C of warming by the end of this century.

That’s an optimistic scenario, however, since there is no penalty for nations that don’t meet their commitments and some of the pledges are only abstract goals, without concrete plans for fulfilling them.

The research partnership Climate Action Tracker warns that if the total is limited only to the pledges that come with real action plans, the projected temperature rise increases to 2.1°C.

Taking into account the policies actually currently in place, as opposed to proposed future policy changes, is estimated to lead to 2.7°C of warming. That’s an improvement on the tally from Paris, where the policies established at the time would have led to 3.6°C of warming.

The reason that the goals are more ambitious, but are nevertheless not enough to stay below 1.5°C, is that countries are increasingly eager to promise big emissions cuts decades from now, but are less willing to make the necessary reductions in the next decade.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that a 45 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions is needed in this decade to stay below 1.5°C, but instead, the national plans will cumulatively lead to an estimated 16 percent increase. (None of these figures include very late-breaking announcements, such as China’s agreement announced Wednesday night, to join the U.S.-led effort to cut methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030.)

Over time, as world leaders hoped, the pledges and policies have increased in strength. So the last-ditch effort for averting catastrophe is now that future COPs in this decade will finally bring warming into line with the goals established.

Asked by Yahoo News whether he was optimistic that the final agreement at COP26 would be successful in keeping temperatures from rising above 1.5°C, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said that goal would require decades of follow-through.

“You can’t answer that question with certainty based on what happens at COP26,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., told Yahoo News in Glasgow. “The jury is out on this, and it’s going to require more effort than just what we do in 2021.”

President Biden addresses a press conference at the U.N. Climate Change Conference.
President Biden addresses a press conference at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow on Nov. 2. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Biden administration reestablishes the U.S. as a world leader on climate

President Biden arrived at Glasgow with a clear objective: to reestablish U.S. credibility on climate change after the disengagement by his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, who had withdrawn from the Paris agreement. Biden and the members of his administration made sure to underscore the pivot in Washington.

“I guess I shouldn’t apologize, but I do apologize for the fact that the United States, the last administration, pulled out of the Paris accords and put us sort of behind the eight ball a little bit,” Biden said in a speech to the delegates.

Biden arrived at Glasgow with one hand tied behind his back, however. For the first week of the conference, neither his infrastructure plan, nor his Build Back Better agenda had been passed by a sharply divided Congress. That in itself put the administration on unsteady footing when it came to, in Biden’s words, “leading by the power of our example.”

Still, even without action plans to meet those U.S. commitments established in law, important pledges were made by the United States during the first week of the conference. Over 100 countries signed on to a U.S-led initiative to cut methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030, for example. And, during the second week, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg rolled out international pledges to reduce emissions from the shipping and aviation industries.

By the end of the first week, however, Congress had passed the infrastructure bill, and congressional climate leaders were mostly confident that they had found a path to passage of Build Back Better and its sweeping climate provisions. That gave John Kerry, the special presidential climate envoy, something to tout as he worked to secure greater commitments on emissions from other nations.

By the second week, India, the world’s third-leading emitter of greenhouse gases, had, for the first time, pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2070.

While China’s President Xi Jinping did not attend COP26, Kerry met often during the conference with Chinese officials, and appeared to secure a virtual meeting between Biden and Xi in the coming days. By far the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China’s commitment to keeping temperatures from rising above 1.5°C has come into question, and the U.S., the world’s second-largest emitter, is pressing it to strengthen its pledges.

Then, with just two days remaining, Kerry held a press conference to announce a breakthrough between the two nations on fighting climate change.

“Tonight, I am pleased to announce on behalf of President Biden and Secretary [of State] Blinken that we have agreed to a basic framework for this cooperation going forward,” Kerry said, adding that the new declaration “includes strong statements about the alarming science, the emissions gap and the urgent need to accelerate the actions to close that gap.”

Throughout the conference, Kerry could be seen darting back and forth throughout the venue, helping to secure agreements on financing and emissions, supported by multiple Cabinet secretaries and congressional delegations. The United States really was back in the game.

Even the co-author of the Green New Deal seemed to agree with that assessment.

“America is back at COP, on the international stage as a leader on climate action,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said at an event on Tuesday.

The U.S.’s climate policy was still controversial. Ocasio-Cortez herself voted against the infrastructure bill, which pro-environment Democrats say offered too much in subsidies for fossil fuel infrastructure. Toward the end of the conference, climate justice activists and developing nations expressed frustration with the U.S. and the European Union for blocking the creation of a fund to distribute reparations for the loss and damage in developing countries from climate change.

In Luzon, Philippines, in November 2020, residents paddle a homemade rescue boat through a flooded street during Typhoon Ulysses.
In Luzon, Philippines, in November 2020, residents paddle a homemade rescue boat through a flooded street during Typhoon Ulysses. (Herman Lumanog/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Developing nations say more money is needed to deal with climate change

This year’s conference also focused on how climate change would hit the developing world hardest, even though those countries are only responsible for a small percentage of cumulative greenhouse gas emissions.

