COP26 Assessment and Challenges

Consulting Fellow, RIETI

Did COP26 Conclude "Successfully"?

On November 13, COP26 concluded "successfully" with the adoption of the Glasgow Climate Pact. I enclosed the word "successfully" in quotation marks because there have been a variety of assessments as to what the convention actually achieved. For example, environmental activist Greta Thunberg denounced the summit: "It is not a secret that COP26 is a failure…Two weeks of business as usual, blah, blah, blah!" (Note 1). Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, the host country, enumerated what he aimed at achieving at COP26: (1) securing global net zero by mid-century and keep warming to 1.5°C within reach; (2) adapting to protect communities and natural habitats;(3) mobilizing finance; and (4) completing negotiations on the Paris Agreement's rule book. Although incomplete, it may at least be said that these results have been achieved. It is with mixed feelings that I believe COP26 was a success, surpassing previous expectations.

Of the above expected outcomes, Britain placed the greatest emphasis on its aim of holding the global average temperature to an increase of 1.5°C. The Paris Agreement states: "This Agreement…aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change…including by: Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels" and "In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal… Parties aim to reach global peaking of GHG emissions as soon as possible….and to undertake rapid reduction thereafter… as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century" Consolidating the most demanding target of 1.5°C from the range of temperature targets provides a basis for aiming to achieve global net zero by 2050, a 45% reduction in global emissions by 2030, phasing out coal power, ending the sale of internal combustion automobiles, and other goals.

That is why, at the G7 Cornwall Summit which Britain hosted, it first incorporated into the Summit Communiqué the 1.5°C target, net zero by 2050, transitioning away from unabated coal capacity, halting public financing for coal power abroad, and other initiatives. Britain’s next strategy was to align with Italy, the G20 host, to have the similar messages reflected in the G20 Leaders’ Declaration, but China, India, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and other countries strongly opposed such a move. They argued that attaching particular emphasis on the 1.5°C and 2050 net zero goals was almost equal to the renegotiation of the Paris Agreement. China and India, both of which are highly dependent upon coal, pushed back strongly against eliminating coal from their domestic energy mixes, and Saudi Arabia and Russia also followed suit over concerns that elimination of coal might be extended to all fossil fuels including oil and natural gas. The result was that the G20 summit only reconfirmed the temperature targets instituted under the Paris Agreement. Phasing out of domestic coal capacity was not included as G20 commitment. That is why President Biden and Prime Minister Johnson were disappointed with the G20 outcome on climate.

Based on this series of events, I forecasted that COP26 would probably not reach an agreement beyond what was agreed to at the G20 summit. However, the Glasgow Climate Pact adopted at COP26 includes, among other commitments, (1) a resolution to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C; (2) recognition that limiting the rise in temperature to 1.5 °C requires reducing global emissions by 45% by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net zero around mid-century; (3) consequently, the 2020 decade is regarded as the "critical decade" and calls on COP27 to adopt a work plan to scale up the level of ambitions during this period of time; and (4) a request for the parties to revisit and strengthen their nationally determined contributions (NDC) as necessary to align with the Paris Agreement temperature goal by the end of 2022. This clearly surpasses what was achieved at the G20 Summit. Predictably, China, India, Saudi Arabia, and other nations reacted negatively to broaching the 1.5°C target. G20 is a forum where clashes arise between G7 nations and emerging countries. However, COP offers a strong voice not only to major economies but also to vulnerable, less-developed nations and small island nations that are susceptible to the damage wreaked by climate change, as well as the influence of environmental NGOs inside and outside of the chambers. China, India, and other emerging nations are concerned about the effect that the 1.5°C target will have on their economic growth. Resource-rich nations are worried about the effect on their fossil fuel exports. On the other hand, small island nations and less-developed nations anticipate that raising the temperature target hurdle will increase the need for assistance for climate change adaptation as well as loss and damage due to its effects. During the informal stocktaking plenary by the COP26 President, massive pressure to conform emerged. The plenary erupted into great applause whenever strong support for the 1.5°C goal was expressed. Britain succeeded in leveraging that conference sentiment to push the 1.5°C goal to the forefront.

