The COP26 in Glasgow begins in an atmosphere of great expectations. Two years have passed since the failure of the Madrid summit that preceded it, characterized by extreme climate phenomena in all parts of the world: unprecedented temperature peaks, devastating droughts and fires, melting ice and permafrost, catastrophic floods, and small island states increasingly threatened by erosion as sea levels rise. There is a deep awareness in the public opinion and pressure on the political class to act immediately and radically to contain the climate crisis.
By now, there are no more doubts – or rather, illusions to the contrary – that these changes are due to human activities and that there is a brief time left to avoid reaching points of no return, that is when the temperature increase will lead to further, more intense and irreversible climate change. The IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel of Scientists on Climate Change) report released in late July notes that many of the observed climate changes are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, and some of the changes already set in motion are irreversible in hundreds or thousands of years.
However, as the report notes, strong and sustained reductions in carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) and other greenhouse gases would limit climate change. So, we know what needs to be done, and that action needs to be taken now. And there is no shortage of good intentions. There has been a lot of fine diplomatic work to ensure that COP26 can initiate a breakthrough over the past year. First, not postponing it, as some were calling for, because of the pandemic. Then, the building of relationships of trust, an essential condition for reaching a consensus when opposing interests are at stake, and shared goals to be achieved. The Paris Agreement calls for containing global warming at the end of the century to at least within two °C of pre-industrial levels, better yet within 1.5°C. Considering that at the moment, we have already reached 1.1°C, the space to intervene is now minimal. For the Pacific island countries, the difference between 1.5°C and 2 °C is their disappearance from the earth’s surface.
Diplomacy has succeeded in setting the 1.5°C thresholds as the goal. The science tells us that we need to reduce emissions by 45% (from 2010 levels) by 2030 and have a zero balance of emissions by 2050. That’s why the COP chair called on states to submit new emissions reduction targets ahead of the conference. Analysis of the new data shows that we are on a trajectory of a 2.7°C temperature increase by the end of the century. Instead of reducing emissions, they will increase by 13.7% in 2030.
The underlying problem is that the turning point would come with the gradual but sustained elimination of fossil fuels. But to do this would immediately lead to a contraction of the economy worldwide, and no government wants that. Instead, they would like a smooth transition, with no shock to the system. In other words, continue to burn fossil fuels to grow the economy while creating the conditions for switching to renewable energy without challenging the dominant economic system. This is why small island states, indigenous peoples, youth, and civil society organizations are deeply disappointed in these negotiations.
We are still far from the finish line, but there is hope nonetheless. Just look at the acceleration so far: before the Paris Agreement, the trajectory was towards a 6°C temperature increase; with the Paris Agreement, it dropped to 4°C; and now, with the commitments made in Glasgow, we are in the 2.4°C to 1.8°C range. The difference between the two terms will depend on the availability of funding for programs to reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
Much remains to be done, and while the conference fell short of expectations, it at least provided tools to make more effective climate action a reality. First, the parties have agreed to resubmit annual audits and reviews of emission reduction plans instead of every 5 years as the Paris Agreement requires. Emissions reporting rules, pending for 6 years, were finalized to allow the Paris Agreement to become fully operational. Then there is the agreement on the end of deforestation by 2030; the agreement on zero-emission cars by 2035, which commits one-third of the global car market; the stop to international funding for coal and the reduction of this energy source; and, above all, the commitment to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 by 90% of the world’s economies. Indeed, enormous challenges remain, such as financing the transition and how fast it can be achieved. But the overall goal is not yet beyond reach. Diplomacy, while essential, will not be enough. A strong bottom-up push will be needed to put the necessary pressure on governments to raise their ambitions to reduce greenhouse gases and act diligently, but above all to overcome the approach that wants a simple adaptation of the economic system that has caused and continues to aggravate the climate crisis.