COPs are a mixed bunch. Some have lead to significant success. The 2015 COP led to the Paris Agreement, which spells out a large part of the international legal framework to combat climate change. Some have been much less successful. The COP in Copenhagen in 2009 (COP15) all but disintegrated, with one chief negotiator lambasting the resultant agreement as “the lowest level of ambition you can imagine” (see here).
What of COP26? The jury seems to still be out. Week 1 has been covered on this blog (see here). What follows is a comment on the final agreement, referred to as the Glasgow Climate Pact (“the Agreement”).
(i) The money
One of the few achievements in COP15 was a commitment to provide USD 100 billion to support climate resilience in developing countries by 2020. Such support became an important facet of the Paris Agreement, Article 9 of which provides “developed country Parties shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation […]”.
But where is that money? The Agreement “notes with concern” that the current provision of climate finance for adaptation (i.e. changing practices to account for growing climate change) is inadequate (§14), and – more bluntly – “notes with deep regret” that the USD 100 billion has not materialised (§44).
However, there has been a specific commitment by developed countries to at least double their spending on support by 2025 (§18). That is a significant diplomatic win for developing countries, whose transition to greener economies is likely to require greater financial support.
(ii) The Net Zero Pledges
The Agreement expressly links the Paris Agreement’s aim to keep global temperatures within 1.5 degrees of pre-Industrial levels to the attainment of “net zero” emissions at “around mid-century”, and to reduce to 45% in 2030 (§22). That is not quite a firm commitment to net zero by 2050, but it still represents a considerable shift in thinking as it breaks down the long-term goal of 1.5 degrees into a more tangible and immediate goal. Of course, its effectiveness depends on whether it translates into specific actions – for the UK’s net zero pledge.
A number of big emitters have made net zero pledges. These include China (by 2060), Russia (by 2060) and the USA (by 2050). India’s surprise announcement of a net zero pledge by 2070 counts – perhaps – as one of COP 26’s greatest achievements.
(iii) The rules
The international community has long recognised that emissions trading schemes can – in principle – drive down greenhouse gas emissions. The idea is that an emitter in country A can pay for, e.g., green technology in country B, and thus in turn contribute to global reductions in emission.
But to be effective, the rules have to be clear. They have to prevent, for example, double counting (see Paris Agreement, Article 6(5)). That, in turn, requires a set of standards to determine what “counts”. They also need to ensure that the ‘offsets’ are reliable and genuinely contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gasses.
The Agreement contributes to that mechanism by providing some common rules – referred to as the Paris Rulebook.
Previously, in October 2020 Switzerland and Peru signed the first carbon offset deal under the Paris Agreement (see here). Under that agreement, Peru accesses finance for certain development projects, and Switzerland can use its contributions to offset its overall emissions. It is hoped that the Paris Rulebook will make the negotiation of such agreements easier and more transparent in the future, with clearer rules on what – for example – constitutes a development project to offset emissions.
(iv) Down and out?
A significant topic (to not say bone of contention) at COP26 was the future of coal. At 20% of global emissions, coal power plants are the single largest source of such emissions today (see here). §36 of the Agreement is worth setting out in full:
Calls upon Parties to accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies, and the adoption of policies, to transition towards low-emission energy systems, including by rapidly scaling up the deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures, including accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, recognizing the need for support towards a just transition (emphasis mine);
On the one hand, this comes as a significant disappointment. Initially drafted as a commitment to “phase out” coal, this was objected to and watered down at the 11th hour by China and India, and other nations. In a Delphic turn of phrase, it now seeks to “phase down” rather than “phase out”; exhorts the acceleration of “efforts” rather than imposing a target; and is limited to “unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”.
For context, however, it should be recognised that any commitment in specific relation to coal has – until now – never been included in a COP Agreement. The very fact that it is singled out as a source of pollution in need of reduction is a step forwards. Further, the Agreement has to cater for developing countries; many of whom rely heavily on coal. South Africa, for example, derives 77% of its primary energy needs from coal, the vast majority of which is mined in South Africa (see here). It also has an unemployment level of over 34%, and coal mining is a significant source of employment (see here). Any global commitment to phase out coal has to take stock of national constraints. The point was put pithily by the Indian climate minister Bhupender Yadav, who asked how developing countries could phase out coal when they "have still to deal with their development agendas and poverty eradication” (see here)
(v) COP Sidelines
COPs are not only about the agreements, which must be agreed by all parties present; they are also significant fora for bilateral negotiations. COP26 brought a number of positive – and surprising – signs of cooperation between major polluters.
Notably, China and the US agreed to boost climate cooperation in a joint statement that reiterates their commitments to keeping global temperatures within 1.5 degrees, and commits to tackling methane and coal emissions (see here).
The US also spearheaded the global methane pledge, which seeks to reduce global methane emissions by 30%. Methane is a gas whose greenhouse effect can be up to 80 times as powerful as carbon dioxide. It is, in the words of EU Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen, the “lowest hanging fruit” and the easiest way of targeting emissions. China and India did not commit to the pledge; but over 100 other signatories have agreed to it (see here)
Finally, Scotland symbolically pledged £1 million towards a loss and damage framework. “Loss and damage” – for those not familiar with the jargon – is the UN-speak for the damage that is caused by climate change. The overall argument is that (i) the global North and developing countries are overwhelmingly responsible for climate change (ii) the effects are felt most acutely in the global South and/or developing countries. Developed countries should therefore contribute to a loss and damage framework to defray the consequences of climate change. The Agreement recognises that developing countries are “particularly vulnerable” to such loss and damage (§63), but simply urges developed countries to provide support for the loss and damage framework (§64). Scotland’s commitment – while largely symbolic – is an important step towards that operational framework.
Derided as “utter betrayal” (see here), lauded as a “big step forward” (see here), the final verdict for COP26 may be some way out. It is clear that there have been a number of victories, with pledges to reduce emissions revised to tighter timetables, and increased funding for developing nations. Other elements are more disappointing, but such sacrifices are – perhaps – to be expected in the difficult path to unanimity. The real question is whether the pledges are translated into concrete action. The 1.5 degree limit seems to remain alive and within reach. Whether it is attained is another matter.
Michael Rhimes is a barrister at Francis Taylor Building specialising in environmental, planning and public law.
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