The UN's annual climate summit, COP26, came to a close on Saturday with the adoption of the Glasgow Climate Pact by nearly 200 countries. Some of those present at COP26, like US climate envoy John Kerry, saw the agreement as a "good deal." Others, like climate activist Greta Thunberg, weren't quite as pleased with the final result.
This year's summit was seen as "the world's last best chance" for action on climate change, with the latest science suggesting the world is heading for a dangerous increase in heating by the end of the century. And the situation is that urgent -- drastic reductions in carbon emissions are required if the world is to keep temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The pact goes some ways toward laying out how such a goal might be achieved, but views vary on whether it remains achievable. Climate scientists tend to believe we'll blow past the number, while diplomats at the event maintained a more positive outlook. So what's in the pact and what does it mean for combating the climate crisis over the coming decade? Let's take a look.
1.5 degrees Celsius
Under the Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, nations are required to limit global warming to "well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit)" by the end of the century and to attempt to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Glasgow was seen as the "best last chance" to meet this goal.
How does the pact strengthen the position? It:
"Reaffirms the long-term global goal to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels" and "resolves to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius."
"We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees alive," says Alok Sharma, UK president of COP26. "But its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action."
Throughout the summit, various projections and models have showed the world is likely to blow past this number, reaching anywhere between 1.8 and 2.7 degrees of warming. Climate scientists I have spoken to agree that we're likely going to see more than 1.5 degrees of warming before the end of the century.
However, there is renewed urgency. Nations have been encouraged to return at COP27, in November 2022, with even more ambitious pledges to cut emissions by 2030, accelerating the timeline laid out in the Paris Agreement of 2015, which called on more ambitious pledges to be made every five years. The increased urgency has been welcomed by many experts.
Susan Harris Rimmer, director of the policy innovation hub at Griffith University in Australia, said nations "will have to resubmit their homework next year to show more rigorous and realistic plans to achieve the promises made."
To reduce emissions, the pact:
"Calls upon Parties to accelerate ... efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies."
The key word here is "phasedown." As the Pact was being drafted, reports filtered out that the COP26 agreement would look to phase out coal power. Coal is responsible for almost half of human-generated carbon emissions and the chief source of electricity generation, so a global commitment to end its use would go a long way toward mitigating emissions. However, after significant pushback from India and China, the final agreement uses the softer language of "phase down."
Sharma was critical of China and India in a BBC interview, but noted that "at the end of the day, this is the first time ever that we've got language about coal in a COP decision. I think that is absolutely historic."
However, the watered-down language has been seen by some island nations, like the Maldives, as insufficient. Shauna Aminath, minister of environment, climate change and technology for the Maldives, tweeted on Saturday that "a phase down of coal won't save the Maldives and island nations."
It has also been used as an excuse to continue digging up coal. In Australia, seen as a laggard when it comes to action on climate change, Sen. Matt Canavan contended that the phaseout was a "green light" to continue digging up coal. Climate scientists analyzing the agreement disagree.
"It's extremely disappointing to see COP26 end like this -- coal has to be abandoned for us to secure a safe climate future," said Matt England, an oceanographer with the University of New South Wales' Climate Change Research Centre.
Developing nations have been caught between poverty and disaster -- they've emitted far less carbon dioxide and contributed less to global warming than rich nations but, as signatories to Paris, are tasked with pulling themselves up without fossil fuels. Even so, they've felt the effects of the climate crisis much more than rich countries.
Rich countries had agreed in 2009 to help developing countries cut emissions and adapt to climate change by providing financial assistance to the tune of $100 billion a year from 2020. The Glasgow pact:
Notes with deep regret that the goal of developed country Parties to mobilize jointly $100 billion per year by 2020 in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation has not yet been met.
Developing countries voiced their extreme disappointment at the lack of urgency regarding funding for adaptation projects, and the pact aims to boost funding for these projects. The pact urges developed nations to "fully deliver" on this pledge through to 2025 -- notably, it emphasizes the important of transparency in implementation of the pledges.
Developing countries have long asked for compensation from developed nations for "loss and damage" already caused by the climate crisis. The Glasgow Climate Pact acknowledges these issues but does not offer any clear path forward in addressing this issue.
The next climate summit, COP27, will take place in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, between Nov. 7 and Nov. 18, 2022.
Coming in to COP26, nations began updating their pledges to cut emissions, but the pact puts the pressure on to reduce them further over the coming year. It makes clear that the current trajectory leaves a tiny window to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. COP26 may have been billed as the world's best last chance, but it has ended up buying a little more time -- because that window is still closing fast.
"From today on, it is all about making those promises right, and walking the talk," said Pep Canadell, executive director of the Global Carbon Project.