COP26: What It Got Right, Where It Fell Short, and What Comes Next

Participants hold a conversation on the COP 26 stage. Photo: Kiarra Worth/ UNFCCC

As the world turns the page on the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), UN Foundation Vice President for Energy, Climate, and the Environment Pete Ogden sat down with journalist Mark Leon Goldberg to reflect on the two-week marathon of negotiations. They discussed key outcomes and takeaways, accomplishments to be hopeful about, and areas where work still needs to be done. This interview was recorded for the Global Dispatches podcast and has been edited for length.

Mark Goldberg: What’s your big-picture takeaway from COP 26?

Pete Ogden: To provide some context, this was the biggest COP since the Paris Agreement was struck in 2015. The way that the original Paris Agreement was set up is that countries come together in five-year cycles to reevaluate and enhance their own national climate targets. The understanding in Paris was that while a top-line goal had been set of limiting global warming to well below 2°C, and with a subgoal of trying to take additional steps as possible to get all the way to limiting emissions to 1.5° of warming, that initial round of targets that were set just wasn’t commensurate with those long-term goals.

Forest family photo of World Leaders at COP26 at the SEC. Photo: Karwai Tang/ UK Government

The other major commitment coming out of the Paris Agreement was a financial commitment from developed economies to developing economies to mobilize $100 billion a year in climate finance, which is assistance to help developing economies to make the transition to greener economies themselves, and also to deal with some of the hard impacts that they’re feeling from climate change, which they of course have done very little to contribute to. That kind of basket of financing is often referred to as adaptation — essentially, how do these developing economies cope with the impacts of climate change?

So that was supposed to be five years in the making, and thanks to COVID-19, we got an extra year, so it was actually at this COP where these kinds of issues came to a head.

MG: And what happened? How were these issues dealt with?

PO: From Paris to Glasgow, you had the Trump administration withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. On the other hand, you had pockets of momentum around the world:

"Suddenly, the urgency and the level of ambition that people started to realize we needed to achieve is actually greater than five years ago."

Pete Ogden

Vice President for Energy, Climate, and the Environment, UN Foundation

Suddenly, the urgency and the level of ambition that people started to realize we needed to achieve is actually greater than five years ago. And then we arrived in Glasgow. There were around 40,000 registered participants. There’s been nothing like this on the global calendar since the COVID epidemic. Would countries increase their targets sufficiently to put them more on track to fulfill the goals of the Paris Agreement? And would countries deliver on their finance commitments under the Paris Agreement, and what would that mean going forward?

The first part of the two-week COP kicked off with political leader statements, followed by a whole slew of new initiatives announced. You had subsets of countries making big announcements on methane, which is a highly potent greenhouse gas; new partnerships to try to slash methane around the world; new partnerships on phasing out coal use. For instance, there was a package put together with South Africa — which is one of the most coal-dependent countries in the world — the U.S., the EU [European Union], and some others in the $8 billion range to help transform the power sector there away from coal and towards renewable fuels. And lots of other pockets of critical actors and coalitions were forming.

U.S. President Joe Biden arriving at COP26 World Leaders Summit of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference at the SEC, Glasgow. Photo: Alan Harvey/ UK Government

MG: And you see this happening at the UN a lot over the last decade: these kinds of public-private partnerships of like-minded countries or organizations or entities, sometimes with the private sector, sometimes with philanthropy, sometimes just among countries getting together on their own, announcing that collectively they’re going to do this very discrete, concrete thing that will contribute to the broader solution. What else would you point to as a concrete accomplishment from this COP?

PO: All of these initiatives that you’re pointing to are creating the conditions for countries to do what we described earlier, which is to try to raise targets. Presumably, with the work on methane, with the work on anti-deforestation, all these things that enable more ambition from countries and over the course of the last couple of years — and in particular last year — you had seen countries start to do this. For example, the United States, back in April, when President Biden announced an aggressive, new target for the country to achieve by 2030. The EU, Japan, Canada, and many, many developing economies had all also set new enhanced targets in anticipation of this moment, of COP being the deadline when all these would be assessed.

On the first day of COP, at the world leaders summit — which over 120 world leaders attended — Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi grabbed headlines by announcing India’s own new climate targets for 2030, as well as a longer-term net-zero target. It was really a major moment and seen as a significant contribution from one of the world’s largest emitters.

If you look back to Paris, at that time, the world was north of 3.5-3.7° trajectory. By the time all these new commitments had come down, for the year 2030, you’re back down to roughly a 2.4° trajectory. You can see that there was significant movement in the right direction. On the other hand, you can also see that we are not well below 2°, much less at 1.5°.

L-R Mary Shapiro, Jennifer Morris, Elizabeth Corley, Fernanda Mello, Saker Nusseibeh and Frank Elderson speaking at the Forest event at the SEC, Glasgow. Photo: Karwai Tang/ UK Government

MG: Are there other issues you would cite as progress having been made at COP26?

PO: One of the big challenges for COP was that literally on the Friday before it began, China submitted its own 2030 target, which was a very slightly enhanced variation of what it had made before. That cast a bit of a shadow over this because you have the world’s largest emitter, and people are really keen to see them enhance their ambitions significantly. And they did not do that.

