As COP26 Finishes, What Happens Next for the Future of Climate Action?

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The COP26 conference came to a dramatic close in Glasgow, Scotland over the weekend, with extra-time deal-making resulting in last-minute changes forced by China and India to water down climate action.

While the conference has been branded a “failure,” the progress made is not immaterial, as serious commitments and deals have been agreed upon that leave the planet in better shape than when the conference began. Experts warn however that the outcomes are nowhere near enough to avoid serious climate disaster.

So, as the banners come down and the delegates head home, here’s what happens next for international climate policy.

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If you’ve been following the conference, you’ll know that most of the big climate pledges come at the start, with a joint deal usually secured at the end of the conference. Those early pledges are typically the result of domestic policy shifts and decision making at home. As delegates return home, the focus now falls to individual countries to deliver on their promises and update their commitments to the climate.

That’s not going to be easy, although it’s hard to speak in general terms when talking about the 197 countries who signed the agreement as a whole. Some, like the countries who make up the newly-formed Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, are already well on their way to landing solid action at home and building on the momentum of COP26. A small handful of countries, mainly consisting of Pacific island nations and the landlocked nation of Bhutan, are already carbon neutral and moving into carbon negative, meaning they absorb more carbon than they emit.

Yet that level of progress is tempered by the fact that the world’s largest developed and developing countries who create the most emissions are still dedicated to fossil fuels for the long term. Although China and the US agreed on a collaborative strategic deal to limit emissions to a level that would keep global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius, much of the rhetoric at COP26 failed to detail any kind of clear plan as to how these achievements would be made.

Brazil, for example, was lauded for its commitment to a deal that would see deforestation banned by 2030. As the home of the Amazon rainforest, still the largest forest on the planet and a huge global carbon sink, this ought to be a big win for the planet. However, as The Atlantic writes, there is little reason to believe that Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, will actually follow through on these commitments. Under his leadership, deforestation in the Amazon has reached a 12-year high and continues to grow at a rate of 9.5% per year. He has however hit out at his critics for wanting better protections for the Amazon, something he sees as a resource for Brazil’s development, while not proposing the same kinds of self-harming limitations for themselves.

It’s an argument that appears to be gaining ground the world over, with developing nations like India and China lashing out at The West for demanding they limit their own development while Western nations have been using fossil fuels for generations to power their own. Both these nations have said that they won’t be cutting their emissions to zero by 2050, the year that the UN has said we need to hit net zero if we are to have any chance of avoiding climate catastrophe. Instead, China will aim to get theirs to zero by 2060 and India by 2070 as they brand the UN and other global organisations “elites” that don’t understand or care about the demands this would put on their citizens.

If these arguments sound familiar, it’s because it’s the same nationalistic and anti-cooperative language employed by Australia’s Coalition government. Already, Australia has rejected two key components of the COP26 deal, saying that it won’t be increasing its 2030 emissions target nor will it phase out coal. Queensland Senator Matt Canavan has said that the COP26 deal is a “green light” for the coal industry and that Australia ought to ramp up its production of coal to service the demands of countries like India and China as they rely on the energy source to power their development.

In the short term, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is planning to run the upcoming election campaign with the line that technology, entrepreneurialism, and “can do capitalism” will fix the climate however it’s clear that COP26 has shown the world has a greater appetite and demand for significant climate action. Whether Morrison’s approach will wash remains to be seen.

As the dust settles, COP26 will be regarded as a new baseline for global ambition that will help frame debates in domestic settings, applying pressure to those nations deemed lagging on the international stage. Pressure at home is now going to be essential to ensuring governments commit to further necessary action.

COP27 and Beyond

One of the most crucial developments of the conference is the updated demand on rapid target adjustments. Previously, under the terms of the Paris Agreement made in 2015, countries were only required to bring new targets on emissions reductions every five years. Now it’s every year.

This gives hope for the future, as, although COP26 did not deliver quite the progress we had hoped to see, it gives a good expectation of where countries need to be in 12 months time if they want to avoid further global embarrassment.

The next conference of the parties will be held on 7-18 November 2022 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. The African country, one of the hottest and driest in the world, is also a major oil producer so it could be difficult to get further action on the limiting of fossil fuels.

Africa is of course one of the most hard-hit regions by climate change, with droughts and extreme weather events now common across the continent. Egypt’s lead climate negotiator Mohamed Nasr has said that the country will work to build on the legacy of Glasgow as well as focusing on resilience and adaptation to climate change. This is likely to mean a greater focus on compensation for developing nations as was a key focus at COP26.

“We are inheriting a heavy [legacy] from Glasgow,” Nasr said.

“If you look at the decisions coming out here, a lot of follow up is needed in Egypt. It’s a big job – the UK has raised the bar too high. This was much better than any other Cop I’ve attended. There is collective understanding and commitment to move forward.”

Last week, the location of the following COP was decided, with COP28 to be held in the  United Arab Emirates in 2023.

The UAE became the first country in the Middle East-North Africa region to set out a strategic initiative to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, with a USD $163 billion investment in renewable energy and a three-decade action plan to follow.

The country has said that it is committed to multilateral initiatives and a swift transition to renewable energy. This is in spite of much of the country’s wealth coming from fossil fuels.

That being said, the UAE is home to three of the largest solar plants in the world and, much like Australia, is pinning its hopes on carbon capture and storage technology as well as green hydrogen.

This is the path forward for international climate action and only time will tell if these conferences can succeed in the areas where COP26 failed.

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