Global climate deal signed, but ‘disaster still looms’

A global climate deal was agreed late on Saturday night at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26. But crucially, the agreement watered down draft commitments to phase out coal, the fossil fuel that contributes the most to global warming – around 40% of carbon dioxide emissions.

The UN secretary general and scientists, including the architects of the 2015 Paris Agreement, as well as climate activists, had already warned that, while progress on commitments to tackle the causes of climate change has been made at the conference, they don’t go far enough and disaster still looms.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres, commenting on the deal, said: “Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe.

“It is time to go into emergency mode – or our chance of reaching net zero will itself be zero.”

Hope now rests on the fact that the countries agreed to meet again in a year’s time with “raised ambition” to commit to further carbon emissions cuts.

Current national plans – termed nationally determined contributions or NDCs – would lead to a 2.4°C rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels by 2100 compared to 1.1°C today, according to the highly respected Climate Action Tracker, which tracks countries covering 85% of global emissions.

“With all target pledges, including those made in Glasgow, global greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 will still be around twice as high as necessary for the 1.5°C limit,” the tracker warned on 9 November.

“Glasgow has a massive credibility, action and commitment gap.”

The final deal – the Glasgow Climate Pact – did press for more urgent emission cuts and committed to providing more funds for developing countries to help them adapt to climate impacts. But the cuts agreed did not go far enough to limit the temperature rise to 1.5°C, and on coal the commitment is to “phase down” rather than “phase out” its use.

So disappointing was the final text that COP26 President Alok Sharma said he was “deeply sorry” for “the way this process has unfolded”.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that emissions must be cut by 45% by 2030 to stay within the 1.5°C target by 2100. But even adhering to 1.5°C would lead to many low-lying areas around the world being inundated due to sea levels rising, as well as an increase in extreme weather events such as droughts and flooding.

A report by the Hadley Centre this week warned that one billion people would be at risk of exposure to extreme heat if global warming reached 2°C, representing a 15-fold increase on the numbers affected today.

A key demand emerging at COP26, due to the inadequacy of current NDCs, is the need to return to negotiations within a year with increased ambitions, rather than revising commitments every five years as set out in the Paris Agreement.

Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who oversaw the 2015 Paris summit, told the Guardian if the world is going to wait five years to increase their ambitions, “honestly that’s going to be too late”.

“This is critically important. We need much more urgency, as this is the critical decade. We need to come back next year. We can’t wait five years for new NDCs.”

Guterres told the conference last week: “Let’s have no illusions: if commitments fall short by the end of this COP, countries must revisit their national climate plans and policies. Not every five years. Every year.”

Laurent Fabius, the former French foreign minister who also oversaw the Paris summit, told the Guardian: “In the present circumstances [targets] must be enhanced next year.”

In that context, the most important achievement in the final agreement may prove to be the commitment to meet again next year with increased ambition.

Challenges and ambitions

Sharma on 10 November said: “The Paris Agreement clearly sets out the temperature goal. Well below 2 degrees and pursuing efforts to 1.5 degrees. That is why our overarching goal of ‘keeping 1.5 degrees within reach’ has been our lodestar.

“We seek to chart a path that is balanced across the three pillars of the Paris Agreement: finance, adaptation and mitigation.”

But he forewarned that the task of finalising all texts, including the cover decisions, will be challenging, as it proved with negotiations carrying past the planned end of the conference on Friday.

Sharma said: “We all know what is at risk if we do not reach an ambitious outcome. Climate vulnerable countries on the front line of the climate crisis will continue to bear the brunt.

“Before it engulfs us all.”

In a powerful speech, former United States president Barack Obama said: “We are nowhere near where we need to be.”

On the way he criticised his successor, Donald Trump, for backing away from climate action and accused China and Russia of a “lack of urgency” in addressing the issue.

Nevertheless, a string of positive announcements have been made since the conference began on 31 October – from a promise to stop deforestation by 2030, to agreements to shift away from coal, cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030, and invest in clean technology – all marking progress on commitments, even if insufficient to meet the overall targets if realised.

In addition, the US and China set aside their differences to agree to work jointly to take “accelerated actions in the critical decade of the 2020s” and “enhanced measures” to reduce emissions and eliminate illegal deforestation.

Zero emission vehicles

Thirty countries have agreed to work together to make zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) the new normal by making them accessible, affordable and sustainable in all regions by 2030 or sooner.

A number of emerging markets are agreeing to accelerate the transition to ZEVs (including India, Rwanda and Kenya).

Nineteen governments have stated their intent to support the establishment of ‘green shipping corridors’ – zero-emission shipping routes between two ports. This will involve deploying zero-emission vessel technologies and putting alternative fuel and charging infrastructure in place in ports to allow for zero-emission shipping on key routes across the globe.

