UN climate conference more productive than you think

Amanda Leland

Between the news media and the protests, it would have been easy to get the impression that this year’s United Nations climate summit, known as COP26, was all talk and no action.

Fortunately, the ‘ambition mechanism’ from the Paris Agreement — the process it establishes to periodically review countries’ progress toward meeting their commitments to address climate change, and to ratchet up their ambition over time — worked.

The conference brought forth a slew of good news and formal agreements to implement bolder climate action.

According to the International Energy Agency, if all the climate pledges announced to date are fully implemented on time, it would be enough “…to hold the rise in global temperatures to 1.8 °C by 2100.”

While the best science available suggests we need to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, this is the first time governments have come together to provide targets that could keep us below 2 degrees Celsius of warming.

Although we did not fully close the gap between ambition and action, the direction is clear, and full implementation of those commitments is critical.

What I was watching for

What’s most important right now is slowing the rate of warming and reducing our global temperature trajectory. Major progress happened on both scores.

EDF was proud to have worked alongside many partners to: call for fast cuts in methane pollution; scale natural climate solutions, including protecting tropical forests and the people who live there; enhance satellite technology that can help tackle greenhouse gas emissions; reduce the climate impacts of aviation; and establish the right rules for global carbon markets.

While these are steps along a long path, they are important ones.

Highlights from the climate summit

There was plenty of good news worth highlighting:

  1. Global methane pledge: The U.S. and EU announced that more than 100 countries representing 70% of the global economy have signed on to participate in the Global Methane Pledge, working together to cut human-caused global methane emissions 30% by 2030. This is a welcome step. As my colleague, Dr. Ilissa Ocko, says in her TED talk: The methane we emit today could cause more warming over the next 10 years than carbon dioxide pollution.
  2. Article 6 rulebook: Markets have the power to propel fast and deep climate pollution cuts while providing an economic development lifeline for the people who are most at risk from the impacts of climate change. After six years of difficult and technical negotiations, COP26 finally gave us a strong Paris Agreement rulebook for international cooperation through carbon markets and called on countries to take specific and urgent measures to address the climate emergency. While there was little movement on the issue of compensating the developing countries that are most affected by climate change, the Article 6 rules could clear a path to get private capital flowing from developed to developing countries.
  3. Cooperation agreement between China and the U.S.: China’s top climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, said that China would cooperate more closely with the U.S. on climate action. He said China would strengthen its commitment to cut emissions, develop a national plan on methane and help stop deforestation. While short on details, the announcement is a hopeful sign that the two countries emitting the most greenhouse gases will continue to work together to tackle climate change.
  4. India’s climate commitment: Prime Minister Modi announced a major new climate commitment for India, with a target of a 45% reduction in the carbon intensity of the economy by 2030 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2070. While short on details, India’s commitment is significant since future emissions are expected to grow dramatically, and low carbon development is the path forward.
  5. Sustainable aviation fuel standard: The International Civil Aviation Organization announced adoption of an expanded set of criteria for sustainable aviation fuel. This will help ensure that airlines can meet their sustainability obligations and that SAF producers have confidence investing in the sustainability of their supply chains and operations. It should also help put aviation on a flightpath to net zero by 2050. This is essential since, were it a country, aviation would be in the world’s ‘climate top 10,’ with emissions expected to grow.
  6. A pledge to end deforestation and provide $1.7 billion for forest communities: In the first major formal deal of the COP26 conference, 100 leaders representing 85% of the world’s forests pledged to end deforestation by 2030. At the same time, governments and private funders announced a historic $1.7 billion pledge at COP26 in support of Indigenous peoples and local communities, underscoring their essential role in land stewardship. This is a game-changer since the process of cutting and burning trees adds as much greenhouse gas to the atmosphere as all the cars and trucks in the world combined.
  7. Continuing to go bold on climate

    In the end, this conference showed that bringing the right people to the table and putting in the hard work — studying, advocating, planning, partnering, negotiating and more — is still important to solving the climate emergency.

    It showed that pushing our leaders for bold climate action actually works, and that no, it’s definitely not too late. Let’s keep going.

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