Emissions target pledges face scrutiny as dust settles on COP26

Big polluting nations have cast doubt on whether they would upgrade their emissions targets next year, after agreeing at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow to “revisit and strengthen” them in line with the Paris accord.

The text agreed after marathon two-week talks committed signatories to new greenhouse gas emissions targets by the end of 2022, three years earlier than originally agreed, to meet the goals of the climate deal signed in the French capital in 2015. Retaining the commitment in the face of opposition from countries such as China was billed as a key success of COP26.

But the US and Australia have already called into question whether they needed to upgrade targets known as “nationally determined contributions” or NDCs.

“On NDCs, this COP has not seen what it should have,” said Laurence Tubiana, head of the European Climate Foundation, and a key architect of the Paris deal. “That’s why it’s really important that this meeting was finally able to obtain agreement to revisit them next year.”

With the world far off track from the Paris goals, the Glasgow pact sealed last weekend aims to encourage countries to improve their targets to limit warming to well below 2C, ideally to 1.5C. Existing 2030 emissions targets put the world on course for between 2.5 and 2.7 degrees of warming by the end of the century.

But the ink was hardly dry in Glasgow when US climate envoy John Kerry left significant room for manoeuvre on whether the US would upgrade its NDC next year. Australia, which was criticised at COP26 for lacking a credible plan to reach “net zero” emissions, has said it will not update its target.

“Not necessarily,” Kerry said when asked about a new pledge. “You don’t automatically have to come back with a new NDC, you have to review it, and make a judgment,” he said. “We need to see what’s do-able.” 

Because the COP process has no formal enforcement mechanism — and no punishment for countries that miss their targets — its primary power lies in peer pressure and public scrutiny.

The COP26 deal also committed rich countries to double their levels of finance for climate adaptation, such as infrastructure to adapt to a warmer planet. They provided about $19bn in adaptation finance in 2019, which could rise to about $40bn under the agreement.

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However, for many of the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change, this does not go far enough.

As the dust settled on COP26, Bangladesh accused rich countries of “failing” at-risk nations by not providing the necessary funding and technology transfers needed to combat climate change.

“What we’re seeing now from different developed countries, they’re failing one after another on their commitments. This is very upsetting,” Zunaid Ahmed Palak, Bangladesh’s information minister, told the Financial Times in an interview.

Bangladesh chairs the Climate Vulnerable Forum which represents developing countries most at risk from climate change. The low-lying country is struggling with rising sea levels and a more erratic monsoon rain season, leaving tens of millions of its citizens at risk of displacement.

Palak said that COP26 did represent some improvement from previous years, particularly pledges of further negotiations and co-operation from the UK, US and Europe.

“We’re not satisfied with the result of COP26 but the good thing is there are some hopes and positive assurances we got from different influential politicians.”

Scientists say COP26 did help lower the projected levels of global warming — but still far from what is needed to limit warming to 1.5C.

However, Johan Rockstrom, joint director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said he “cannot celebrate despite significant progress, because the room for manoeuvre is so limited”.

“If this was a COP meeting 20 years ago I would have declared it a huge success because we’d have had time to get the laggards on board . . . But now we’ve run out of time. We have only 10 years to cut global emission in half to have a chance to deliver 1.5,” he said.

Under the Glasgow deal, the UN will conduct an annual analysis of emissions targets, and report next year about a new work programme to scale up emissions cuts.

Negotiators say that the Glasgow pact would lay the groundwork for incremental improvements in the emissions targets, such as for countries to make “add-ons” to their existing emissions targets.

The pact is much more pointed, when it comes to countries that have not submitted a new emissions target at all, who are “urged” to do so ahead of COP27 next year.

Although India announced on the opening day of COP26 a target for net zero emissions by 2070, it has not yet submitted a new emissions target.

Another area of concern at COP26 is that several countries submitted new NDCs that were actually worse — in terms of climate impact — than their previous NDCs. These include Brazil, Australia, Ethiopia and Mexico.

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