Reflecting on the end of COP26, RFF University Fellow Robert Stavins explores key agreements that were reached, debates that were punted to future conferences, and continued obstacles in the way of controlling global greenhouse gas emissions.
I returned a few days ago from the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Glasgow, Scotland. In this post, I try to highlight—as briefly as possible—my major impressions of what transpired during the two weeks of the COP, and how to think about the key elements of the outcome.
I will expand on what I consider to be the big issues in four categories:
- the big stories for the popular press
- the major issues for many of the delegates
- some issues for policy wonks (like myself)
- what I expected would be “the elephant in the room”
Potential Big Stories for the Popular Press
One of the potential big stories for the press was substantive, and one story was logistical. First, on substance, this COP was a particularly important one because it brought with it the first implementation of a key element of the Paris Agreement—renewal and presumably ratcheting up of national emissions reduction pledges every five years. The substantive issue which has indeed dominated most stories in the popular press after the COP concluded on Saturday, November 13 (“only” 24 hours after its scheduled adjournment), is whether or not the new, updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) from some of the major emitters—such as the European Union, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Japan—combined with the existing, but not updated, NDCs from other major emitters together put the world on track to achieve the Paris Agreement’s major target of limiting warming in this century to 2°C, and, even more ambitious, to just 1.5°C.
The answer, according to a report released by the United Nations, is that even with the enhanced 2030 targets, the world is on track for a temperature increase of about 2.7°C this century. (And this prediction assumes that every country puts in place effective policies that will fully achieve its target.) If we add the additional statements (not part of the NDCs under the Paris Agreement) of net-zero emissions by 2050 made by many countries (e.g., the European Union and United States), by 2060 (China), or by 2070 (India), warming this century could be limited to 2.4°C, or as little as 1.8°C, if other such “commitments” from the private sector are included. To put this in perspective, note that projections of temperature increases prior to the Paris Agreement estimated 3.7°C of warming in this century! So, in the very short period of time from 2014 to 2021, predicted warming this century has fallen from 3.7°C to as low as 2.4°C or even 1.8°C.
That is a very significant change, but whether it represents success or failure depends on the observer. For some of the negotiators and some of the official observers at the COP in Glasgow, it is remarkable progress, although not ultimate success.
Before and during the COP, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged the delegations to increase the ambition of their pledges even further within their respective NDCs. For the most part, this increased ambition did not come to pass. So, the Prime Minister and the British COP President, Alok Sharma, changed this exhortation, instead saying that the delegates should increase their stated ambitions by the time of the next COP in 2022. This shift appeared in the political agreement that closed COP26—the COP’s “Decision,” known this year as “The Glasgow Climate Pact.” In other words, the can (of heightened NDC ambition) was kicked down the road, with the request that the Parties to the Paris Agreement revisit their NDCs next year.
The other potential big story—which fortunately did not come to pass—was the possibility that COP26 in Glasgow would turn out to be a logistical nightmare, perhaps on the scale of the logistical meltdown at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. This year at COP26, as many as 20,000 credentialed participants were expected to show up at the COP site in Glasgow for entry to the secure area, and there were concerns that reduced capacity due to COVID could leave many credentialed participants unable to gain entry, or having to wait in line for hours before getting in. I am delighted to say that this logistical nightmare did not materialize, partly because COVID travel restrictions may have dissuaded many observers from attending.
I predicted that one other issue would get substantial press attention—whether or not a post-COP statement (Decision) from the Parties to the Convention would commit to a global phase-out of the extraction and burning of coal. I said this was unlikely to happen, because leaders from the Group of 20 (G20) major economies at their pre-COP meeting in Rome had failed to include such a statement in their post-G20 communique. Opposition came from Australia, China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Without a positive signal from the G20 leaders, agreement in Glasgow on phasing out coal appeared highly unlikely. What I noted might be possible, however, would be a general statement from the Glasgow conference about “phasing down” rather than “phasing out” coal. This phasedown is precisely what was agreed to in the final negotiations on Saturday, November 13, and which was included in the negotiated Glasgow Climate Pact, with the final text calling for “accelerating efforts” to phase down (not out) “unabated coal power and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” (emphasis mine).
Major Issues for Many of the Delegates
About 80 percent of the national delegations to the climate negotiations are from developing countries (on the order of 157 out of 197)—so, the issues that are of greatest significance to those delegations are particularly important. Two stood out in my mind in advance of the COP.
