Real ambition vs. false solutions: What’s at stake during COP26?

Analysis

COP26 takes place against the backdrop of nationalist health policies with daunting consequences, failed promises to adequately scale up climate action and financial support, and an unprecedented push for false solutions that divert global attention from the urgent need to phase out fossil fuels.

Ships and industries pollute a lot of carbon dioxid

Originally scheduled to take place in 2020, COP26 was meant to be a moment of truth. Five years on from Paris, it was to be a litmus test for the willingness of States to deliver on the three objectives set in the 2015 Agreement: limiting the increase of greenhouse gas emissions to avoid more dangerous levels of global warming, increasing resilience, and aligning financial flows with economy-wide decarbonization.

After 12 months of delays induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, COP26 will instead take place against the backdrop of nationalist health policies with daunting consequences, failed promises to adequately scale up climate action and financial support, and an unprecedented push for false solutions that divert global attention from the urgent need to phase out fossil fuels.

If governments want to avoid COP26 going down in history as a fatal blow to the Paris Agreement and the moment when climate catastrophe was sealed in our collective fate, they must demonstrate that they understand the world is on fire. We are in a climate emergency that will only get worse, and catastrophically so, absent decisive and immediate action consistent with science and equity to: curb the major sources of emissions — fossil fuel production and use, deforestation, and industrial agriculture; provide adequate and just financing to cover loss and damage and adaptation measures in those communities hardest hit by and least responsible for climate change; and abandon purported techno-fixes, carbon offsets, and far-off promises of mid-century “net zero”, which are dangerous distractions from the real, necessary, and viable solutions to the mounting climate crisis.

A Seat at the Table: Legitimate and ambitious outcomes require equitable participation

COP26 is happening in unprecedented times. The devastating COVID-19 pandemic is compounding the impacts of the climate crisis, and both magnify and mutually reinforce global inequalities. COVID-related economic shocks are putting pressure on countries already vulnerable to the climate crisis. While industrialized countries are entering a phase of 'post-COVID recovery', low and middle-income countries are still bearing the brunt — largely as a result of the vaccine nationalism and corporate greed through which richer nations denied equitable access to vaccination for a majority of the world’s population, and pharmaceutical companies were allowed to prioritize profits and property rights over public health and equity. When layered on top of a pre-existing debt crisis, many countries are simply unable to cope with both the health crisis and the extreme weather events they are facing.
 
In the midst of this all, the UK and the UNFCCC have decided to proceed with an in-person climate summit, neglecting the demand of over 1,000 CSOs from all over the world to postpone COP26 because of valid concerns about lack of inclusivity and health safety. The UK Presidency is convinced its measures are adequate to answer these concerns. But it has failed to take the one measure that would have been effective and demonstrated its commitment to international cooperation: promoting global vaccine equity. As a major economy and the G7 president, the UK must work to lift international barriers to the use of COVID-related scientific knowledge through a waiver of intellectual property rights under the international trade regime to ensure vaccine access for all. Instead, the UK, along with many other rich nations, has allowed vaccine nationalism to prevail in a system that places corporate profits over people's right to health.

Those most vulnerable to the climate crisis are experiencing the biggest hurdles to make it safely to Glasgow

As a result, travel restrictions, visa complications, quarantine requirements, extremely high accommodation costs, and health and safety concerns make equal participation at COP26 all but impossible. Those most vulnerable to the climate crisis, who stand to bear the greatest impacts of decisions taken at COP26, are experiencing the biggest hurdles to make it safely to Glasgow and safely back home. This inequity will inevitably raise questions about the legitimacy of any decision reached at COP26 — particularly for those agenda items directly impacting communities and Indigenous Peoples in countries least represented at the COP. Those agenda items include, but are not limited to carbon trading, the review of financing goals for adaptation, and loss and damage.

The Ambition Gap: We are running out of time to scale up ambition in line with the imperative of keeping temperature increase below 1.5°C

Six years ago, the adoption of the Paris Agreement was presented to the public as a success. The assumption was that it would create five-year cycles through which governments would ratchet up the ambition of their climate action. COP26 was intended to serve as the first reality check on the resolve of governments to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

In the months preceding the COP, alarming reports have confirmed, however, that national government climate plans and policies remain woefully inadequate to close the gap between the level of collective action and the goals of the Paris Agreement. Three months ago, all governments unanimously endorsed the dramatic warnings issued by the IPCC regarding the scale of the impacts that our planet will face if we do not change course. The IPCC stressed that governments could still protect the rights of present and future generations to a safe climate but only if they undertook urgent and systemic action. Despite this stark warning, most governments have failed to review their national climate commitments and energy policies in line with science. To preserve any chance of fulfilling the goals of the Paris Agreement, governments gathering in Glasgow must thus adopt action-oriented decisions that bolster mitigation measures and effectively ratchet up ambition. This means, among other outcomes, reaffirming the need to keep temperature increase below 1.5°C, agreeing that national governments must submit enhanced commitments every five years, and establishing an annual ambition enhancement mechanism to mobilize enhanced action until the mitigation ambition gap is closed. Failing to do so would signal that governments have abdicated their responsibility to deliver on the Paris goals.

