The just completed COP 26 in Glasgow, Scotland, took place over the first two weeks of November, 2021, delayed by a year because of COVID, and still very much under the shadows of the pandemic. Health concerns, unequal vaccine access, and travel restrictions exacerbated the pre-existing “have and have not” reality for climate negotiators and observers from the global south.
Expectations for COP 26 were high. The phrase “our last best chance” to avoid the worst impacts of climate change was a common way to frame the significance of COP 26. Among the key issues on the formal agenda were the completion of the Paris Rulebook to enable the effective implementation of the Paris Agreement and the status of loss & damage in the UN climate regime, along with high expectation for new pledges to increase the ambition of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and efforts to achieve them. Commitments to increase ambition were expected to focus on GHG emission reductions and on funding for vulnerable developing nations, with divergent views on whether or how much of the funding should be for mitigation, adaptation and loss & damage.
It is easy to get lost in the detail when sorting through the many elements of the COP 26 outcome. Before offering an assessment, it is perhaps helpful to consider how to measure success. It is important, particularly in light of the incremental approach of the Paris Agreement, to separate the assessment of progress at COP 26 from the more fundamental question of the adequacy of current commitments and actions.
It is important to keep in mind that while time clearly is quickly running out, the Paris Agreement never demanded that nations would commit to and take action to meet the collective goals of the Paris Agreement in one step, but rather that nations would work in cycles of making commitments, taking action to meet and exceed those commitments, and increasing the ambition of their commitments over time until the collective goals of the Paris Agreement are met. This basic architecture of the Paris Agreement calls for a nuanced approach to assessing the outcomes of COP 26. It is not enough to add up the global temperature impact of revised NDCs (currently somewhere around 2.4 degrees assuming full implementation of commitments) and assesses them against the collective goals of the Paris Agreement (well below 2 degrees, aiming for 1.5). Such an approach to measuring success would miss a number of important nuances:
- It would miss the nuance that even meeting the 1.5 degree goal of the Paris Agreement will not equal success for particularly vulnerable populations and nations. It is clear that many will be drastically affected by climate change even if the 1.5 goal is met. There is no guarantee in the Paris Agreement that those affected will receive the help they need and deserve. Inequities can of course be addressed through capacity building, funding, adherence to the SDGs and human rights, and measures to ensure a just transition. However, even under such an equitable approach to the implementation of the Paris Agreement, which is far from the current reality, there will be severe impacts on some, and those adversely affected will be disproportionally those who have done little to cause the problem, including citizens of Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Small Island Developing States (SIDS), and Indigenous populations.
- It would miss the nuance that our understanding of the implications and adequacy of the collective goals of the Paris Agreement is still evolving. There is still considerable uncertainty, for example, about major tipping points and how they relate to the temperature goals in the Paris Agreement.
- It would miss the nuance that it is important to distinction between commitments and actions, and to consider both in light of what would be a fair national contribution to the collective goals. A number of research institutions, such as the Climate Action Tracker, offer analysis of nations’ actions by exploring these three separate elements of climate action:
- The first element is the level of effort that would amount to a fair national contribution to the collective goals of the Paris Agreement.
- The second element is the level of ambition of a country’s current NDC. For nations that have clearly communicated their commitments in their NDC using accepted methodologies, this is a straightforward exercise.
- The third element is whether the actions a country has taken are sufficient to meet its NDC commitments.
The equity element of this analysis has yet to be formally carried out under the Paris Agreement, and are not likely to be part of the official Global Stocktake in 2023. There are still divergent views on how to determine the fair contribution of a country, as efforts to agree on equity principles have eluded negotiators. However, principles incorporated into the UN climate regime, such as CBDR and precaution do offer a solid basis for analysis, lending credibility to the efforts made by civil society organizations and research institutes, while leaving room for debate.
With respect to the gap between commitments and actions, it is of course fair for nations to point out that they plan to build on existing policies and measures to meet their commitments, it is important to assess how realistic and plausible such claims are given the scale of the gap, the time remaining to close it, and the track record of each nation to meet its past commitments. There was no expectation that COP 26 would resolve these issues, but there was an expectation that nations would come to Glasgow with enhanced mitigation and funding commitments and actions in hand.