One was climate finance, which refers to the commitment made in Copenhagen in 2009 that, by 2020, developed countries would begin to contribute $100 billion per year to developing countries to help finance their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions mitigation and their adaption to climate change. We’re about to enter the year 2022, but the $100 billion have not materialized, with some estimates pegging the combined pledges to be about $80 billion per year over the next few years. This is a huge issue for developing countries. A closely related issue is whether and when the developed countries will make up for what will be the historic shortfall, even if the $100 billion per year eventually is achieved.
The “resolution” of this issue, codified in the Glasgow Climate Pact, is that the wealthy countries are urged to at least double their levels of finance by 2025 (particularly for adaptation by poor countries).
The other issue that was (and is) a major one for some developing countries—in particular those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change—is characterized in the negotiations as “Loss and Damage,” which has been an important source of controversy in the annual talks for the past ten years or so. This phrase refers to the range of damages associated with climate change, given that even if emissions are reduced to zero by tomorrow morning, damages will continue due to the long lag time of GHGs in the atmosphere—particularly carbon dioxide, with its atmospheric half-life of more than 100 years. The controversy revolves around who should pay for such loss and damage, with the focus on those most responsible for climate change; namely, the countries with the greatest contributions to the accumulated stock of GHGs in the atmosphere—the United States and other large, wealthy countries, plus China.
This topic of who pays the damages has been controversial because, on the one hand, the concession absolutely (and understandably) is viewed as essential from countries such as the small island states, whereas countries such as the United States, China, and the EU member states worry that talk of “loss and damage” raises the specter of unlimited legal liability. Indeed, at some climate talks before the Paris Agreement, debates on this issue nearly caused the talks to collapse. But the issue was finessed in the Paris Agreement’s Article 8, which recognizes the importance of loss and damage, but then eliminated the most contentious aspects in Decision 52 (a document that accompanied the Paris Agreement), when the Parties agreed that loss and damage “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.” Understandably, some countries are not happy with this apparent resolution, and so the issue was raised again Glasgow.
The developing-country perspectives regarding loss and damage—this time favoring a new fund for loss and damage payments—were more prominent than at any previous COP; but in the end, the wealthy countries blocked such proposals, and instead agreed to talk more about it in the future by setting up a “dialogue” on the issue in future COPs.
Issues for Policy Wonks
In my pre-COP blog post, I cited two issues that policy wonks—both from the government delegations and the observer organizations from civil society (like me)—would be thinking about and working on.
One issue is the question of whether China and the United States would return to the spirit and reality of cooperation that characterized their relationship during the Obama years, when their joint initiatives were absolutely essential to the successful completion of the Paris Agreement. That was before such cooperation devolved into confrontation during the Trump years, which sadly has continued during the Biden administration.
Halfway through the second week of the COP, the possibility suddenly appeared that China and the United States might resume their position of co-leadership on climate change that had characterized their relationship during the Obama years. In a dramatic announcement, the press was informed that US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, would hold a joint press conference to reveal a surprise deal to address climate change. Although it was a welcome development and a surprise to see China and the United States seeming to cooperate, neither country announced increased ambitions, and most observers did not consider this to be a return to the former era of serious leadership. In particular, the joint statement from China and the United States had no apparent influence on the actions in Glasgow of the other 195 Parties to the Paris Agreement.
The other issue that I said would be receiving a great deal of attention was the one part of the Paris Agreement for which the accompanying “rulebook” had not been finalized: Article 6. A little background may help. The Paris Agreement provided a promising, fresh approach by instituting a bottom-up strategy in which all participating countries specify their own targets, consistent with their national circumstances and domestic political realities. This approach convinced many nations to sign up. Countries that joined the Paris Agreement represent 97 percent of global GHG emissions, compared with 14 percent under the second commitment period of the top-down Kyoto Protocol. But it also gave every country an incentive to minimize its own actions while benefiting from other nations’ emission reductions.
So, are there ways to persuade nations to increase their commitments over time? One key strategy is linking national policies, so that emitters (compliance entities under a national policy) can buy and sell carbon emissions allowances or credits across borders. Such linking need not be restricted to pairs of cap-and-trade systems. Rather, heterogeneous linkage among cap and trade, carbon taxes, and performance standards is feasible. Such linkage reduces costs, enabling countries to be more ambitious. One study estimated that linkage could, in theory, reduce compliance costs by 75 percent.
