A slogan from climate activists outside of the COP26 summit in Glasgow this week was: “Keep 1.5 alive”. It relates to a 2015 Paris Agreement target to limit global warming to a safer 1.5 ° C above pre-industrial levels. The chances of achieving this goal now are “close to zero” after a lack of leadership in the most important countries of the world, according to the International Energy Agency. The failure of China and the US to sign an agreement to phase out coal adds to the pressure in the second week of the conference to detail how to deliver on the major pledges that have been secured.
The past week has given rise to cynicism: the leader of the world’s largest polluter, China, did not even show up. While U.S. President Joe Biden was quick to criticize Xi Jinping’s absence, his own decision not to join the coal pact – a Democratic senator in coal-heavy West Virginia is key to his efforts to get a comprehensive $ 1.3 trillion infrastructure bill say goodbye – a heavy blow to what was intended to be the flagship policy of the COP.
There was little chance that Xi would ever attend the conference as he has not left China in two years (Xi sent a written statement instead, as Britain vetoed videolink speeches). But it adds to a sense of isolationism from China. The Paris COP 2015 was successful in advance, thanks in part to intensive diplomatic footwork between Washington and Beijing. China has taken its own course by pledging not to fund foreign coal-fired power plants and targeting net-zero emissions by 2060. But it continues to invest in domestic power plants to help tackle an energy crisis. Multilateralism should still mean something to China, especially if it is one of the largest recipients of climate finance from development banks.
Still, this week has brought some tangible progress. Around 100 countries have signed methane agreements, although some large emitters have not signed. India pledged to net zero, albeit by 2070 rather than 2050. Developed countries have come up with a $ 8.5 billion plan to wean South Africa off coal. Such targeted support for poorer countries should be encouraged.
Mark Carney, a former governor of the Bank of England, demands to meet a $ 130 trillion pledge of private sector assets were excessive, but he managed to meet significant pledges from financial institutions. He rightly stresses the need to commit the private sector to finance the net zero transition. But institutions that joined the initiative have been criticized for still funding fossil fuels. To gain credibility, they must commit to a deadline to withdraw this funding. Organizations cannot rely on taking action without policies and regulations. Regulators could consider whether lenders should be penalized with higher capital requirements for keeping stale brown assets on their balance sheets.
An initial IEA inventory of pledges made this week estimates that their impact could limit global warming to 1.8 ° C. That is progress – even if it is not 1.5 C – as long as these obligations are met.
Which raises the thorny issue of enforcement. Commitments at COP26 are not legally binding. The ill-fated 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which the US signed but never ratified, underscored the difficulty of turning commitments into action. Nevertheless, at the next COP, the countries should have to explain why they have not complied with the agreements made here. Otherwise it is all too easy to promise too much and to undercut, as the path of the last 25 conferences of the parties has shown. There is only a week left to distinguish this COP from all the others.