Everything You Need to Know That Happened at COP26

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The 26th Conference of the Parties meeting has finally come to a close. World leaders have been gathering in Glasgow, Scotland for the past two weeks in what has been described as humanity’s best and final chance at limiting the impact of climate change and possibly saving the planet from a Day After Tomorrow-esque ending.

The heads of more than 120 nations have met, as well as top political and cultural figures including Greta Thunberg, Leonardo DiCaprio, Barack Obama, and David Attenborough, flying in and out of Glasgow until the closing on November 12. Notably, however, China’s president, Xi Jinping, along with Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Vladimir Putin of Russia did not appear in person at the summit however all nations sent delegates.

The main purpose of the conference was to get world leaders to agree to tougher climate action targets that are more in line with UN guidelines on emissions reductions as well as other big environmental challenges.

Here’s how it all went down.

A Bit of a Cop Out

While much has been made about the potential and possibilities of the conference, reports have been less than convincing over exactly what the outcomes will be.

SMH reporter Bevan Shields, who is at the conference, has described the event as “a grotesque mix of rent-seekers, hangers-on and political wannabes”.

“World leaders are only a small slice of a climate carnival best described as part-trade fair and part-public relations opportunity,” he writes.

He describes a large part of the conference being a trade hall in which countries and companies show off their achievements and innovations in tackling climate change.

Qatar’s stall shows off the energy-efficient stadiums it will use for next year’s FIFA World Cup while Australia boasts its green hydrogen investments and carbon capture and storage plans, sponsored by oil and gas giant Santos.

The 30,000 attendees who probably don’t need to be there and will have cost the climate dearly in transport emissions to attend have also been critiqued. 400 private planes have been chartered, including one for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Australia’s Awkward Reception

Australia had a shaky start to the conference with French reaction to the scrapped submarine deal dominating headlines.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison told French President Emmanuel Macron he was ditching the $90 million deal with France to buy submarines from them, allegedly by text, just hours before the US/UK/AU military alliance ‘AUKUS’ was announced.

In response to a question from an Australian journalist, Macron said that Morrison “lied” about the deal which is a huge deal in international politics. Not often do world leaders speak about each other in such blunt terms.

Australia’s weak commitment to net-zero by 2050 was also the source of tensions as world leaders met, and awkward photos emerged of Morrison standing alone at the initial gathering.

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Image: Scott Morrison at COP26 / Getty Images

Morrison used his speech at COP26 to once again stress that technology and innovation, not renewables, will be the key to getting emissions down.

He also announced that the government would increase Australia’s commitment to helping Pacific and South-East Asian neighbours with the effects of climate change by $500 million to a total of $2 billion.

However, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama demanded that Morrison provide a concrete plan for cutting emissions below 50% by 2030, a target that Morrison has refused to update.

“We Pacific nations have not travelled to the other end of the world to watch our future to be sacrificed at the altar of appeasement of the world’s worst emitters,” Bainimarama said.

“The existence of our low-lying neighbours is not on the negotiating table.

“Humanity does not lack the resources, technology, projects, innovative potential to achieve it — all that is missing, ladies and gentlemen, is the courage to act.”

On Thursday, Morrison followed this up by accidentally saying that there is global momentum building to tackle “China”, instead of “climate change”.

At home, the reaction has been dire. On the Q+A programme, panellists ripped into the Prime Minister and the fossil fuel industry, saying that Australia is walking away from the biggest economic opportunity this century by not investing in renewables.

Greens leader Adam Bandt said that Morrison had tarnished the reputation of Australia on the world’s stage, claiming that he is a “cigarette salesman in a cancer ward at this conference”.

India Commits to Net Zero by 2070

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the first public declaration of a net-zero commitment, announcing that his country would achieve net zero emissions by 2070.

This is a big move from Modi, as the leader rejected calls for net-zero just a few weeks ago. The idea is a relatively new one in India and Modi has moved fast on it.