But for such systems to be meaningful, each country’s steps must be correctly counted toward its national target under the Paris Agreement, with no double counting. This is where Article 6—in particular, Article 6.2—comes in. Writing the rules for this article was the primary task for negotiators in 2019 in Madrid. (Twenty-eight other articles were completed at the 2018 COP in Katowice, Poland.) Unfortunately, Brazil and a few other countries insisted on adopting accounting loopholes that made it impossible to reach agreement in Madrid on Article 6. Negotiators had an opportunity to define clear and consistent guidance that would help in accounting for emissions transfers, but they failed to close a deal. On the other hand, if the negotiators had adopted guidance that extended much beyond basic accounting rules, as some countries wanted, the result could have been restrictive requirements that would actually impede effective linkage.
So, with no closure in Madrid, the baton for completing Article 6 was passed to COP26 in Glasgow. The good news is that Brazil signaled that it might be open to compromise. As it turns out, the final rulebook for Article 6 avoids the worst, despite the fact that the final text cannot be labeled the best possible.
Another issue that I noted policy wonks would be watching is associated with cutting global emissions of methane—an extremely potent greenhouse gas, although relatively short-lived in the atmosphere. I predicted success on this front in Glasgow, because leaders from a number of important countries were likely to pledge at COP26 to cut methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030, a goal that was previously unveiled by the United States and the European Union in September. More than a dozen countries had already signed the pact. For its part, the Biden administration will impose aggressive regulations on methane leaking from all existing oil and gas wells and pipelines throughout the United States, an approach which is more ambitious than the Obama administration’s regulation, subsequently withdrawn by former President Trump, to regulate wells built since 2015. In fact, outside of the actual negotiations, over 100 countries agreed in Glasgow to cut methane emissions by 30 percent over the next eight to nine years. Unfortunately, the world’s top methane emitter, China, did not join the international pledge.
One other potentially important issue is not associated directly with COP26 itself, but rather with the reality that, prior to the beginning of the Glasgow sessions, the Biden administration announced a trade agreement with the European Union, which incorporates the concept of using tariffs on trade to cut carbon emissions. The agreement is intended to cut imports of steel that is particularly carbon intensive in its production (such as from China and Brazil). Such agreements may turn out to be a very important complement (or even substitute) for the Paris Agreement.
The Elephant in the Room
For everyone—the press, the delegates, and observers of all kinds—I predicted that a major question in Glasgow would be whether the ambitious NDC of the United States, a 50 to 52 percent reduction of GHG emissions by 2030 below the 2005 level, is truly achievable with reasonably anticipated policies. I’ve written about this in the past, so suffice it to say that this question boils down to whether the Biden administration is able to sign enacted legislation that can make dramatic strides toward that impressive 2030 target. The Biden administration has included in its scaled-down “reconciliation bill” a $555-billion spending plan of tax breaks, tax credits, and other subsidies for various approaches and types of clean energy generation and use, validating once again that US politicians are more comfortable giving out benefits than costs. Importantly, what would have been an effective program for green electricity generation has been scrapped, and fees on methane releases may or may not survive. Indeed, a new White House plan for achieving the 2030 target relies in part on carbon removal and unknown technologies.
So, what can the Biden administration accomplish via regulations and executive orders? See my comments above regarding a new methane rule. But the regulatory approach, in general, is particularly challenging, because legal challenges from the political Right are much more likely to succeed during the Biden years than they were during the Obama years, given the 6–3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
In this regard, it is worth noting that a recent report from the Rhodium Group calculates that, even if the scaled-back version of the climate and social spending bill now before Congress is signed into law, new action by the states, plus a significant number of new rules and regulations, will be required (for sectors that have yet to be regulated, including chemicals, natural gas, and refineries) to even have a chance of achieving the Biden administration’s NDC target. Also, regulations for power plant emissions would have to be more stringent than the Obama-era predecessor (the Clean Power Plan) and would have to include mandates for carbon capture and storage for existing power plants. Despite all of this, President Biden’s climate team in Glasgow sought to assure the delegates that the United States is on track to achieve its 2030 target.
This blog post is excerpted, with some edits and permission, from an article that originally appeared on Robert Stavins’s blog, An Economic View of the Environment. Throughout this article, Stavins recounts what actually happened at the Glasgow COP, compared to what he had anticipated in a previous article published on his blog.