A Greener Future – Takeaways from COP26’s first week

06 November 2021

CL Croft

This past week, world leaders congregated in Glasgow, Scotland to negotiate commitments to slowing Earth’s warming—which has reached a velocity many are referring to as 'code red'. Regarded as the most important climate summit since the 2015 Paris Agreement, the summit has high stakes. Scientists and many politicians agree this is the last chance to make critical changes to avoid the worst of warming.

At the end of the summit’s first week, here’s an overview and recap of promises –and potential progress – made.

The goals of the summit

To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced by nearly 50% by 2030. At present, leaders are negotiating national targets to limit emissions, phase out coal, and aid developing countries already endangered and impacted by the climate crisis.

David Attenborough, the “people’s advocate” for the summit, opened his speech with a history of life on Earth. Ten-thousand years ago, the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere stabilized, creating for the first time the weather conditions for civilization and agriculture.

“Everything we’ve achieved in the last 10,000 years was enabled by the stability during this time. The global temperature has not wavered over this period by more than plus or minus one degrees Celsius—until now,” he says. “In my lifetime, I have witnessed a terrible decline. In yours, you could and should witness a wonderful recovery.”

“This is the decisive decade,” President Joe Biden resounded in his opening remarks. “The eyes of history are upon us.”

What’s at stake

Presently, the world is heading to a temperature rise of about 2.7° C by the end of the century, according to a U.N. report . The six years since the global delegates signed the Paris climate accord in 2015 have been the world’s hottest on record.

Leaders agree that the reality of climate change is not a question for the future, but a grave threat today. The year 2021 alone saw historic heat waves in the American Pacific Northwest, extreme drought in the Southwest, floods in the Northeast, and extreme weather and wildfires the world over.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson presented a harrowing picture of what two, three, and four degrees of warming would look like. Two degrees and “we jeopardize food supply for hundreds of millions, crops wither, locusts swarm.” Three degrees, and we see multitudes more wildfires, cyclones, droughts, and heat waves. Four degrees, and we lose whole cities to water—Miami, Alexandria, Shanghai—not to mention island nations already compromised by the current level of warming.

The Swedish teenaged climate activist Greta Thunberg rallied at the summit, calling for an end to “exploitation of people and nature and the planet.”

How leaders are responding

The world’s top polluters of greenhouse gas emissions are the U.S., China, the E.U., and India. World leaders—especially ones in the highest-emitting countries—need to pledge measurable strategies to phase out or aggressively reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and coal.

Some key leaders, however, were absent from the conference, from China, Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Brazil. Last month, while world leaders met at the G20 conference in Italy, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was not there, offered a vague promise that over the next three decades, Russia’s carbon emissions would be “lower than its neighbors.”

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s absence at COP is notable, as China is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, and the outcome of warming may depend on their actions. Jinping promised to release concrete plans to peak China’s emissions in 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

Leaders that are present have appeared to be allied on committing to a greener future. “Our addiction to fossil fuels is pushing humanity to the brink...either we stop it, or it stops us,” said UN Secretary António Guterres in his opening statement. “Choose ambition. Choose solidarity. Choose to safeguard our future and save humanity.”

Declarations and agendas signal progress

How much progress is made at the conference is entirely dependent on the follow through of world leaders and nations that comes afterwards. Here are a few notable announcements that signal positive movement.

Net-zero and reduced methane

John F. Kerry, President Biden’s special presidential envoy for climate, announced a strategy to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The US and the EU also announced a global partnership to cut emissions of the greenhouse gas methane by 2030.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi committed India to net zero emissions by 2070—two decades later than necessary to slow critical warming. Modi expressed the need for wealthier countries to use their economic power to help finance the transition to clean energy, and to help protect the world’s poorer citizens.

Moving private finance to developing countries

“Those who’ve done the least to cause this problem are being the hardest hit,” David Attenborough said of the inequality inherent to climate change. Millions of people who live in poverty or near the equator are already facing displacement or destruction of livelihood.

At the summit, President Biden outlined a plan to provide financial support to developing nations. Biden promised to work with Congress to allocate $3 billion a year by 2024 to finance adaptation to climate change in countries where citizens are displaced by rising seas and temperatures.

Meanwhile, a coalition of banks, investors and insurers pledged $130 trillion in assets to hit net-zero in their investments by 2050. This could move climate adaptation and mitigation efforts to the forefront of global finance, a crucial element of global emissions reduction.

End of coal

Coal is the single biggest contributor to the CO2 emissions that contribute to global warming. In 2019, it produced around 37% of the world’s electricity.

On the fourth day of the conference, G20 countries agreed to stop investing in coal power plants abroad, in the 2030s for major economies, and in the 2040s for developing ones. Several major banks joined the pledge. Over 40 countries have committed to shifting away from coal, including major coal-reliant countries like Poland, Vietnam, and Chile. China, the U.S., and other large emitters have not committed to stop using coal domestically.

Halting deforestation

Over 100 countries have pledged to halt and reverse deforestation. Land-clearing accounts for almost a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, largely to produce agriculture like palm oil, soy, and beef. Leaders signed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use, committing to protect vast areas like the Siberian taiga and the Congo basin.

In Prince Charles words, “After billions of years of evolution, nature is our best teacher.” The indigineous activist Txai Suruí, from Brazil, spoke for her tribe : “Indigenous peoples are on the front line of the climate emergency. We must be at the center of the decisions happening here.”

What’s ahead

The next seven days of negotiations will further determine the world’s collective goals for slowing Earth’s warming. Advocates are hopeful that leaders will make more ambitious commitments to aggressive reform, and provide realistic avenues to drive that change.

Many leaders emphasized the importance of merging science with solutions—and that we already have the tools necessary to stop warming in its tracks, from categorical changes in renewable energy to the way we make products for people.

During an event at the conference, Bill Gates said, “We need to think about how to turn lab-proven concepts into ubiquitous products that people want and can afford to buy.”

And in a gesture of hope during his speech, Attenborough offered: “We are, after all, the greatest problem solvers to have ever existed on Earth.”