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Evaluation of COP26: meeting and not meeting expectations at the same time

The COP26 in Glasgow did almost everything it could, but at the same time, it didn’t. This is a short summary of the outcome of the 26th annual Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the COP26 in short.

The main positive results of COP26 in brief

After a year’s gap, amid extremely heightened expectations and a tense mood, the world has been reunited, both physically and diplomatically to discuss climate change. Despite the many contradictions and challenges, a joint declaration (which is not a new Paris Agreement) has been adopted and the implementing rules of the Paris Agreement have been completed and finalised. Thus, there is no longer any regulatory ambiguity ahead of implementation. Also, some vague hope remained to stay below 1.5°C of global warming.

It should be emphasised that both India (2070) and China (2060) and the rapidly growing Nigeria (2060) have committed themselves to a climate neutrality target and with this around 90 per cent of countries already have such a target.

If the Nationally Determined Contributions now announced are fully complied with, global average temperature increase could be kept as high as 1.8°C until 2100 according to the IEA, but 2.4°C is more likely, as the Climate Action Tracker estimates. For comparison, this figure before COP26 was around 2.7°C.

Furthermore, for the first time, the issue of fossil fuels has been included in a legal text, as so far Saudi Arabia or the United States were blocking its inclusion.

The challenging series of negotiations on market and non-market approaches on carbon emissions trading described in Article 6 of the Paris Agreement have finally been closed. The worst and biggest shortcomings have been addressed, but countries and companies still have the opportunity to maintain their current levels of emissions. In particular, the two current biggest emitters, the US and China have issued a joint statement, which can be seen as a hopeful and strong signal to the whole world about the seriousness of the process.

Very positive that a significant part of the world’s countries, including Brazil, have agreed to end deforestation by 2030, bringing a total of 85 per cent of the world’s forests under protection. It is also an important step that more than 100 countries around the world have committed to reducing their methane emissions by at least 30 per cent by 2030. As methane is the second main greenhouse gas responsible for climate change after carbon dioxide, this step is absolutely important to avoid climate catastrophe.

The not-so-positive results of COP26

However, no real breakthroughs have taken place in the process, practically it has been only agreed that much remains to be done. The Glasgow Climate Pact has been weakened at the last minute. The final text only provides for phasing down unabated coal use and not phasing it out due to a last-minute intervention by India, which has just now been forced to impose a 2-day curfew because of poor air quality in the country. There are already astonishing misunderstandings because of this amendment, for example, some interpret it as giving coal-fired power plants a green light to continue operations.

The inclusion of coal phase-out was blocked at the last minute by China and India, so only a phasing down of unabated coal was included in the final document, plus with no time limit. It is definitely a disappointment not to adopt a measure that is so clearly needed. Surprisingly, however, this was the first time that fossil energy had appeared in an official, adopted COP document.

Global carbon dioxide concentrations have been rising sharply for 200 years. As David Attenborough has pointed out, this is the most important metric and if it doesn’t start to stagnate and then go down, the whole process will definitely not be a success. Each commitment will be worth as much as it can positively affect this number. According to the International Energy Agency, the IEA, only 20 per cent of the commitments needed by 2030 to keep the 2050 net-zero goal (for example, 1.5 degrees) have been submitted so far. Again, much remains to be done.

Finally, although negotiations under Article 6 have been concluded, there are currently no strict and uniform rules for companies to offset emissions, so more and more greenwashing is taking place because everyone feels that greening is expected. The basic idea of the system causes also the majority of criticism, as it does not provide incentives to reduce emissions for big emitters, in essence, rich countries can buy the right to continue to emit greenhouse gases. Adopting detailed rules is a fundamentally important step, but for green organisations, who see all such schemes as just carbon leakage, the system is generally disappointing because it leaves enough room for countries and companies to continue emitting greenhouse gases.

The role of Central European Member States and the EU in the negotiations

On behalf of the Member States, a unified EU delegation negotiates at the climate conferences based on a previously agreed continuously updated common EU position. It should be emphasised here that Member States have no national international commitment under the UN system, they participate in the EU’s unified commitment (at least 55 per cent emission reductions by 2030) and the related debates are taking place within the EU. Importantly, however, the EU has remained united throughout during the COP26 and internal climate policy debates have not weakened international positions, as has sometimes been the case in previous negotiations for example under Article 6 discussions.

The countries of the Visegrád group were all represented on the highest level during the COP: Andrej Babiš Prime Minister of Czechia, János Áder President of Hungary, Mateusz Morawiecki Prime Minister of Poland and Zuzana Caputova President of Slovakia were all present. All leaders present at the COP have signalled the need for urgency to gear up the fight against climate change, however, there were also some disappointments raised on EU policies. The countries have joined some initiatives during the COP, all of them signed the Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use committing to protect forests, while none of them joined the Global Methane Pledge. However, like the EU, as a political organisation has joined the latter one as well, we can be certain that the Visegrád group will be part of the implementation as well.

However, once again, the EU has not really played a decisive role and has not been able to help the North-South rapprochement. At COP26, the big players were the US, China, and India. However, the big question for the future is whether the European Commission or some Member States will want to increase the common EU 2030 target again by 2022. If so, we can expect heated debates within the EU, since the eastern Member States are already debating the implementing rules for the current at least 55 per cent pledge of the EU.

Photo: Karwai Tang/UK Government

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