The Elephant in the Room: We cannot avoid catastrophic climate change without halting fossil fuel production and it is high time for the UN climate talks to recognize this reality

This COP may be the first at which some Parties dare to utter the “f” word: fossil fuels. Neither the Paris Agreement nor any decision adopted by previous COPs mentions fossil fuels — a glaring omission in an instrument widely considered the most important global climate treaty adopted to date. It has never been clearer that the Paris goals will remain out of reach unless States take urgent action to rapidly, decisively, and equitably phase out fossil fuels. The last year has witnessed steadily mounting momentum behind calls for a fossil-free future, beginning with a halt to new oil, gas, and coal exploration and development, and immediate steps to ramp down and phase out existing operations, as well as to stop harmful fossil fuel subsidies amounting to US$5.9 trillion in 2020 alone — especially public financing for fossil fuel production. And those calls are not just coming from activists.

In a flagship report released in May 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA) concluded that to limit warming to 1.5°C, there can be no new investments in oil, gas, and coal. Last week, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released its 2021 Production Gap report, reinforcing the climate imperative to immediately and steeply reduce fossil fuel production. The report finds, however, that governments are planning to produce approximately “240 percent more coal, 71 percent more oil, and 57 percent more gas” by 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C. Over 101 Nobel laureates, more than 2000 scientists, and over 100 elected officials from around the world have endorsed the principles of a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, demanding that governments keep it in the ground. The writing is on the wall: there is no climate ambition without a just transition to a fossil-free future. And that transition cannot begin until oil, gas, and coal expansion ends.

The Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA), the first diplomatic initiative addressing the need for governments to manage the decline of oil and gas production as a core part of their climate action, is widely expected to gain formal support from some first-mover States at COP26. The test will be whether those countries enact full bans on new exploration and production licenses, preserve the integrity of the Alliance, and recognize the need for equity and differentiated approaches to phase-out across countries in the Global North and South.

The UK itself is reportedly aiming to spearhead an announcement on ending public financing for fossil fuels abroad. Given the urgent need to end all fossil fuel subsidies, this is welcome news, beginning with investments in new oil, gas, and coal projects. However, it may ring hollow, given the UK’s policies at home: Climate leaders don’t lease new oil fields, as the UK has done in the North Sea.

Dangerous Distractions: We must avoid losing time through false solutions

Perhaps the biggest threat to climate ambition at COP26 is the dangerous distraction of “net zero” and the false solutions for which it provides cover: purported technological fixes, like carbon capture and storage, direct air capture, and hydrogen, which are unnecessary, ineffective, and risky, and other illusory approaches, like carbon offsets, designed to justify business-as-usual pollution on the flawed premise that it can be balanced out, rather than phased out. The focus on achieving mid-century “net zero” targets rather than near-term “real zero” goals masks climate inaction. It also delays and detracts from the urgent measures needed to keep warming below 1.5°C, by cutting emissions at the source through the phase-out of fossil fuel production and use, the transformation of industrial agriculture, and a halt to deforestation. The UK presidency is a case in point as it earmarks a significant share of the funding allocated for its Net Zero by 2050 plan to renewed investments in the fossil fuel industry while failing to combat energy poverty. As the warnings grow increasingly dire, public patience with empty promises and tolerance for greenwashing is shrinking. Averting climate catastrophe requires immediate action and ambitious domestic mitigation measures that align with the best available science and global equity.

Inside the negotiations, Article 6 looms large as one of the only pieces of the Paris Agreement rulebook yet to be completed. Six years of negotiations have thus far resulted in a stalemate on many key issues related to “cooperative approaches” to implement the Paris Agreement.

Article 6 Paris Agreement

Article 6 provides for “cooperative approaches” enabling countries to work together to take ambitious mitigation and adaptation actions while promoting sustainable development and ensuring environmental integrity. Largely this has been discussed as market (article 6.2 and 6.4) and non-market (article 6.8) approaches.

