With a critical turning point in the warming of the planet’s atmosphere less than a decade away, world leaders meeting in Glasgow struck a contentious agreement on Saturday to address the climate crisis that falls well short of blunting its worst effects.
Reached after lengthy late-night negotiations, the agreement pushes countries to strengthen near-term climate targets and move away from fossil fuels; indeed, it is the first time fossil fuels are actually named in a global climate accord. But it did not call for the kind of aggressive action that scientists say is necessary to avert disastrous climate problems, such as plans for a rapid shift off of fossil fuels to keep atmospheric warming in check.
The United Nations climate talks, called COP26, ended Saturday evening in Glasgow with the issuance of a final agreement that Alok Sharma, the session’s president and a Cabinet minister in the United Kingdom, called “imperfect” but said showed “consensus and support.”
US climate envoy John Kerry, who led the country’s efforts to reclaim its position as a global leader, said that the agreement “raises ambition,” and that “we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
The Glasgow talks were not devoid of successes. There were agreements to cut methane emissions, phase out fossil fuel vehicles, and more. But world leaders failed on several key points, including steps that limit the warming of the planet to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, as set by the Paris Agreement.
Instead, global warming would rise by a calamitous 2.4 degrees under emissions pledges made by countries in advance of the Glasgow meeting, according to an analysis by Carbon Action Tracker.
The nearly 200 participating nations could not even agree to eventually phase out the use of fossil fuels, a move seen as a fundamental benchmark.
“Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement following the closure of the Glasgow meeting. Guterres called for the phasing out of coal and putting a price on carbon emissions, and for developed nations to make good on a pledge to provide $100 billion in climate financing to support developing countries.
“We did not achieve these goals at this conference. But we have some building blocks for progress.”
Despite early signals the agreement would call for the phasing out of coal and the end of subsidies for fossil fuel, such language was ultimately watered down. The final agreement calls for accelerated efforts toward the “phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” And while nations did not pledge to cut enough emissions to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, they agreed to keep working toward that goal.
But the gap between wealthy and developing nations appeared to only widen, as developed countries — including the United States — were reluctant to commit to sending sufficient funds to poorer countries.
“While we recognize the foundations that this outcome provides, it does not bring hope to our hearts, but serves as yet another conversation where we put our homes on the line, while those who have other options decide how quickly they want to act to save those who don’t,” said Shauna Aminath, environment minister of the South Asian country of Maldives.
In the immediate aftermath of the talks, advocates and activists began calling for greater action.
“Our leaders have made choices that ignore, chip away, or bargain away our rights as human beings, often discarding the most marginalized communities around the world as expendable collateral damage,” Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, said in a statement. “Their failure to commit to maintaining the global temperature rise at 1.5°C will condemn more than half a billion people, mostly in the global south, to insufficient water and hundreds of millions of people to extreme heatwaves.”
The talks had been widely anticipated, not only because climate-fueled disasters are mounting around the world, but because the Paris Agreement mandated countries step up their climate ambitions in this round.
While some did — notably the United States and the European Union — many did not, such as Brazil and Australia.
While a bad outcome, limiting global warming to 2.4 degrees Celsius as laid out in the pledges made in Glasgow would still represent progress. When the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, the world was on track to warm roughly 4 degrees Celsius.
“As a lifelong optimist, I see the Glasgow outcome as half-full rather than half-empty,” said Alden Meyer, a senior associate with E3, a climate policy think tank. “But the atmosphere responds to emissions — not COP decisions — and much work remains ahead to translate the strong rhetoric here into reality.”
Several side-agreements announced during the negotiations were seen as causes for hope.
More than 100 countries pledged to cut emissions of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, by at least 30 percent from 2020 levels by the end of this decade. Achieving that goal would reduce warming by at least 0.2 degrees Celsius by 2050, according to the US State Department.
And 19 countries, including the United States and Britain, signed a pledge to create zero-emissions shipping routes among ports. Emissions from the shipping industry account for nearly 3 percent of global emissions.
Twenty-four countries and dozens of cities, states, and major businesses agreed to end the sale of fossil fuel vehicles no later than 2040. The United States was not among them, but the Biden administration has called for half of new cars to be electric or plug-in hybrids by 2030.
Some of the side agreements were little more than symbolic. A coalition of countries, including Denmark, Costa Rica, France, Greenland, Ireland, Sweden, Wales, and the Canadian province of Quebec, pledged to stop permitting drilling projects and to eventually ban oil and gas production in their territories. But no major oil-producing nations joined in, as the coalition had hoped.
More than 40 countries pledged to phase out coal — a big success in the race to abolish the dirtiest of fossil fuels. But the US, China, India, and Australia, which together burn the vast majority of the world’s coal, did not join the pledge.
Overall, the highly anticipated talks close having made some progress, but falling short in several ways, said Rachel Cleetus, policy director and lead economist in the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“The final COP26 decision is overwhelmingly compromised by countries that have contributed most greatly to the climate crisis,” Cleetus said, “and once again denies justice for climate vulnerable developing countries.”