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1.5° goal ‘hanging by a thread’: Recapping the 2021 UN climate change conference

The following text is excerpted from an article originally published in the Energy Mix. Read the full article here.

Glasgow’s COP 26, billed as the last chance to save the world from catastrophic climate change, failed to make the radical steps scientists said were needed but finally ended in a political consensus agreement 24 hours later than planned.

The UK’s stated aim to “keep 1.5°C alive,” in other words to keep the planet’s temperature from exceeding that dangerous threshold of warming, was not achieved by the agreements at the conference. The world is still on course to warm by 2.4°C if all the country’s promises in Glasgow are kept. The hopes of keeping to 1.5°C were left “hanging by a thread,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres, relying on actions at next year’s COP 27 in Egypt and beyond.

The ministerial declaration by 197 countries did go further than at any past COP in pushing for more action on climate change. But much of it was in language “urging” governments to act, which #FridaysforFuture founder Greta Thunberg memorably characterized as “Blah, Blah, Blah.”

Countries were told, however, that to rescue the 1.5°C aspiration they must increase their efforts to reduce carbon emissions and come to COP 27 with updated plans for deeper emissions cuts by 2030.

Beyond that weak outcome, the whole conference nearly foundered on the issue of money for the developing world. There was an ambition to double the US$100 billion-a-year fund to adapt to climate change, but no separate funds to cover the sweeping loss and damage the world’s most vulnerable countries are already experiencing. This is a long-standing demand by the developing world for a reparation fund from the rich countries to help them survive and repair damage caused by extreme weather events like typhoons, floods, droughts, and sea level rise.

Several African countries, and particularly members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), rose to say the lack of funds for loss and damage was a major stumbling block to success, but they did not want to wreck the conference by refusing to join the consensus.

For the rich countries, including the issue at all was a concession, and giving loss and damage a section to itself in the ministerial declaration was seen as a sign they were taking it seriously. However, the United States, the European Union, Australia and the host nation, the United Kingdom, were all credited with blocking the inclusion of a Loss and Damage Finance Facility to provide funds for countries hit by extreme weather and sea level rise.

Another significant advance in the COP declaration was the mention of fossil fuels for the first time, with a call for parties to scale up clean power generation with a view to “accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.”

While it was the first mention of fossil fuels in any of the 26 COP declarations to date, the subsidy wording was a disappointment for many. Some wanted a statement that said all coal, oil, and gas should be phased out, while others wanted the word “inefficient” removed in an attempt to get all fossil fuel subsidies stopped. Global fossil fuel subsidies ran to $5.9 trillion in 2020, or $11.2 million a minute, far more than any aid package offered to the developing world to combat climate change. 

As well, the declaration language on coal was watered down from a stronger call to phase out the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel, the result of a last-minute intervention by India’s Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav in the closing round of plenary deliberations. That unexpected twist was seen as an underhanded tactic by many, one that will play out to the detriment of India’s own citizens and the rest of the developing world.

Overall, the conference was a victory for the rich nations, many of which had fossil fuel advocates in their delegations, against the countries already suffering from climate change, many of which were under-represented at the conference because of COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine apartheid.

Language by diplomats and ministers on the conference floor was polite, but non-government organizations were disappointed at the lack of ambition.

Perhaps the feelings and views of the developing world were best summed up by a blistering attack by African civil society, the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, on the “failure of the COP.” They said the outcome was focused on the Northern agenda to defer urgent action on climate and pursue half-measures while oppressing Africa.

The statement said many African states and observers had felt excluded from the conference, with the U.K. organizers restricting access to meetings and forums so African voices were not heard at the conference.

Read the full article here.