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COP26 Glasgow. What now?

The Glasgow Climate Pact was notable for the fact that, for the first time in the history of climate discourse, it does not merely name CO₂ and other greenhouse gases as the problem, but calls out fossil fuels. Sadly, the only one mentioned by name is coal.

written by Tommaso Tiozzo Bastianello and Duccio Baldi *

A bit of history first

Let us first take a step back, what is the COP? The Conference of the Parties (COP) has for almost three decades (the Glasgow meeting was the 26th) brought together almost every country on Earth to conduct global climate summits. The first COP meeting was held in Berlin, Germany, in March 1995, and since then it has changed venue every year to a different city chosen from among the participating countries. As the presidency of the COP varies, this year with the UK as chair, COP26 and its 14 days of uninterrupted talks took place in Glasgow. During its 26 editions, climate change has gone from being a marginal issue to a global priority. In fact, one of the key roles of the COP is to review national data and emission inventories submitted by the participating nations, so as to assess the effects of the measures taken by the parties and the progress made in achieving their targets.

Almost everyone will have heard of the Paris Agreement. Lo and behold, the agreement signed in the French capital in December 2015 saw the commitment of each participating country to work together to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees and aim for 1.5 degrees. This milestone in the fight against climate change came during the 21st COP, or more simply COP21. Signatory countries pledged to submit national plans that quantify and establish the volume of reductions in their emissions – known as Nationally Determined Contributions or ‘NDCs’ – to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate. They also pledged to make funds available to meet these targets and agreed that every five years they would update the action plan.

A conference awaited by many

The meeting after five years has arrived. 200 nations, fourteen days of talks and several full nights in a heavily disinfected conference centre in Glasgow, Scotland, produced some groundbreaking promises, a set of strict rules on carbon markets and some grand aspirations that will have to be tested against reality in the years to come. The pandemic has not stopped the fight against climate change, but it has inexorably slowed it down. The progress achieved in the agreements is acceptable, but not enough to ensure that the world avoids catastrophic climate impacts. Before going into specifics on some of the issues and predictions in the next section, here is a snapshot of the most important achievements: 

  • Coal target

It was watered down at the last minute to a commitment to ‘phase down’ rather than ‘phase out’ coal-fired power. The goal of ‘consigning coal to history’ was not achieved, but it goes beyond what the G-20 has done to date and sends a clear signal even to those economies that use coal as a major part of their expansion plans.

  • China-US agreement

The biggest surprise in Glasgow was an agreement between the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases to work together. As expected, no major concrete action was achieved, but the fact that the two super giants are at least talking about climate amidst the broader diplomatic stalemate of recent times is good news. China had been completely absent from the talks until now; so the fact that it has reappeared on the climate scene is a good sign.

  • Banks

Former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has convinced banks, investors and insurers – representing $130 trillion in assets – to decarbonise their businesses by mid-century. Finance is a powerful tool in the fight against climate change. However, the list does not include the three largest banks in the world, which are all Chinese and major providers of carbon finance.

  • Carbon trading rules

Rules on international carbon trading (understood as the carbon-based component of harmful emissions) bring clarity to companies and steer the market towards standardisation that should help reduce emissions, although some activists are concerned that they are not tight enough. These rules have been long overdue and finally won.

  • Commitment on methane

For the first time since 1995, there is a reference to methane in the pact, where more than 100 countries have agreed to reduce methane consumption. It is not a binding agreement (countries are not obliged to keep it), but once again, it is a powerful signal that the nations of the world are on the path to addressing emissions of a gas that on average has 24 times the global warming potential of CO2.

  • More plans and more control

Countries need to come back next year with better climate plans. Although there is an exit clause in the agreement, new rules have been agreed that will allow for more control over the reporting of emissions. The mission is to make the climate targets of the parties comparable, allowing everyone to assess what and how others are doing.

  • Money for damages

For the first time, there is an acknowledgement that countries affected by catastrophic climate events will receive financial aid. The groundwork has been laid to properly establish a support mechanism for this, although the finer details and exact amount of money will have to be worked out at COP27, to be held in Egypt next year.

  • Deforestation

Many of the side agreements agreed at the COP were disappointing, but a pact on deforestation by the major players could make a difference. 

The magic numbers

The agreement is not the pact some hoped for, but it sets a vision for a world that radically cuts coal use, eliminates fossil fuel subsidies and commits governments to the more ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement. At the last minute there was a lot of confusion around the language of the pact, which was changed from a ‘phase out’ (total exit of coal from national energy mixes) to a ‘phase down’ (slowing down coal consumption), with India taking most of the blame. Of course, it was not the only country that preferred this watered-down language. Australia, China and the United States – three of the largest coal producers and/or consumers – were all perfectly happy to hide behind the Indian objection. Coal, a major player at COP26, is indeed the worst culprit in the climate change dock, with the largest amount of CO₂ per unit of energy. But, of course, it is not the only one. Oil and natural gas are equally part of the problem, and both should be identified by name. The whole agreement rests on a huge bet: that the world’s biggest polluters will eliminate all their net emissions in the coming decades, and the recent surge in coal mining in China, India and Australia shows how difficult this will be.