Modi said that India would use 50% renewables by 2030 and that lifestyle change is key to climate action.

“More people travel on the Indian railways every year than the entire population of the world. This huge railway system has committed to attaining net-zero by 2030. This initiative alone will reduce carbon emissions by 60 million tonnes annually,” he said.

“Instead of mindless and destructive consumption, we need mindful and deliberate utilisation. These choices, made by billions of people, can take the fight against climate change one step further.”

However, the date is still 50 years off and gets the country to where it needs to be 20 years after the US and Australia and 10 years after China.

Biden Apologises for the US Withdrawal of the Paris Agreement, Signs Back Up

US President Joe Biden apologised for the decision of his predecessor, President Donald Trump, in pulling out of the Paris climate accord.

In his opening statement, Biden said that the decision set the world back and that he aims for the US to reclaim its seat at the table of global climate action.

“We will demonstrate to the world the United States is not only back at the table but hopefully leading by the power of our example,” he said.

“I know it hasn’t been the case, which is why my administration is working overtime to show our climate commitment is action, not words.”

Biden also cautioned that the costs of inaction on climate change would be worse than the costs as he rejoined the US to the Paris target of limiting world temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

While of course countries cannot legislate the weather, it does provide a good framework for achieving these targets and a direction for future negotiations on emissions reductions.

A Pledge to End Deforestation

In the first major announcement from COP26, world leader’s gathered at the conference have signed an agreement to end and reverse deforestation by 2030.

Brazil, home to the badly logged Amazon rainforest, China, and the US have all agreed to the deal that aims to protect rainforests across the globe.

The pledge includes US$19.2 billion of public and private funds committed to the cause.

Image: Indigenous leaders at COP26 are aiming to promote awareness about their struggles to achieve territorial, economic, social and cultural rights in the context of the climate crisis / Getty Images.

In announcing the agreement, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “These great teeming ecosystems – these cathedrals of nature – are the lungs of our planet”.

“Forests support communities, livelihoods and food supply, and absorb the carbon we pump into the atmosphere. They are essential to our very survival.”

The news has however landed poorly in Indonesia, home to the world’s third-largest rainforest, where the Environment Minister has said that forcing the country to end deforestation by 2030 is “unfair” and that the pledge must not limit the country’s development.

A Pledge to Slash Methane Emissions

Biden has led a multinational plan to cut the release of methane gas into the environment by 30% by 2030. Methane is the second most potent greenhouse gas behind carbon dioxide.

The US, the European Union, and Brazil, along with over 100 other nations, have signed up to the agreement known as the Global Methane Pledge.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that “Methane is one of the gases we can cut fastest, doing that will immediately slow down climate change”.

However, Australia sided with China, Russia, and Iran in declining to join the pledge.

Energy Minister Angus Taylor said that his government was focused on the “whole of the economy, all gases,” not on setting specific targets.

Summit Leaders Are Leaving But the Negotiations Go On

You might be surprised to read that world leaders have already begun leaving the event but in fairness, they do have countries to run.

The big decisions at these events are typically not made by actual heads of state but rather their negotiation teams who will continue butting heads and trying to land bigger and better deals.

While good progress has so far been made, with more than 40 nations agreeing to coordinate their implementation of renewable energy technologies and make their rollout cheaper, much more is yet to be done if we are to get the serious net-zero targets we need.

Host nation leader Johnson said that he is “cautiously optimistic” about a deal to limit global temperatures to below 1.5C and further pledges from nations like China to transition away from fossil fuels.

He also noted that commitments from countries would be “100% useless if the promises are not followed up with action”.

More Than 40 Nations Pledge to Phase Out Coal

More than 190 nations and organisations have pledged to phase out the use of coal.

40 major coal using nations including Poland, Vietnam, and Chile have signed up to the agreement which seeks to stop the use of coal in developed nations by 2030 and in poorer nations by 2040.