Full participation by women and girls

On 9 November participants announced measures to enable the full and meaningful participation of women and girls in climate action.

These ranged from Canada committing to ensure that 80% of its CA$5.3 billion (US$4.2 billion) climate investments over the next five years target gender equality outcomes, to Sierra Leone committing to address long-standing discriminatory land tenure practices which deny women access to and control of land through enacting a range of new legislation.

Science and Innovation Day at COP26 on 9 November saw the announcement of new initiatives backed by global coalitions of nations, businesses and scientists. These will support the implementation of the goals announced during the World Leaders Summit and other country commitments announced during the first week of the conference.

The United Kingdom’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, underlined the critical role of science and innovation in enabling every country to access the tools it needs to immediately reduce emissions in line with Paris temperature targets, and to adapt to the effects of climate change that we are already seeing.

The initiatives include:

• New commitments to accelerate innovation and low carbon transitions in industry and cities.

• New global Adaptation Research Alliance to increase the resilience of vulnerable communities on the frontline of climate change.

• Independent experts to track progress against the ‘Breakthrough Agenda’ announced by world leaders on 2 November, advising on action and collaboration.

• Global scientific research community to produce annual climate risk assessment to ensure the dangers are fully understood by world leaders.

Initiatives were launched that will enhance international cooperation between governments, academics, businesses and civil society and attempt to ensure science and innovation delivers for all in order to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

This included dozens of countries committing to building health systems that are able to withstand the impacts of climate change and which are low carbon and sustainable. Forty-two of the countries, representing over a third of global health care emissions, have committed to develop a sustainable, low-carbon health system, of which 12 have set a deadline of 2050 or earlier, by which their health system will reach net zero.

Vallance said: “The facts are clear: we must limit warming to 1.5°C. Thanks to science, that is feasible – the technologies are already available. Investment in research and development will deliver new clean technologies, while policies to create markets will ensure they are deployed.

“At the same time, science will help us adapt to the impacts of climate change we’re already seeing around the world and transform our economies. Through research and innovation, we will adjust essential systems and ensure continued safety, security and prosperity.”

Shift to sustainable agriculture

On 6 November, governments and businesses joined farmers and local communities at COP26, securing new agreements to protect nature and accelerate the shift to sustainable agriculture and land use practices by making them more attractive, accessible and affordable than unsustainable alternatives.

Forty-five governments pledged urgent action and investment to protect nature and shift to more sustainable ways of farming. Ninety-five high profile companies from a range of sectors committed to being ‘Nature Positive’, agreeing to work towards halting and reversing the decline of nature by 2030.

Sharma said the commitments show “that nature and land use are being recognised as essential to meeting the Paris Agreement goals and will contribute to addressing the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss”.

On 2 November a new global initiative was launched to reach 100 million farmers at the centre of food systems transformation with net zero and nature positive innovations by 2030 via a multi-stakeholder platform convened by the World Economic Forum involving farmers’ organisations, civil society, businesses and other partners.

The nature commitments were followed by Ocean Action Day on 5 November, during which over 10 new countries signed up to the ‘30 by 30’ target to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. These were: Bahrain, Jamaica, St Lucia, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, India, Qatar, Samoa, Tonga, Gambia and Georgia. The target is now supported by more than 100 countries.


Some 134 countries, covering 91% of the world’s forests (including Brazil, China, Russia and Indonesia), endorsed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, launched on 2 November, committing to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.

On 4 November it was announced that at least 23 countries have made new commitments to phase out coal power, including five of the world’s top 20 coal power-using countries.

Overall, a 190-strong coalition of countries, sub-nationals and businesses has agreed to phase out coal power and end support for new coal power plants thanks to a package of support from international partners. This includes 28 new members, including Chile and Singapore.

And 20 new countries, including Vietnam, Morocco and Poland, committed to building no new coal plants, matching similar announcements over the past year by Pakistan, Malaysia and the Philippines, and building on the ‘No New Coal Power Compact’ launched in September by Sri Lanka, Chile, Montenegro and European partners.

Major international banks have committed to effectively end all international public financing of new unabated coal power by the end of 2021.

In addition, a group of 25 countries, including COP26 partners Italy, Canada, the US and Denmark, together with public finance institutions have signed a UK-led joint statement committing to ending international public support for the unabated fossil fuel energy sector by the end of 2022 and instead prioritising support for the clean energy transition.

According to a statement released on behalf of the UK COP26 Presidency and the COP25 and COP26 High-Level Climate Champions, collectively this could shift an estimated US$17.8 billion a year in public support out of fossil fuels and into the clean energy transition.

“This is a historic step. It is the first time a COP presidency has prioritised this issue and put a bold end date on international fossil fuel finance. COP26 has set a new gold standard on the Paris alignment of international public finance and sends a clear signal for private investors to follow,” the statement said.