In addition, the Agreement includes the wording "…to accelerate the…phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies…" At the United Nations General Assembly in September, President Xi announced that China would not build any new coal-fired power projects abroad. That is why the G20 included in its message, just as the G7 had, a halt to public financing for new coal capacity abroad. Despite that, the COP26 agreement extends to domestic coal capacity. The original proposal was worded "phase-out coal", which was much broader in scope than the electricity sector alone. Encountering strong opposition from China, India, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and other nations, just as with the 1.5°C target, the wording was modified to "phase-out of unabated coal power." However, even at the final stage of the convention, India, China, South Africa, and other nations were still not satisfied. India argued that "inexpensive and stable electric power for poor people is the top priority for countries." Considerations were added that revised "phase-out" to "phasedown" and included the wording "while providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances and recognizing the need for support towards a just transition." Even though the EU, small island nations, and other countries rallied in unison against this, they accepted it reluctantly from the standpoint of passing a package that would achieve an overall consensus. Nevertheless, it deserves attention that wording targeting specific energy sources was included for the first time in the Paris Agreement and related decisions.

In this way, the 1.5°C target was strongly highlighted and the formulation of a very ambitious work plan in line with that was incorporated. Together with the coal phasedown, while toned down from the original proposal, the Glasgow Climate Pact is lauded by environmentalists as a historic agreement.

Heavy consequences of the 1.5℃ goal

While Britain’s diplomatic skill working out an agreement beyond the line agreed at the G20 deserves accolades, the author cannot simply be jubilant. It is because Britain’s strong push of the 1.5°C target and net zero in 2050 has significantly altered the nature of the Paris Agreement, which was established while striking a delicate balance between the top-down approach of setting temperature targets for the entire world and the bottom-up approach where each country sets targets according to its specific national circumstances. Aiming for global net zero by 2050 will likely create a fierce battle between developed and developing nations over limited carbon budgets through the year 2050. Already India has argued that if developed nations strongly push global net zero by 2050, they should achieve net zero much earlier than 2050, go into negative emissions thereafter and give carbon space to developing nations. It has also contended that if developed nations are demanding that developing nations raise their NDCs in order to ultimately achieve net zero emissions, they should substantially increase financial flows to developing countries to $1 trillion annually. While the world is significantly off track from the 2°C pathway, Europe and the US pushed through a further ambitious target related to 1.5°C. This will likely come back to haunt developed nations over the coming decade in the form of incessant pressure from developing nations calling them to achieve carbon neutrality much more rapidly and to significantly increase assistance to developing countries.

Will the COP standard make the world happy?

The Agreement calls for NDCs to be strengthened in line with the Paris Agreement temperature goal and be submitted by the end of 2022, but it is very unlikely that China and India will revise their targets. Both nations, which have embraced the 2060 and 2070 net zero targets, will no doubt argue they are respecting the Paris Agreement provision of "net zero in the second half of this century" Rather, as the host country of the 2022 G7 Summit, Germany, which has the Green Party in the coalition, could propose that G7 nations move forward the 2050 net zero target and further raise 2030 NDCs with a view to urging China and India to follow suit. The result would be further expansion of the market for Chinese made solar panels, windmills, and storage batteries, creating a windfall for China.

The argument over coal phaseout is likely to resurface with certain target year. This could further extend to the phaseout of all fossil fuels. Such a discussion is completely divorced from the reality of the energy landscape. A major cause of the energy crisis, which is overwhelming Europe and spreading to Japan is that supply has not kept up with the increase in energy demand generated by the economic recovery. A significant cause of that imbalance is the stagnation in upstream investment in petroleum and gas. Meanwhile, in the COP world, the United States and EU nations have put their names on the joint declaration to end public financing for the fossil fuel sector. This could further stagnate upstream investment, resulting in tightening of energy supply in the future as well. The environmental fundamentalism originating in Europe has been demonizing coal and resulted in the global rise in gas demand. While the Biden administration is prohibiting domestic oil production in federal lands, it has called on OPEC and Russia to ramp up production. While Britain is at the forefront of coal bashing, power shortfalls due to very weak wind and skyrocketing gas prices obliged it to mobilize old power plants in order to maintain power supply These are contrary to the climate narrative, which is calling for the phaseout of fossil fuels. This shows that when secure and affordable energy supply, as the most fundamental policy requirement, is at risk, the climate agenda could easily be set aside.

Will global dissemination of the standard created at COP, which has excluded this realistic discussion, really be a positive step for the world? I believe that we need to think long and hard about that.

November 18, 2021
  1. ^ Greta speech at Glasgow: "not a secret that COP26 is a failure," The Nikkei (

December 20, 2021

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