They’ve agreed to phase out the reliance on coal and not to build or invest in new coal power along that timeline.

However, there are still many coal-reliant nations that have not agreed to the deal, including China, India, and the US. You probably don’t need us to tell you that Australia, of course, also didn’t sign up for the deal.

Although coal use has been declining, it still represents around 37% of the world’s energy sources as of 2019.

While it’s a big step forward, environmentalists have criticised the deal for allowing countries to pick their own end date for coal usage and carry on as usual for years to come. The deal also says nothing about gas and oil.

We May Have Saved The Planet From the Worst of Climate Change

Big news from day three of the summit was the news that the pledges so far made at the conference if adhered to, would limit global warming by 0.7 degrees Celcius.

Research released by the University of Melbourne has shown that our current trajectory, which was putting us at 2.7C, has now been brought down to 1.9C, the first time that the world has been angled towards warming of less than 2C.

It’s still well over the 1.5C limit set at Paris in 2015 however it’s definitely a move in the right direction and thanks largely to commitments made by India.

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Image: tracking global warming based on current projections / Climate Resource

90% of global GDP is now covered under a net zero pledge, up from only 30% just over a year ago. However, countries still don’t have strong plans to reduce emissions by 2050, which is considered a serious gamble if we are to get them to net zero by 2050.

UK politician and long-term climate champion Ed Miliband told The Guardian that “any progress is welcome but we need extreme caution about declaring success on the basis of vague and often vacuous net zero targets three or more decades hence.

“For example, Australia has a 2050 net zero target but its 2030 plans are in line with 4 degrees of warming. There is a reason for the focus on halving emissions this decisive decade. It reflects the urgency, clarity and specificity we need to keep 1.5C alive. We cannot allow political leaders to shift the goalposts.”

Huge Protests Take Place Across the UK

Over the weekend, tens of thousands of UK citizens and visitors attended massive climate protests to voice their fear and dissatisfaction with the actions of their leaders.

In London, the activist group Insulate Britain, who have been blocking roads up and down the country for weeks in disruptive direct action protests, blocked access to Parliament Square by gluing themselves to the group. Insulate Britain has been criticised for targeting everyday people with their actions and so has taken the disruption to the heart of the British government.

In Glasgow, activists and protesters marched through the streets waving banners and chanting in an effort to put pressure on the negotiators within the summit. One Australian family who turned up to the protests said that they were “utterly ashamed” of their home country and its “vacuous 2050 target.”

Delegates and environmentalists from all walks of life and all around the world gathered on the streets to highlight different aspects of important climate policy from their own corners of the world.

Reverend James Bhagwan, Secretary General of the Pacific Conference of Churches told the Sydney Morning Herald that he hoped the energy outside the conference would prompt stronger and faster action within.

Half of the World’s Fossil Fuel Assets Could Become Worthless by 2036

New research published by the University of Exeter has found that half of the worlds fossil fuel assets could become worthless by 2036 if the world keeps to its decarbonisation plans.

Countries that move quickly will profit most from the shift whereas those who remain dependent on fossil fuels will suffer in the long run as non-renewable fuel sources become more expensive.

The change is estimated to leave $11tn-$14tn in so-called “stranded assets” – infrastructure, property and investments that are no longer viable and have to be written off.

However, the lead author has warned that if countries and companies continue to invest in increasingly risky assets like fossil fuels, the disruption to the economy would be massive when those assets no longer hold value.

Progress Slows as Greta Thunberg Brands the Event a “Failure”

As the conference entered week two, the rush of pledges and announcements made at the start have begun to slow as negotiators hammer out the more difficult deals.

Typically, the big headlines come at the start and the end of these conferences, as world leaders fly in to announce commitments that they’ve already decided to make back home. By the end of the conference, deals are often done that take a week or so to be agreed upon, although they are not always reached, as was the case at Copenhagen.

