Experts discuss the work that needs to happen now, after the UN climate change conference concluded with a new agreement, the Glasgow Climate Pact.
COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference that came to a conclusion in Glasgow this weekend, has delivered a new climate pact that was agreed by more than 190 countries that have signed up to the Paris Agreement on climate change.
The conference saw the UK Presidency finalise an agreement where all signatories acknowledged, for the first time, that burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) is warming the planet and causing our climate to change.
Countries also agreed the long-discussed Paris Rulebook, a set of important technical guidelines to implement the Paris Agreement, including guidance on carbon trading; common timeframes for countries’ emissions reduction targets; and guidelines on transparency.
However, many were disappointed by the shortfall in countries’ pledges to cut their emissions, known as their ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ (NDCs), which scientists say still do not put the world on track for the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
Dr Fredi Otto, Senior Lecturer at the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment, said: “1.5°C is not dead, but pledges do not reduce emissions, only national policies do, and they have to be implemented. So, it’s a Schrödinger’s cat situation in that it’s dead and alive for now – and we’ll only know which it really is when we measure emissions in the coming years.”
Another critically important part of the COP26 negotiations was the issue of climate justice, and finance from developed countries to help developing countries adapt to the impacts of climate change, as well as compensate for what is known as ‘loss and damage’ – those impacts that cannot be adapted to, such as hurricanes destroying homes, or island nations disappearing due to sea level rise.
COP26 saw progress on acknowledging the importance of this finance and the responsibility of developed countries to provide it, but many developing countries were left frustrated with a lack of tangible outcomes.
Alyssa Gilbert, Director of Policy and Translation at the Grantham Institute, said: “At an international stage, loss and damage was a bigger and clearer discussion in this COP than I have seen previously, but still not addressed head on. This topic will remain essential to developing nations and an international compromise is not clear yet.”
For experts at Imperial College London, a delegation of whom attended the climate summit as official observers of the process, the opportunity to meet activists, business representatives and policymakers from all over the world has sparked new discussions and ideas.
In this piece, they consider what the Glasgow Climate Pact means for their ongoing work to bring about a greener, cleaner, fairer future for all, and emphasise the importance of rapid, immediate action to deliver on the outcomes of COP26, and close the gaps and shortfalls it left behind.
Emission reduction pledges
Professor Martin Siegert, Co-Director of the Grantham Institute, said: “Whereas the Paris COP21 in 2015 was characterised by a huge wave of enthusiasm for the 'Nationally-Determined' first steps towards decarbonisation, Glasgow COP26 has been a sobering meeting where we acknowledged that much more global ambition is needed if we are to avoid the worst consequences of dangerous climate change.
“Certainly, the next attempt to raise ambition cannot wait another 6 years – and one outcome from Glasgow will be more regular updates to carbon reduction targets. Such meetings may succeed if non-State actors and Governments work together to form not just 'pledges' but comprehensive plans for rapid decarbonisation that are supported by their citizens.”
Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, Chair of the Grantham Institute, added: “Overall, COP26 achieved as much as I realistically expected, with some pluses and some minuses. However, the crucial tests of all the words spoken and promises made are: will the global greenhouse gas emission curve reach a maximum by the middle of this decade and then start to fall? Are the developed countries now going to give substantial help to developing countries to cope with damage due to climate change and to pursue low carbon growth?”
Looking ahead, Dr Ajay Gambhir, Advanced Research Fellow at the Grantham Institute, commented: “[The updated pledges] signal a pathway to a less than 2°C warmer world for the first time, which is hugely encouraging. But that has to be contrasted with the fact that emissions continue to rise, so it’s now critically important that the policies and measures to deliver the envisaged peak and then rapid fall in emissions are put in place all over the world.”
Professor Ralf Toumi, Co-Director at the Grantham Institute, added: “The CO2 in the atmosphere is the ultimate verdict on all our efforts.”
Climate finance and justice
Izhar Shah, Research Associate at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said: “It is clear that the climate conscience is back in policymaking […] Globally speaking, I see a divided house between developed and developing countries. What I'd like to see is developed countries providing technological and financial assistance to developing economies.”
Dr Fredi Otto, Senior Lecturer in Climate Science at the Grantham Institute, commented on the COP26 outcomes on climate finance:
“The weak outcome on loss and damages […] shows that climate change is still mainly regarded as a future problem in anything other than rhetoric. The developed states are still not prepared to take responsibility for what has happened already and that is a problem, the next COP really needs to move forward on climate justice which is not just inter-generational.”
“Doubling adaptation finance from 2019 levels [as agreed in the COP26 text] is great, but this still does not fill the adaptation finance gap.” She continued: “The private sector needs to be engaged in financing adaptation for the scale of finance needed to flow. Governments therefore need to start rewarding investment in resilience and sustainability.”
In agreement that despite the steering for more finance towards adaptation, more technical know-how and deeper understanding is needed of what works successfully, Alyssa Gilbert highlighted:
“Similarly, just transitions are an essential part of the discussion. Recognised very clearly in Glasgow, but also lacking funding and, perhaps like adaptation, it is still not clear what a just transition really looks like – which could be very different in different parts of the world. This will remain an important area for development.”
Nature and biodiversity
Patrick Walkden, a Research Postgraduate on the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet DTP (SSCP DTP) at the Natural History Museum and Imperial college, highlighted that at COP26, “there was finally some recognition of the interconnectedness of both the climate and biodiversity crises and that there are synergies in addressing both.”
Fellow SSCP DTP Postgraduate Researcher Galina Jönsson agreed that “despite being long overdue, officially recognising the crucial role of ‘protecting, conserving and restoring ecosystems and nature’ in tackling climate change is a leap in the right direction.”
For Senior Lecturer Dr Bonnie Waring, “one thing is certain: meeting net zero goals will necessitate not only protection of existing forest, but also the recovery and restoration of areas deforested in the past. There is a very urgent need for the ecological community, working in concert with local stakeholders, to provide data and tools that can guide best practices for restoration efforts. We must also provide rigorous ways to explore potential synergies or trade-offs among the different ecosystem services forests provide.”
Postgraduate Researcher Galina emphasised that future action must “bridge the gap between the climate and biodiversity agendas. Currently, climate change and global biodiversity loss have separate international conventions (UNFCCC and CBD, respectively). The vital next step is to enable a unified approach where international goal and targets are well-informed and appropriately implemented to simultaneously tackle both crises and avoid finding ourselves with divergent goals and targets that should be tackled under one banner, where progress towards one can be at the expense of the other.”
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