Rich countries like the United States have not fulfilled their past promise to provide by 2020 more than $100 billion a year in loans and grants to help poorer countries deal with the impacts of extreme weather events and develop fossil fuel-free economies.

While some additional climate finance pledges from both the government and private sector were made immediately before and during COP26, the current figures show the $100 billion target won’t be hit until 2023.

India led a block of developing nations that refused to increase the ambition of their emissions reduction targets unless more money was produced. That lack of funding for climate finance was a major reason that large developing nations such as India and Indonesia didn’t offer enough emissions cuts to set the world on a path to stay below 1.5°C.

Developing nations and activists also remain concerned that climate finance is disproportionately tilted toward measures to help developing nations lower emissions — something that most benefits rich countries, since it lowers climate change — and not for preventing, or simply being reimbursed for damage from climate change impacts that are already happening or will be soon.

“It comes down to how much resilience you have in your system. In developed countries, we don’t feel like we have a lot, as we see our subways flooded and droughts on our farms, but we have so much more resilience built in through insurance schemes, through excess capital, through FEMA, that’s able to swoop in and offer emergency support to families,” USAID Administrator Samantha Power told “The Climate Crisis Podcast.” “Much of that infrastructure does not exist in developing nations.”

For the first time, the principle that loss and damage in developing nations should be compensated for by richer countries has been included in the draft agreement. But it only is a general goal, without metrics for how much money is needed, who will donate it and how it will be distributed.

Ministers and representatives of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance on stage at the U.N. Climate Change Conference.
Ministers and representatives of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance on stage at the U.N. Climate Change Conference on Nov. 11. (Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

Pledges are a start, but they aren’t action

A stark illustration of the uncertainty about pledges made in Glasgow came during the first week of COP26, when 133 nations signed an agreement to end deforestation by 2030.

Officials hailed the news, saying that the governments that had signed on accounted for 85 percent of the world’s forests, which are vital in absorbing carbon dioxide and keeping temperature rise in check.

While similar pledges had been made in years past to end deforestation, hope sprang eternal that the world had finally woken up to the importance of preserving forests. Yet one day later, Indonesia, which has the third-largest rainforest on the planet, announced that it was having second thoughts about signing the pledge.

“Forcing Indonesia to zero deforestation in 2030 is clearly inappropriate and unfair,” Indonesia's environment minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, said.

Suddenly, the deforestation pledge felt a lot less impressive.

Further underscoring the questionable nature of the nonbinding pledges made at the conference, three days after Indonesia’s about-face, the Washington Post reported that many nations were reporting inaccurate data on their greenhouse gas emissions. Malaysia, for example, reported that its trees absorb carbon four times faster than those in neighboring Indonesia. Using those figures, Malaysia has been able to set more lax emissions goals, potentially saving it millions of dollars, while offering an overly optimistic picture about how much it is polluting the atmosphere.

Another significant pledge came from India, whose representatives said for the first time that the world’s third-leading emitter of greenhouse gases would achieve carbon neutrality by 2070. Yet India’s pledge was sorely lacking in details for achieving this, prompting some environmental groups to discount it altogether.

A common refrain at the conference has been that actions, not words, are what matters. From the teenage activist Greta Thunberg to diplomats like Kerry, the consensus is that agreements won’t end up having an impact unless countries follow through on their promises.

“The words don’t mean enough unless they are implemented,” Kerry said at the end of the first week of the conference. “All of us have seen years of frustration for promises that are made but not kept. We understand that. But I believe what is happening here is far from business as usual.”

Although the pledges themselves should be viewed skeptically, Kerry said, they are a necessary starting point.

“The alternative is you don’t say anything, you don’t do anything, you don’t have any promises or commitments, and you’re sitting there just waiting for the deluge,” he added

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres addresses COP26.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the conference on Nov. 11. (Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images)

The real work of the ‘decisive decade’ has already begun

Time and again in Glasgow, everyone from heads of state to the scruffiest activists described the 2020s as the crucial moment in the effort to avert climate disaster.

"Scientists tell us that this is the decisive decade — this is the decade we must make decisions that will avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis," Biden said in his address to the conference’s opening session.

The problem, however, as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told the Associated Press, is that because humans continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at such high levels, the goal of keeping global temperatures from rising above 1.5°C is now “on life support.”

Yet there was a recognition of the seriousness of the problem in Glasgow, and nations, businesses and the general public have begun to take action to distance themselves from fossil fuels.

So, while all this news from Glasgow represents progress in the fight to limit the extent of climate change, until the policies are actually in place, it can’t be said that the world is yet on course to avoid catastrophe. The Glasgow Climate Pact, like the Paris Agreement before it, is instead best understood as one step further in that direction.

Cover thumbnail photo: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

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