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Experts and delegates express mixed feelings over COP26 agreement

Illustration picture shows a protest of the Climate Coalition and Youth for Climate, at the UN climate conference COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, Friday 12 November 2021. (BELGA PHOTO JULIEN BALTUS)
06:15 15/11/2021

Delegates from nearly 200 states attending the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow finally agreed on a text on Saturday evening that binds them to the reduction of CO² emissions and keeps the targets set in the Paris Agreement alive.

It took them almost a day longer than expected and three versions of the draft before an agreement was reached but eventually almost all of the delegates signed off on the text that calls for stronger limitations on greenhouse gas emissions and commits countries that had have yet to deliver a plan to reduce their CO² emissions to do so before 2022, three years before the date set by the Paris Agreement. The decision, however, was not unanimous.

For the first time, the declaration also mentions coal, a fossil fuel still used by many countries to produce electricity. Although weakened under pressure from Saudi Arabia and Russia, the text calls for "making the efforts" necessary to move away from coal and to stop "inefficient" subsidies to fossil fuels.

The text also provides for a doubling of international climate finance for countries in the southern hemisphere to help deal with the consequences of climate change by 2025. On climate finance in general, no quantified target has yet been set for the post-2025 period. Developing nations are still waiting for the annual funding of $100 billion (approximately €87 billion) promised to them in 2020.

Regarding the often-irreversible damage caused by climate change, the adopted text did not provide for the technical and financial assistance mechanism desired by developing countries. Instead, the Glasgow decision provides funding for the "Santiago Network", set up in Madrid (COP25) and aimed at helping affected countries cope with the irreparable impacts of climate change.

Reactions to the agreement have been mixed. While some experts called COP26 a major step forward, many lamented the watering down of the text which they felt left it far short of the target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Activists were harsher in their assessments with many claiming COP26 was a failure, a missed opportunity and – in the words of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg – “more blah blah blah”.

Belgian delegates at COP 26 were also divided on the final text.

"There is much to be said about the agreement,” Belgian climate minister Zakia Khattabi said on Saturday evening from Glasgow, hours after COP26 officially reached an agreement. “There were disappointments, but also notable reasons for satisfaction. It is now up to us to make the most of the different elements of the agreement."

Khattabi said that she was particularly pleased that the 1.5°C target enshrined in the Paris Agreement had been reinforced and that the rules for collaboration at international level had been defined. "These rules, set after six years of discussion, will help ensure transparency and accountability of the parties and thereby contribute to greater mutual trust in the process," she stressed.

She also welcomed the reference to just transition; recognition of the importance of the integrity of all ecosystems and the role played by indigenous peoples, youth, women and civil society more generally.

However, Khattabi admitted that the agreement had its flaws. "This agreement is a compromise between 197 states," she said, which put forward the "foundations for more ambitious policies".

"It is now up to all regions and states to shoulder their responsibilities. For my part, I choose to look to the future and make the most of it for more ambition and concrete actions, for the benefit of all, today and tomorrow, here and elsewhere," she concluded.

Rajae Maouane, the co-president of Belgium’s Ecolo party, was less optimistic. "Although a step forward was taken at this climate summit and the ambition of 1.5°C was confirmed, the concrete measures of the agreement are not enough to stop global warming," she said on Saturday evening.

In particular, she said it was "disappointing that at the very last moment, it was not possible to bridge the gap between the objective of a maximum warming of 1.5°C and the measures necessary to achieve it," with the countries heavily dependent on fossil fuels having criticised the agreement at the end.

The ambition was therefore revised downwards at the very last moment. "This latest twist shows once again that it is up to rich countries to increase climate finance and keep ambition and pressure high," Maouane said. "The gap between declarations of intent and responses from the international community remains too wide. The notion of climate emergency is still not sufficiently understood to the right extent of its consequences and the speed of the transformations underway," she concluded.

Climate scientist Jean-Pascal van Ypersele from UCLouvain said on Sunday that the decisions adopted at COP26 in Glasgow will help implement the Paris climate agreement, saying it was a "step in the right direction".

The scientist, a former vice-president of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change who advised the Belgian delegation to COP26, said that while the agreement was “much more than blah blah” it was still "very insufficient".

He did note a series of positive points, including the "even clearer recognition of the urgency of action, coupled with a favourable reception of the latest IPCC report" and the "recognition of the huge gap between the current plans and what would be needed, and a call to increase the level of ambition of these plans annually, and not just every five years".

He also welcomed the call to reduce the use of coal and fossil fuel subsidies, the "beginning of a response to the demand of vulnerable countries that the damage they suffer as a result of climate change be compensated by the countries that are most responsible for it," as well as the promises to increase the budgets devoted to financing adaptation to climate change in developing countries.

In this regard, van Ypersele welcomed "the important symbolic gesture made by the government of Wallonia on the last day of COP26, by promising to contribute one million euros to a fund to finance losses and damages in developing countries".

"The set of texts adopted in Glasgow does not immediately reduce greenhouse gas emissions but creates an increasingly clear framework and signals towards decarbonisation for all governments, all economic actors and all citizens," concluded the climatologist.

Written by Nick Amies