This period is what Alok Sharma, President of COP26 described as when the rubber meets the road and deadlines are looming to secure deals. Right now the main aim is to get a deal that would lock the world into 1.8 degrees Celsius of warming or lower.

While we await further announcements, Greta Thunberg, the now 18-year-old climate superstar from Sweden, branded the conference a “failure” as she addressed the crowds at the protests over the weekend.

“This is no longer a climate conference. This is now a global North greenwash festival. A two-week-long celebration of business as usual and blah blah blah,” she said.

“It should be obvious that we cannot solve a crisis with the same methods that got us into it in the first place.”

“To stay below the targets set in the Paris agreement, and thereby minimise the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control, we need immediate, drastic, annual emissions cuts, unlike anything the world has ever seen. And as we don’t have the technological solutions that alone will do anything even close to that, that means we will have to fundamentally change our society.”

“This is the uncomfortable result of our leaders repeated failure to address this crisis.”

“The question we must now ask ourselves is: what is it that we are fighting for? Are we fighting to save ourselves and the living planet, or are we fighting to maintain business as usual?”

Speaking of business as usual, the BBC notes that there are more individual delegates that represent fossil fuel interests at the summit than there are from any one nation. A total of 503 oil, gas, and coal lobbyists are present, and campaigners say that they should be shut out of further participation.

Barack Obama Tells the World to Step Up

Former US President Barack Obama has shown strong support for climate action and explicitly called out other nations and his successor Donald Trump as not pulling their weight.

He told the conference that young people need to “stay angry” on climate issues and that the world is “nowhere near where we need to be” to avoid disaster.

“I have to confess it was particularly discouraging to see the leaders of two of the world’s largest emitters, China and Russia, declined to even attend the proceedings. And their national plans so far reflect what appears to be a dangerous lack of urgency, a willingness to maintain the status quo on the part of those governments. That’s a shame,” he said.

“We need advanced economies like the US and Europe leading on this issue. But you know the facts, we also need China and India leading on this issue. We need Russia leading on this issue, just as we need Indonesia and South Africa and Brazil leading on this issue.

“We can’t afford anybody on the sidelines.”

It’s a great sentiment but a little rich from the leader of one of the world’s worst climate offenders, whose administration did not make climate a priority during his eight years in office.

Show Us the Money

Image: Young protester in Glasgow, Scotland over the weekend / Getty Images.

Disputes over who is going to pay for climate action have emerged as low-lying and developing countries say that they have been shut out of climate talks and that funds promised to them years ago to help mitigate the effects of climate change have not materialised.

The Foreign Minister for the nation of Tuvalu has given a recorded speech at the conference in knee-deep seawater to represent the dangers faced by those on the front line of climate change. Tuvalu is considered one of the most at-risk countries from sea-level rise and could disappear entirely in a matter of decades.

Kenya’s Environment Minister has said that there have been too many conferences and workshops on climate change and that the time for talking is over.

“Everyone knows what is to be done,” said Minister Keriako Tobiko, adding that “there’s no more time, let’s put the money on the table.”

At COP14 in Copenhagen, wealthy nations pledged USD $100 billion per year by 2020 to help developing nations however that target has since been missed. Recently those countries have said that they will meet the target by 2023 however there has been pushback from wealthy nations on shouldering more of the burden.

According to sources reported by the BBC, rich nations are suggesting that they don’t want to pay for the damages of climate change as they don’t want to take accountability and end up being sued by poorer nations.

“Loss and damage is still a taboo for developed countries,” said Alpha Oumar Kaloga, one of the lead negotiators of the Africa Group.

“During negotiations, we have been repeatedly arguing that loss and damage need to be mentioned in a separate column in the climate finance reporting papers of developed countries because such losses and damages are happening all over the world,” Kaloga said.