A number of nations, including Canada, announced their intention to increase their NDCs well head of COP 26. The most significant announcement of an increase in ambition at COP 26 came from India. India announced early during the COP that it intends to be carbon neutral by 2070, an ambitious goal for India given its state of development. While this was an announcement rather than a formal submission of a revised NDC, it was an unexpected and significant commitment. Comments during the later parts of the COP suggest that it is a commitment that is conditional on India receiving significant funding to assist with its decarbonization efforts. Overall, commitments on emission reductions by 2030 are still well short of what is needed according to the IPCC’s 1.5 report. The pressure for large emitters to up their 2030 targets will therefore undoubtedly continue at COP 27. Of note in this regard is that China and the United States announced their intention to cooperate in finding ways to achieve further emission reductions, though without offering any new targets or measures at COP 26.
The ability and likelihood of nations to meet and exceed their commitments and otherwise work toward the collective goals of the Paris Agreement will be influenced by many factors beyond national policies and measures. Such other factors include the cooperation of sub-national governments, private sector leadership, and coordination among key nations on critical issues, such as funding fossil fuel extraction and power production, supporting solutions in key sectors such as transportation and agriculture, and the commercialization of key technologies. An assessment of COP 26 should consider progress in these areas as well, even if they are not formally under the umbrella of the Paris Agreement.
A number of announcements were made in this regard. Over 100 nations, including Canada, committed to reducing methane emissions by 30% by 2030. About 40 nations, including Canada, committed to phasing out the use of coal for power production, with deadlines ranging from 2030 to 2040. Costa Rica and Denmark, with varying levels of support from a few other nations, went further and committed to phasing out all forms of fossil fuels, including oil and gas. Canada has not signed on to this commitment, but the province of Quebec has supported it. Another significant commitment relates to funding of fossil fuel projects. Over 20 nations, including Canada, committed to phasing out international funding of fossil fuel projects by the end of 2022. Finally, 6 major car manufacturers, but not including the two largest, VW and Toyota (with support from 30 nations), have committed to phasing out gasoline cars by 2040.
What can be said about all these commitments is that for each, there are key nations that have not yet joined. Many of the most significant contributors to methane have not yet joined the methane commitment. The same goes for the phase out of coal, which would require the inclusion of major coal users such as China and India to be truly effective. Very few have so far supported the phase out of fossil fuels, or the funding of fossil fuel projects. For now, each of these campaigns makes a modest but significant contribution to narrowing the gap between commitments and the action needed to meet the collective goals of the Paris Agreement. More importantly, perhaps, each holds the potential of being the start of a movement toward global cooperation on a key element of the decarbonization effort. The success of these campaigns should be measured in terms of what happens next. Who else signs on to each? Will those who have signed on comply? Do these initiatives result in more ambitious NDCs and in nations meeting and exceeding their NDC commitments?
A final word about these commitments in light of the focus on the language in the final decision text about the phase down of coal and the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies. Rather than place an unrealistic expectation of the consensus based approach under the UN climate regime, it is much more telling and important whether a growing number of key countries commit to and implement each of these commitments outside the UN climate regime. It is fair to be disappointed by the refusal of some countries to formally commit to the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies and the phase out of fossil fuels within the UN climate regime, but it would not have been realistic to expect global consensus on these in Glasgow. Much more important, and constructive, is to track and support those who commit to doing it, and to try to build momentum around the coalition of the willing. We don’t need everyone on board, we need a critical mass.
An assessment of COP 26 would not be complete without a look at the Paris Rulebook and related elements of the formal COP 26 decision text. Among the most controversial issues on the agenda were the rules for market mechanisms under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, finance and loss & damage. Of course, there were other issues addressed in the process of completing the Paris Rulebook, from common timeframes to the transparency framework under Article 13. A more detailed assessment of these elements will have to wait for another day.
With respect to Article 6, among the most contentious issues were the fate of CDM projects and CDM credits from the Kyoto regime, allocating a share of the proceeds from emissions trading to vulnerable nations, and safeguarding against negative social and environmental impacts of climate mitigation efforts under Article 6. The final text contains some potential protections against social and environmental impacts, such as a reference to an unspecified independent grievance process. The text does include reference to a share of proceeds for adaptation in particularly vulnerable nations from Article 6.4 activities, but not for Article 6.2. With respect to the CDM, the text allows the carry over CDM projects and credits. Requests must be filed by 2023, and apply only to CDM projects registered after 2013, along with a few other restrictions.
