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ClientEarth Communications

16th November 2021

Climate accountability
Environmental justice

The verdict from the COP26 climate summit

This year’s international summit to address the climate crisis – COP26 – has just concluded in Glasgow. The conference resulted in the signing of the Glasgow Climate Pact, which includes new and refreshed commitments for governments to address global warming and protect communities on the climate frontline.

Despite progress in some key areas, like a decarbonisation commitment between the US and China, there is still a gap between what COP26 has achieved and what is urgently needed to address the climate crisis and secure justice for the worst hit countries.

The negotiations failed to secure an agreement to end coal or ‘wind down’ the use of oil and gas. Countries in the Global South that have done little to exacerbate global warming are not seeing the $100 billion per year in climate financing that was promised previously. And serious doubt remains over whether limiting warming to 1.5C – the key metric for survival for many climate vulnerable communities – can be achieved.

That being said, new regular reporting may help citizens compare and analyse countries’ short and long term greenhouse gas reductions plans, which will help people hold governments to account on their commitments.

The push for pre-2030 action – including a new high-level ministerial meeting every year from 2022 – will further highlight governments that are delaying action. Finally, the recognition of the role of Indigenous peoples and youth in climate action is also a first and could provide momentum to legal cases that challenge governments over their failures.

ClientEarth lawyers lay out the key takeaways from the COP26 summit and what they could mean for government accountability on climate action.

Coal should be consigned to history

The final Glasgow text contains watered-down language on coal and fossil fuels, with ‘phasing down’ the use of coal used rather than ‘phasing out’, and oil and gas not sufficiently addressed.

“Coal should already be consigned to history, and the agreement should have gone much further – with explicit commitments to also move away from oil and gas,” said ClientEarth CEO James Thornton.

“Instead, we are left with a weak reference to removing ‘inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels’.”

Despite these failings, the pact’s call for rapid scaling up of clean power and energy efficient measures is a positive development.

Setting short-term emissions reduction targets

The Climate Pact ‘urges’ countries to set stronger 2030 targets by the end of 2022. By 2030, we will need to see a 45% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions against 2010 levels to stay in line with 1.5C of warming. But under existing nationally determined contributions – even if fully implemented – global emissions will have increased by 2030 compared to 2010 levels.

“On emissions reductions, we’re still not moving in the right direction,” said James.

“Promises to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement are meaningless if they do not result in emissions reductions in the short-term. Governments should establish short-term plans and targets, and back those up with strong regulation and enforcement.”

In the agreement, new procedures on mitigation have been introduced to help spur the transition to low-carbon energy, including an annual report on nationally determined contributions. These measures can help civil society hold governments to account when it is clear they are failing to get in line with 1.5C – rather than relying on future promises.

Addressing loss and damages

Under the Paris Agreement, countries agreed to address loss and damages associated with climate change impacts. But nations historically most responsible for global heating have been shamefully reluctant to address their historical obligations to address this injustice.

This year’s agreement includes establishing a facility to support technical assistance on loss and damage from climate change in developing countries. But this is far from providing financial support to compensate for loss and damage, which the coalition of least developed countries was pushing for.

James said: “For the countries and communities needing urgent financial assistance to address climate impacts, this is no less than a betrayal. Without a system set up to help them, legal options to compel support from the worst polluters should be considered – and we are already seeing this from countries such as Vanuatu and Tuvalu.”

“Climate change is inherently unequal: its impacts – such as droughts, heatwaves flooding, and rising seas – are felt most in those countries least responsible. This is clearly a human rights issue, and robust international efforts are needed to ensure peoples’ futures are protected. When governments do not take action, litigation will increasingly be used to hold them accountable.”

Providing financing for developing countries

The target for developed nations to provide $100 billion per year in climate financing for developing countries has not been met. The climate pact continues to urge that this target is reached through to 2025.

“Not meeting this target presents a significant obstacle for poorer countries, who will need financing to adapt to the consequences of a warming planet – which they had little role in causing,” said James.

“We need to see much greater funding to support the rising cost of adaptation as climate impacts intensify, particularly for the 6.5 billion people living in the Global South.”

Tackling deforestation

At COP26, more than 100 world leaders announced their commitment to ending deforestation by 2030.

This was a positive step and it was signed both by countries that import forest commodities, like the UK, and those that export them, like Brazil and Indonesia. But for it to translate into action, this commitment needs teeth.

It must address how deforestation is defined and measured, set binding milestones, address financing issues, and ensure participation and protections for local communities and Indigenous peoples. And to ensure countries live up to their promises, transparent and robust monitoring is essential.

Questioning the UK’s climate leadership

As COP26 host, the UK Government announced its goals would be cars, coal, cash and trees. It also stressed the need to “keep 1.5C in reach.”

The Glasgow negotiations do not make good on these goals. Limiting global heating to 1.5C is not in reach under current predictions, and the aim of consigning coal to history has not been met. While many countries have committed to ending deforestation, the details remain to be seen.

“In the wake of COP26, the Government must urgently address the gaps between ambition and action in its own policies to meet UK carbon budgets,” said James.

“We are calling on it to rule out new climate-wrecking coal mines and oil and gas projects, while supporting affected communities under a ‘just transition’ that winds down UK fossil fuel production in line with global climate goals.”

“It should also better regulate climate disclosures for businesses, so companies can address ‘climate risk’ – or face penalties if they fail to do so.”

The Government should also be improving laws around due diligence and trade – so that products on UK shelves are not linked to deforestation and human rights violations abroad – and include strong climate commitments in all trade deals, including those with climate laggards such as Australia.

And, the UK Government can play a leading role in reforming the approach to agriculture subsidies and regulation – a topic that was less than satisfactorily considered at COP26 – as agricultural activities make a significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions both in the UK and globally.

Photo credit: Unsplash / Callum Shaw