2°C Would Be Really Bad, 2.7° Would Be Disastrous

Research released by the UK Met Office on day nine of the summit has shown that temperature rises that sound minor, like 2°C, would cause suffering to over a billion people. “Extreme heat stress” would affect 15 times as many people as it does currently, pushing large regions above 32°C, the temperature at which the human body cannot cool itself down through sweating if it’s in high humidity areas.

While one of the primary purposes of the conference is to limit global warming below 1.5°C, more new research has shown that we are very far from that target indeed.

Despite earlier predictions that global temperature projections had been cut to 1.8°C of warming because of pledges made at COP26, more analysis shows that the world is actually on track for as much as 2.7°C of warming.

Climate Action Tracker (CAT) has said that the lack of short term targets and the lack of long-term planning from almost all developed nations on reducing emissions could push the planet to the brink of habitability.

Bill Hare, the chief executive of Climate Analytics, one of the organisations behind CAT, told the Guardian: “We are concerned that some countries are trying to portray [Cop26] as if the 1.5°C limit is nearly in the bag. But it’s not, it’s very far from it, and they are downplaying the need to get short-term targets for 2030 in line with 1.5°C.”

Australia Gets Another Kicking

A new report published at Glasgow ranking the 60 biggest emitters for action on climate change has put Australia right down the bottom of the list, awarding us a zero for policy and planning.

The lack of policy, high per-capita emissions, weak targets, low use of renewables and high use of energy puts us below China, Russia, the US, and most of the developed world.

“The country’s lack of ambition and action has made its way to the international stage,” the report says.

“Australia has fallen behind its allies and its inaction even attracted public criticism in the run-up to Cop26.”

During the talks, we’ve refused to sign up to cut methane emissions, rejected calls to phase out coal, offered no new 2030 targets, and promoted gas, carbon capture technology and hydrogen as solutions to climate change.

‘An Existential Crisis’

As hopes for the success of the conference waned, China and the US announced a surprise partnership that could see two of the world’s leading emitters take the lead on reductions.

Image: China’s special climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua announcing the joint partnership / Getty Images

Both countries have signed a joint pledge declaring climate change an ‘existential crisis’ that requires cooperation between the two. The deal will see them accelerate the phasing out of fossil fuels and lower emissions while sharing technology and strategies on clean energy, decarbonisation and electrification.

Crucially, the statement notes that both countries are committed to the Paris Agreement goal of limiting temperature rises to 1.5 degrees and conceded there was a “gap” between current policies and meeting that core target which will be a focus of future negotiations.

The announcement was made after months of secret talks between the global superpowers and appeared to take the attendees by surprise as even Boris Johnson was warning of progress slowing just hours before the new deal.

Final COP26 Agreement Drafted and Australia Not Happy

The first draft of a seven-page document drawing up the final agreements of the conference has been submitted and will now be negotiated by representatives from nearly 200 countries over the final few days.

The plan includes the agreement to strengthen 2030 emissions reductions targets, a key focus of the conference. It also says that countries that have not updated their targets will have to revisit and renew them by the end of next year.

Australia and a number of other countries are however seeking to water down or eliminate this clause. Australia hasn’t updated its 2030 targets since 2015 in Paris, where the deal was intended to be progressively updated. Although the target of 26-28% reductions set by Australia is projected to be overtaken by a “35%” projected reduction from the Morrison government, this isn’t binding, nor is it clear how this figure was arrived at.

We’re also unhappy about language that calls upon nations to phase out the use of coal and fossil fuel subsidies and it is expected that dissenting nations like ours will get their way in weakening the agreement due to be signed on Friday.

Paris Pledge May Be Abandoned

With one day left at COP26, there are fears that the Paris climate agreement targets set in 2015 are being abandoned. The Paris agreement set a limit for global warming at 1.5C however UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has said the target is on “life support.”

“When you are on the verge of the abyss, it’s not important to think too far into the future”, he said.

“What’s important to discuss is what will be your first step. Because if your first step is the wrong step, you will not have the chance to … make a second or third one.”

