Turning Promises into Climate Action – COP26 Week 2

13 November 2021

CL Croft

“Imagine bringing together 197 of your friends and trying to get them to agree on where to have lunch. Actually you're trying to bring them together to try to agree on decisions that will have fundamental impacts.”

UK Lead Climate Negotiator Archie Young used this analogy in a video on the COP26 Twitter feed earlier this week. It underscores the complexity of the challenges faced during Week 2 of the Climate Summit, as negotiators from 197 countries moved their focus from goal-setting toward finalizing strategies and answering questions of finance, transparency, and timeliness.

Meanwhile outside of the conference, tens of thousands of protesters marched beneath the cover of a giant paper hummingbird in Glasgow’s wind and rain. They criticized the climate summit as a PR stunt for politicians that fell far short of the action needed to generate necessary change. Despite promises by political leaders, targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 so far appear to be insufficient, with temps still on track to rise by 2.4°C by the end of the century. More fuel was added to the fire as fossil fuel lobbyists joined events and talks inside of summit doors, a move that was defended by the UN.

The nature of decision-making for the indefinite future at a planetary scale is not only unprecedented, but perhaps incoherent with the way the human brain has evolved to solve problems, as the writer George Marshall investigates , or as historian Yuval Noah Harari expounds in his trilogy on the history of humankind. Still, the future of human, animal, and plant life on Earth depend on our ability as a species to cooperate, and on the integrity of negotiations this week. Here’s a recap of how things evolved during COP 26 Week 2.

Monday: Adaptation, Loss & Damage

On Monday, leaders discussed the implications of losses already incurred and inevitable, as well as the propensity for increasing catastrophe. Even if the world stops burning fossil fuels today, and if trillions are spent on adaptation to a changed climate, catastrophic warming has already begun. Many of the countries who have done the least to cause climate change are already suffering, and will continue to bear the worst consequences.

As rising seas, heat waves and disastrous weather are claiming lives and making some parts of earth less habitable, representatives from vulnerable regions are demanding compensation for damages that are directly linked to wealthy countries’ emissions.

While these nations are “on the front lines of the climate crisis, they are not on the front pages of the world’s newspapers,” said Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate justice activist. “How will we have climate justice if people from the most affected areas are not being listened to?”

Youth and indigenous activists criticized extractive development, in which wealthy countries develop in other countries, leaving local people with environmental damage and persistent poverty.

“Research has estimated that annual loss-and-damage financial needs in developing countries could hit $290 billion to $580 billion a year by 2030,” the Washington Post published. “Current levels of humanitarian funding...are less than one-tenth of that.”

“Island [nations] are the canary in the coal mine in this situation,” President Barak Obama said in his talk . “They are sending a message now that if we don’t act—and act boldly—it’s going to be too late.” He urged young people to stay angry, stay stubbornly optimistic, and to prepare for a marathon rather than a sprint. Speaking on his own daughters’ shopping habits, he also encouraged young people to use their spending power on businesses committed to sustainability.

Tuesday: Gender, Science and Innovation

Leaders agreed to a “Global Checkpoint Process”, a first-ever commitment to review progress annually, starting in 2022. They also agreed on four new priorities to catalyze investment in accelerating clean technologies.

Pete Buttigieg, the U.S. Transportation Secretary, proposed a different way of thinking about the language of climate change. Rather than setting goals to “save the planet,” he said, we should refocus our conversation around sustaining human life on Earth. Atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe agreed: “The planet will be orbiting the sun long after we are gone. The planet does not need us. We’re the ones who need the planet.”

Wednesday: Transportation

In an unexpected development, the U.S. and China issued a joint statement announcing a pledge to do more to cut emissions this decade—and in which China committed to address emissions from methane. The working draft calls for a faster end to coal, and a stop to subsidies of oil and gas.

Thirty national governments and six major auto-makers, including Ford, Mercedes-Benz, General Motors and Volvo, pledged to phase out sales of new gas- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040 worldwide—and by 2030 in leading markets. Absent from this pledge: U.S., China, Japan, and Toyota, Volskwagen and Nissan-Renault.

Domestically, the Biden administration announced this summer a pledge that half of new vehicles sold in 2030 will be electric—with support from major automakers.

Boris Johnson warned of diminishing time to preserve human life as we know it, and urged negotiators to practice togetherness in “[pulling] out all the stops.” Meanwhile, critics wonder about his climate credibility as the UK shies from a pact to end new oil and gas projects.

Thursday: Cities, Regions and Built Environment

Cities, where more than 68% of the global population will live by 2050, produce over two-thirds of the world’s greenhouse gases. Transportation has a lot to do with that. Cities must address the question of the carbon cost of cars, and many are answering with public transit .

1,000 cities have joined the U.N.’s Race to Zero. India, the fourth-largest auto market in the world, committed to quicken the transition to zero-emission vehicles as a part of the Zero Emission Vehicles Transition Council 2022 action plan.

Negotiators identified four areas of unresolved issues: emissions cuts, financing for developing countries, reparations for climate damage, and carbon offsets. The president of the summit appealed to negotiators to work harder toward strengthening climate targets. As the summit neared its end, Pope Francis called for prayer.

Friday: Close of COP26

As the summit closes, leaders agree that the efficacy of goals is wholly dependent on follow through, and that collective and individual action will determine the future of human life on the planet. Wealthy, higher-emitting countries will need to fulfil their promises to reduce emissions, and to provide financial support to countries disproportionately impacted by climate change.

“It’s a reminder that if you want to paddle a canoe, you better all be rowing in the same direction at the same time,” Obama remarked on the necessity of togetherness. “Every oar has to move in unison; that’s the only way to move forward.”