There has been a 76% drop in the number of new coal plants planned globally over the six years since the Paris Agreement was adopted.

In separate announcements, major emerging economies took significant steps to move from coal to clean power. India, Indonesia, the Philippines and South Africa announced partnerships with the Climate Investment Funds to accelerate their transitions away from coal power, backed by a dedicated US$2 billion facility. Indonesia and the Philippines announced pioneering partnerships with the Asian Development Bank to support the early retirement of coal plants.

These followed the ground-breaking US$8.5 billion deal to support South Africa’s just transition to clean energy announced at the World Leaders’ Summit.

Cutting methane emissions

More than 80 countries have pledged to cut their methane emissions by the end of the decade. Countries responsible for almost half the world’s methane emissions, including the US and the European Union, have committed to reducing the amount of harmful greenhouse gases they release into the atmosphere by 30% by 2030.

Financing initiative

Mobilising finance is critical to delivering the urgent action needed to limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C. Trillions of dollars of additional investment a year are needed to secure a low-carbon future and support countries already living with the devastating impacts of climate change.

New commitments for climate financing also came from the UK, Spain, Japan, Australia, Norway, Ireland and Luxembourg that build on the plan set out ahead of COP26 to deliver US$100 billion per year of support to developing countries.

Finance ministers also discussed that the billions of dollars in public finance must be used to leverage the trillions of dollars in private finance needed for a climate resilient, net-zero future, and how to support developing countries to access that finance.

More than US$130 trillion of private finance is now committed to science-based net-zero targets and near-term milestones, through the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, led by Mark Carney.

Fossil fuel impact ongoing

Despite the progress on key targets, there has been strong evidence that the commitments collectively do not go far enough.

The Production Gap Report 2021 released by leading research institutes and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) on 20 October found that despite increased climate ambitions and net-zero commitments, governments still plan to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than what would be consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

Over the next two decades, governments are collectively projecting an increase in global oil and gas production, and only a modest decrease in coal production. Taken together, their plans and projections see global, total fossil fuel production increasing out to at least 2040, creating an ever-widening production gap.

“The devastating impacts of climate change are here for all to see. There is still time to limit long-term warming to 1.5°C, but this window of opportunity is rapidly closing,” says Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP. “At COP26 and beyond, the world’s governments must step up, taking rapid and immediate steps to close the fossil fuel production gap and ensure a just and equitable transition. This is what climate ambition looks like.”

Lack of climate justice

Another significant bone of contention is the failure to adequately deliver on ‘climate justice’, as demonstrated by the tardiness of advanced industrialised countries – who, in having industrialised first, are viewed as major historic contributors to global warming – in mobilising sufficient funds to meet the target set in Paris of providing US$100 billion a year from 2020 to support developing countries to cut their carbon emissions, minimise the impact of climate change and adapt their economies to deal with its impact.

On Friday hundreds of protesters walked out of a gathering at COP26 wearing red ribbons symbolising red lines crossed during the negotiations.

Earlier climate activist Greta Thunberg told an earlier youth protest that world leaders had had “26 COPs; they have had decades of blah, blah, blah – and where has that got us?”

She criticised the focus on long-term goals when urgent action was also needed.

“We don't just need goals for just 2030 or 2050. We, above all, need them for 2020 and every following month and year to come.”

Academics seek ‘real green revolution’

More than 200 academics gave their own verdict on COP26 in an open letter, with signatories including Dr Malika Virah-Sawmy of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies Potsdam, Germany, who specialises in systems change; former French environment minister, Dr Yves Cochet at the Institut Momentum, France; Professor Jem Bendell, founder of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability at the University of Cumbria, UK, who is also co-editor of Deep Adaptation, and Professor Emeritus William Rees, an expert on biophysical prerequisites for sustainability.

The signatories included PhD holders and professors from institutions including Harvard University, the University of Edinburgh, University of Bordeaux, University of Barcelona, Tel Aviv University and the University of Auckland, among others.

They said the failure to adequately cut greenhouse gas emissions at COP26 demonstrated that a ‘real green revolution’ was needed.

“The hot air from Glasgow means it’s time for more honest and radical leadership. We must call out the fantasy that dangerous global heating will not get worse or that the largest corporations will come to our rescue,” they said.

They said it was both “unscientific and unethical” to deny that the economic system is at fault, so must be transformed to reduce climate risk and adapt to the difficulties.

“We are hundreds of scholars from dozens of countries, who are grieving the situation but determined not to ignore it. We believe that the corporate capture and failure of COP26 clearly show that people in communities and organisations must now lead our own emergency response,” they said.

“That includes coordinated radical policy advocacy from outside of a corporate-driven system, for a ‘real green revolution’ that will significantly reduce and draw down emissions, regenerate nature and help us adapt.

“It also includes growing community-led ‘deep adaptation’ efforts independently of governments and transnational corporations.”