Guterres said that negotiators “very probably” would not be able to reach the agreements needed to divert the planet from a disastrous course, and that countries would need to keep coming back to the table next year and the year after to ensure that those agreements can be made.

However, he also said it is still possible to limit warming below 1.5C and that hope remains until the last minute.

Image: Vanessa Nakate at COP26 / Getty Images

Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate also gave a speech tearing into the delegates at COP, expressing what she sees on the front lines of climate change.

“We are drowning in promises. Promises will not stop the suffering of people. Only immediate and drastic action will pull us back from the abyss,” she said.

“It’s hard to believe business and finance leaders when they haven’t delivered before. We simply don’t believe it. But I am here right now to say: prove us wrong”.

“I am actually here to beg you to prove us wrong. God help us all if you fail to prove us wrong. God help us.”

Countries Pledge to Phase Out Oil and Gas

In a first of its kind, a small group of countries have announced an alliance to phase out the production of all oil and gas.

Led by Denmark and Costa Rica, the group, known as the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance or BOGA, includes France, Wales, Ireland, Greenland, Quebec, and Sweden. California and New Zealand have joined as associate members while Italy and Scotland have expressed interest.

However, the UK as a whole has refused to join, bringing scrutiny to the host nations real commitments to climate action.

Australia has, of course, rejected the idea and, just a week ago, was reported to be eyeing up even more oil and gas drilling fields like the one off the coast of Sydney and Newcastle.

“Promises ring hollow when the fossil fuels industry still receives trillions in subsidies, as measured by the IMF,” Antonio Guterres said. “Or when countries are still building coal plants.”

Nearly 200 Countries Sign Final Glasgow Climate Pact

The COP26 Conference finally came to an end on Saturday night with the signing of a deal on the climate crisis that its supporters said would limit global heating to 1.5C.

The conference ran long, with countries fighting to the final minutes over the text and language of the deal, with India managing to weaken pledges to “phase out” coal to “phase down”. Although this is a significant setback, no COP since Kyoto in 1997 has been able to produce a decision over the limiting of fossil fuels.

The pact means that countries will now have to bring new emissions reductions targets to each COP, rather than every five years under the rules of the Paris Agreement.

Rich nations have also said that they will step up their efforts to deliver the promised USD $100 billion in aid each year to developing nations to help them deal with the costs of climate change and transition that were made in 2009 but have thus far been underdelivered.

COP26 Ends in “Failure”

As the conference closed, much reaction has emerged in response to the past two weeks, with many branding the conference a “failure.”

COP26 President Alok Sharma delivered his final speech of the conference by fighting back tears, saying that he was “deeply sorry” for how the negotiations turned out.

“May I just say to all delegates: I apologise for the way this process has unfolded and I am deeply sorry. I also understand the deep disappointment, but I think, as you have noted, its also vital that we protect this package,” he managed to say as his voice broke.

Image: Alok Sharma at COP26 / Getty Images.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the talks sound the “death knell for coal power” but that the progress made was also “tinged with disappointment.” He said that while the conference did not deliver the “full solution” to climate change, the world was “undeniably heading in the right direction”

US climate envoy John Kerry was more upbeat in saying that the deal was “imperfect” but that the world is “closer than we have ever been before to avoiding climate chaos”.

Despite signing the Glasgow Pact, Australia has already rejected two of the key points of the deal. Energy Minister Angus Taylor has said that Australia will not be renewing its 2030 targets and won’t be phasing out coal any time soon.

NSW treasurer Matt Kean has said that the result of the conference will mean that life is going to become much harder for the fossil fuel industry, however “Glasgow just accelerated where the market was already going.”

While the conference may have failed to solve the issue of climate change and commit world leaders to an abandoning of fossil fuels, it still makes progress that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen. The next phase, and the future of our planet, depends of whether countries keep to their promises and commitments and keep coming back year after year to deliver further action.

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