In reviewing the Article 6 rules, I am reminded of the failed efforts to ensure the environmental and social integrity of the CDM and emissions trading in the final days of the Kyoto negotiations. The tradition of compromising environmental and social integrity in the name of economic efficiency appears to have continued, but so will the effort to prevent Article 6 from undermining the goals of the Paris Agreement. Let’s not forget that as a result of effective civil society campaigns after the weak Kyoto trading rules were negotiated, many nations refused to make use of controversial credits to meet their commitments under Kyoto. I think it is likewise doubtful that Article 6 will play a significant role in the decarbonization effort of many nations. The final result of the Article 6 negotiations may be disappointing, but it is an outcome we can work with.
With respect to finance, negotiations had focussed on ensuring the commitment to provide $100 billion per year from 2020 to 2025 would be met, on ensuring a better balance between mitigation and adaptation funding, and on setting a post 2025 funding target. The final text notes with concern that the $100 billion commitment from developed nations has not yet been met, and provides for a continuation of the process to ensure developed nations honour their 2020 – 2025 finance commitment. With respect to post 2025 finance, parties agreed to continue in the form of an ad hoc work program to address quantity, quality, scope and access, and conclude in 2024. As with Article 6, the outcome, while far from ideal, is one that we can work with.
With respect to loss & damage, efforts to bring loss & damage more fully under the Paris Agreement as a third pillar along with mitigation and adaptation continued at COP 26, but with limited progress yet again. This issue has a long history under the UN climate regime, one that threatened agreement on the Paris Agreement in 2015. Compromise language in the Paris Agreement and the accompanying decision text has resulted in loss & damage remaining a divisive issue in the negotiations, and COP 26 was no exception. Among the unresolved issues were the inclusion of loss & damage under the funding mechanisms, inclusion under the reporting mechanisms, and inclusion in the upcoming Global Stocktake. The final decision is still largely about technical assistance in the form of the Santiago Network on Loss & Damage, with no clear reference to funding for loss and damage. The continued resistance to funding loss & damage is disappointing, but far from surprising.
Ultimately, there are outcomes from COP 26 to celebrate. Efforts by a number of nations to increase the ambition of their mitigation and finance commitments under the NDCs are among those, as are commitments by some nations to reduce methane emissions, to phase out coal, to phase out oil and gas, and to phase out fossil fuel funding. On a more technical note, the finalization of the Paris Rulebook marks the end of the design of the overall Paris architecture, though adjustments and refinements will undoubtedly be needed from time to time. The substance of the final rulebook can best be described as a basket of compromises, but while far from ideal, they seem workable, and further delay would only distract from the real job of decarbonizing.
With this in mind, it is important to be clear about the task ahead, which remains largely unaltered by COP 26. First, and foremost, each and every country has a critically important job of taking the actions needed to meet their current commitments. At the same time, it is also clear that we are still some distance from closing the gap between the commitments made, and what is needed to meet the collective goals of the Paris Agreement. The gap has narrowed modestly, but time is running out, so nations will have to work in parallel on implementing measure to meet current commitments while at the same time looking for ways to increase the ambition of their commitments. Addressing the production gap and eliminating all forms of subsidies for the extraction and use of fossil fuels clearly have to be priorities for nations still struggling with decarbonization.
For Canada, the challenge at hand is similarly clear and unchanged. We have to finally come to grips with the disconnect between decarbonization and fossil fuel extraction. We have to take efficiency and conservation of energy seriously in all aspects of our energy systems. We have to complete the task of decarbonizing electricity in order for electrification of transportation, heating and suitable commercial and industrial activities to contribute to our decarbonization efforts. We have to tackle methane and nitrous oxide emissions as immediate priorities, including from fossil fuels, waste, and from agriculture. We have to do more to protect natural systems essential for natures efforts to stabilize our climate systems, including forests and oceans. Finally, we have to recognize the many inequities associated with the climate crisis, and take the steps necessary to address them.
Professor, Schulich School of Law
Associate Dean, Graduate Studies