The Guardian • Issue #1988

Limiting global warming to 1.5° “on life support”

The United Nations Climate Change Conference – dubbed COP26 – has recently ended in Glasgow after two busy weeks in which 120 heads of state, and 25,000 delegates from over 200 countries came together in a bid to negotiate agreements that would avert the worst effects of climate change.

Whilst some progress was made in a range of key areas both in the lead up to as well as the conference itself, the 2015 Paris Agreement target of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5°C remains on life support, with best estimates after the latest round of pledges still seeing the planet on a path to 2.4° warming by the end of this century. Yet mechanisms that will assist in ramping up individual countries’ efforts have been agreed upon, which is important given how crucial the current decade is in this fight.


Late on the final day, 197 countries agreed to the “Glasgow Climate Pact.” The twenty-page document covers a range of affirmations, placing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent findings front and centre. It states that limiting warming to 1.5° would require “rapid, deep and sustained” emissions cuts, and that CO2 emissions would need to fall forty-five per cent below 2010 levels by 2030, and to net-zero by 2050. Temperatures have already risen by 1.1° since pre-industrial levels, so time is quickly running out for these affirmations to turn into binding policies that countries must adhere to.

The 2015 Paris Agreement included a mechanism that required nations to increase their commitments to climate action on a rolling five-year basis. With the latest IPCC report in mind, revising policies on this timescale would lead to a complete failure to address the problem at hand, given the trajectory emissions are currently on with respect to existing commitments. The latest pact has revised this requirement insofar as countries will now need to review and ramp-up commitments to emissions targets on a yearly basis, starting with COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt next year. It’s important to note that forty countries failed to offer new or updated “nationally determined contributions” (NDC’s) prior to this summit, as was required of them under the Paris Agreement.


Another key feature of the Glasgow Climate Pact was the requirement that nations “accelerate efforts towards the phase down of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”. Remarkably, this is the first time that “coal,” or any other fossil fuel for that matter has been specified directly in any previous UN climate pact. Much has been said about India’s last-minute request to amend the wording of “phase out” to “phase down” – but to get any level of agreement on the issue of coal is promising, given it is the dirtiest fossil fuel and according to the International Energy Agency, if not rapidly phased out it will give the world no chance of remaining below 1.5°.


Many climate activists continue to make the argument that pledges need to be binding to be effective. This rings true when reviewing the failure of developed nations to provide $US100 billion annually in climate financing to developing nations that was agreed to a decade ago. Current forecasts suggest this target will be again missed next year, and wording is ambiguous on whether the shortfall throughout 2020-22 will be required to be made up in the subsequent years.

Many global-south leaders utilised their allocated time slots to highlight this issue, as well as the urgency for a funding mechanism to respond to current climate damages already effecting their nations. The G77 + China put their weight behind a proposal for a facility titled the “Glasgow financial facility for loss and damage” that would meet this demand; however, attendees were only able to agree to a future “dialogue” on this matter. Yet more cans are being kicked down more roads.


Earlier in the conference, a range of new pledges were agreed to by a significant number of participating nations. These include reducing human-caused methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, halting and reversing forest loss and land degradation over the same period, and an acceleration towards the transition to 100 per cent zero-emission cars and cans. Whilst not all countries are participants of the new pledges made, they are an important step in the process of tackling climate change on a wide range of fronts.


Media portrayal of differing nations impacts on global CO2 emissions are not always objective in terms of how information is shared. Many western media publications will often chastise China and India for having the highest and third highest respective annual CO2 emissions currently. Some will go a step further to present statistics on a per-capita basis, which then sees countries such as Saudi Arabia, Australia, the United States and Canada at the top of the list – but it’s important to highlight that CO2 emissions remain in the atmosphere long after they were first emitted, and hence a cumulative figure (from the mid-18th century onwards) is far more representative of each country’s contribution to global warming.

On a cumulative per-capita basis, the West and Japan together have contributed over eight times the emissions than that of other nations – which is why it is so important that developed nations now do more to assist post-colonial nations in transitioning away from fossil fuels. As a country with a relatively low income, India currently relies on coal for seventy-five per cent of its electricity so they will therefore need considerable assistance from international partners if they are able to achieve their recently stated goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2070.


Bilateral relations between the world’s two superpowers have recently fallen to their lowest point in five decades, and so it was warmly welcomed in the second week of the conference that a joint China-US Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s was announced. A working group has been established that will promote joint actions on a range of areas, including methane reduction, as well as encouraging integration of solar, storage and other clean power solutions closer to electricity users.


The COP26 conference may not have been the panacea that many climate experts hoped for, even though some important advancements were made. More pressure will need to continually be applied by activists as the stakes grow with each passing year. Nations have shown an increased willingness to diplomatically work through the issues presented by an enemy common to all, but it will be in vain if substantial reductions to emissions do not materialise in the immediate future.

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