All this tram-tram of agreements leaves us on course for a warming of 1.8 degrees Celsius, if all commitments are realised, and that’s a big ‘if’. Precisely, if countries fulfil their commitments, greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 will be slightly lower than previously projected. The drop, however, does not mean that we are safe. The study led by Ida Sognnaes of the Centre for International Climate Research (Cicero) showed that the temperature outcome based on countries’ climate commitments is full of uncertainties. Using data on targets set about a year ago, Sgonnaes and her team found that the world could warm anywhere between 1.7°C and 3.8°C by 2100 compared to pre-industrial levels, as shown in the curve below. 

Figure 1. Impact of COP26 on global emissions. Source: Climate Action Tracker, repurposed from Bloomberg Green, November 2021.

The lower end of the Cicero centre’s forecast would put the world very close to the Paris Agreement’s more ambitious goal of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5°C. This would involve many more extreme weather events than we currently face at 1.1°C of warming, but is likely to avoid triggering some irreversible changes, such as the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet. The upper end of the forecast would see the world exceed the less ambitious Paris target of limiting warming to 2°C. If we then descend into the more apocalyptic scenarios, a planet warmer by almost 4°C would make large parts of the Earth uninhabitable, triggering a mass migration of hundreds of millions of people and sending the global economy into a tailspin. Apocalyptic yes, improbable no. This means there is little time to rest on the achievements made at COP26. However, the Glasgow climate pact is a message to investors and executives that the march towards the net zero scenario (where global CO2 emissions will be zero) is accelerating.

And the Italian government?

The government headed by Mario Draghi, this year’s co-chair of COP26, has also made its contribution. The most important pact reached is certainly the decision, arrived at the last moment and under strong pressure from the Minister for Ecological Transition Roberto Cingolani, on the stop to public funding for drilling and gas pipelines. Italy in fact signed an agreement during the summit to end foreign funding for fossil fuels. It is a non-binding pact but marks a further restriction of the flow of money from public banks to the development of oil, gas and coal extraction. In addition, the government signed a further list of documents covering many of the issues described above. From the confirmation of the goal of achieving zero net emissions by 2050 to the desire to create zero-emission shipping routes between 2 (or more) ports. The latter, overarching goal is to support the creation of at least six green corridors by the middle of this decade, aiming to scale up activity in subsequent years, supporting the creation of more routes by 2030. Returning to the subject of coal, Italy is among the signatory countries that recognise that coal-fired power generation is the main cause of the rise in global temperature and pledge to increase clean energy production. In addition, the commitment extends to accelerating the energy transition, and protecting workers and communities in the process. The Green Grids Initiative, another treaty signed by the government, aims to build interconnected green grids, through investments in solar, wind, storage and other renewable energy generation in locations with renewable resources to support a global grid. Finally, Italy has committed to the ‘Forests, Agriculture and Commodity Trade’, which aims to create a process to encourage sustainable agricultural development of forests and other ecosystems, while supporting jobs, trade and livelihoods.

Why not pick the winners?

In conclusion, the new analyses (such as the Cicero study mentioned above) available to policymakers show that more global action to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels should be in everyone’s interest. The problems are now evident and widely recognised even at the global level, which is why future climate talks should focus on solutions. Mentioning coal, methane and – hopefully soon – other fossil fuels in formal negotiating texts is good. But why not also mention solar photovoltaics, wind power and geothermal technologies? It is easy to see how this can very quickly become controversial. Should big hydro and nuclear be on the list? What about carbon capture and storage? There are no easy answers, but avoiding the question altogether is not an answer either. The rapid progress on the cost of solar PV and other low-carbon technologies should be celebrated and supported. Doing so would further direct attention to the technologies that are accompanying and now central to the economic transition. The future holds many uncertainties, see what the Covid19 pandemic entailed, and being prepared for rapid change is all the more necessary.

Conversations about climate are often dominated by negative tipping points. Smart policy, on the other hand, focuses on preventing and protecting against these nasty surprises. However, economic, political and social change is similarly dominated by positive tipping points. For a long time nothing changes, until suddenly everything changes. To date, the negative climate news is still more influential than the policies implemented, but the positive signs are there and should be emphasised. What was already on everyone’s lips and which emerged considerably during the UK edition of the COP is that global politics, finance and social forces have started to push in the right direction. The key is to prepare now, so that at COP27 and beyond, the conditions can be created to channel this positive trend in a productive direction.

* Duccio Baldi and Tommaso Tiozzo Bastianello are two energy engineers specialised in renewable energy and energy systems modelling. After both completing their master’s degrees abroad (Duccio in the Netherlands and Tommaso in Denmark) and subsequently gaining international experience in organisations such as GIZ (German government), IRENA (international renewable energy agency) and the European Commission, they decided to return to Italy to actively contribute to the energy transition, founding a start-up that focuses mainly on energy communities: Enco – Energia Collettiva.

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