One of the ways that that was ultimately resolved was with a big assist from the U.S. and China, which had a big headline-grabbing joint announcement during the final stretch of negotiations. It was a big moment for a number of reasons. One is that the U.S. and China had, back in the days of the Paris Agreement, found a way to work really effectively and constructively together on climate change and really help pave the way for the Paris Agreement. That had really fallen apart in the ensuing years, and the U.S.-China relationship broadly had gotten increasingly fraught. Whether or not some kind of bilateral commitment to this bigger, very much multilateral global issue could be reasserted was really in doubt. I don’t think people were really expecting it. A willingness for those two together to step out and lay out a vision for how they would continue to work together was a big diplomatic breakthrough.

MG: One interesting photo from the whole event was John Kerry with his arm over the Chinese negotiator’s shoulder. You saw the manifestation of that commitment to work more closely together between the United States and China after years of diplomatic paralysis.

PO: That’s right. And it wasn’t just in terms of them both being the largest emitters of greenhouse gases that they were able to help push the negotiations forward on the target-setting agenda. They also had an important joint commitment on the coal phase-down, and traditionally, in the UN framework process and the Paris Agreement, fossil fuels don’t get singled out and called out. Of course, their phase-down is implicit in these national targets that people are setting, but countries have avoided coming around documents that explicitly call for the phase-down of fossil fuels or coal.

And yet you look around at COP, and there are all sorts of new commitments doing just this, and you have China itself grabbing much-deserved headlines at the UN General Assembly when they committed not to fund any more new coal plants through their Belt and Road Initiative globally (they’ve been by far the leading provider of support for new coal).

John Kerry, United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, speaks at the Presidency Event; 4th High Level Ministerial Dialogue on Climate Finance at the SEC, Glasgow. Photo: Karwai Tang/ UK Government

These negotiations have shown a clear willingness to more explicitly grapple with this. And one of the last issues that got dealt with at the negotiations, really in the final hours, was around this language on the phase-down, or phaseout of coal, and there was a really sharp kind of division in the negotiating teams. India was very much calling for the inclusion of phasing down of coal, which again, is a first in these kinds of agreements. Others were promoting a position of phasing out coal, and it was a really hard-fought issue down to the wire. The U.S.-China agreement that had been worked out called for phasing down coal — clearly that’s where China was, and at the end of the day, that was the landing zone for the agreement.

MG: What, to your mind, was not accomplished or left on the table, or otherwise somehow disappointing to you as someone who has been following these issues for such a long time to not see included in the document?

PO: Well, one of the hardest issues, and it still needs to be worked on, is the question of finance. This goal that was set out in the Paris Agreement — and actually was first articulated back in 2009 — of developed economies committing to mobilizing $100 billion annually of public and private climate finance for developing economies, was not met.

And to the credit of the U.S. and [other] developed economies, there wasn’t an attempt to create some kind of alternative set of facts. They very much owned up to it. They are short by around $20 billion roughly, and that was not disputed. On the other hand, that was supposed to be mobilized annually starting in 2020, and it’s now 2021, and we’re still not there. That was a big disappointment. The question was: What can you do in the context of a negotiation to try to fix this?

There have been calls from some developing economies that developed economies should essentially make up for those shortfalls in forthcoming years, pay off their arrears. That was resisted by developed economies. They laid out a road map and made political commitments to get to and then surpass the hundred-billion-dollar target over the next few years, but that’s another promise. And the pressure is really going to be on developed economies to make good on that.

Burundi is extremely vulnerable to climate change and climate change -triggered natural disasters. Climate financing can help countries adapt to the impacts of climate change already taking place. Photo: Karel Prinsloo/ UNICEF

The other piece that was a step forward was on the share of that finance that goes towards adaptation. A majority of this financing has gone towards clean energy financing, essentially helping these countries to decarbonize their economy and to find green, clean energy growth paths. But part of that funding is also supposed to help them just simply to adapt to the catastrophic impacts of climate change that are already locked in and are too late to avert. The hope had been to get developed economies to kind of commit to having half of their finance go towards adaptation, which would be a far higher percentage than currently. They ended up committing to doubling their current share of adaptation financing from current levels over the coming few years. That’s directionally an important development. But it’s also another piece of the broader finance commitment that they will have to meet. So I think as people start to prepare for next year in Egypt, this issue is going to be really front and center.

MG: Did COP26 reveal anything new or different to you about the current state of international climate diplomacy?

PO: The amount of political attention and public attention on this COP even exceeded what I imagined. Especially considering all the challenges and questions about the COP and the timing of it, and with all the issues around COVID, and how do you execute something like this. The resilience of the climate movement was really palpable. People went to enormous lengths to try to be there. Reporters went to incredible lengths to cover it. You had all the major news outlets there, and covering it with a focus and with an attention to detail that I’d never seen before. All of that was really encouraging.

With that extra scrutiny, people start to become more aware of the challenges in the process. The people who thought that this was going to be the end, and that the issue was going to be all resolved are going to be disappointed. On the flip side, there was progress on all fronts. I feel like the international process, the Paris Agreement, has stood up well to this really challenging moment.

MG: Would you consider COP26 a success?

PO: I think it moved the ball forward in a way that was very important. It also leaves much work to be done. And it showed that countries feel pressure to come to the table, as they should, that the Paris Agreement still is the best possible arrangement for these types of international actors to meet under, to negotiate under. But the level of urgency, the level of action, is still not what we need it to be to solve the problem. We can’t afford to relax and just think that left to its own devices, it’s going to solve itself. And so I think we have to sort of capture the progress, but then go really hard at where those obstacles remain.


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