Article 6.2 includes the usage of internationally transferred mitigation outcomes (ITMOs), likely in a global carbon market, to meet NDCs while Article 6.4 creates a “Sustainable Development Mechanism” (often seen as a successor to the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)), which can enable mitigation projects that generate credits.

Article 6.8 recognizes the importance of non-market approaches that enable Parties to work together to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The slow pace of the Article 6 negotiations to date does not, however, justify an agreement-at-all-costs approach to talks at COP26. Simply reaching a decision — especially in the absence of representatives of many of the countries likely to be most affected by Article 6 activities — is no measure of success. On the contrary: locking in lax rules for decades merely for the sake of a decision risks undermining the very integrity of the Paris Agreement.

As demonstrated by past examples, market-based mechanisms threaten communities and sap ambition. Too often, trading of carbon credits through offset schemes merely enables business-as-usual pollution by large emitters, and the human rights and environmental harms that accompany it. Without robust protections, markets incentivize land-grabs, jeopardizing the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. Loopholes have allowed credits without verified or permanent reductions, and reliance on offsets perpetuates the fallacy that a climate benefit in one place can count against continued emissions in another. There is no room for an “either-or” approach to emissions reductions in a climate-constrained world. Moreover, treating climate mitigation as a mere carbon accounting problem is not only reductionist but also suggests a false equivalency between carbon emissions that ignores the experience of frontline communities where pollution is concentrated. Market mechanisms have no long-term role to play as keeping temperature rise below 1.5°C requires real and immediate domestic action.

Even with robust rules, risks abound. If countries agree to modalities and procedures for Article 6 at COP26, they must require that human rights and the rights of Indigenous Peoples are respected, protected, and promoted, and that ambition is not undermined. We have no time to repeat mistakes of the past, such as those connected to the CDM. The rules for any market-based trading regime or project-based financing, such as through the Sustainable Development Mechanism, or non-market collaborations should establish rights-based social and environmental safeguards, ensure the meaningful participation of local communities, require respect for Indigenous Peoples' right to free, prior and informed consent throughout a project’s lifecycle, and an independent grievance mechanism through which affected people can seek redress. The Article 6 rules also must imperatively prevent double counting of emissions reductions as well as the carryover of credits from prior mechanisms (like the CDM). If agreed, Article 6 mechanisms must advance the overall mitigation of global emissions by requiring that a percentage of credits exchanged be cancelled without being accounted as offsets. All of these elements are essential to ensure that Article 6 does not undermine ambition or compromise the integrity of the Paris Agreement.

These proposed techno-fixes further distract from the necessity to address fossil fuels as the root cause of the climate crisis

From interference with solar radiation to large-scale technological carbon dioxide removal (CDR) from the atmosphere, geoengineering approaches present distinct risks to human rights and the environment. Those risks, associated with testing, development, and deployment of such technologies, outweigh any claimed but highly uncertain long-term climate benefit. These proposed techno-fixes further distract from the necessity to address fossil fuels as the root cause of the climate crisis, while creating new risks for present and future generations. Consequently, other international environmental frameworks have adopted de facto moratoriums or bans on the deployment of these technologies. The interest of corporate funders and governments, especially the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, to promote geoengineering approaches, has however grown over the past months, including through massive investments in fossil fuel infrastructure under the guise of carbon capture and removal and attempts at outdoor experiments with solar geoengineering technologies and techniques. To avoid embracing false solutions, COP26 must not open the door – whether in the formal process or in parallel events — to the notion that geoengineering has a role to play in the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

The Other Ambition Gap: Developed countries must restore trust and equity by delivering on finance

More than a decade ago, developed countries promised to deliver $100 billion per year in climate finance for mitigation and adaptation by 2020. In 2021, that promise remains unmet with a financing gap of at least $20 billion. Meanwhile, the climate crisis has worsened, further exposing the need for significantly more finance than the politically determined $100 billion goal. The pandemic and accelerating debt crises have only magnified this need. Providing adequate finance to developing countries, which bear much of the brunt of the climate crisis but little responsibility for causing it is critical both to meet the moral and legal obligations of developed countries and to restore trust and equity as the cornerstones for ambition.  

At this COP, it is critical that countries not only urgently deliver on long-overdue promises to increase the quantity of funds available, but also reverse the deteriorating quality of finance provided too often as loans and mostly for mitigation. Critically, countries must come up with a fail-safe plan to deliver financing for mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage over the next four years. However, all indications are that efforts proposed by developed countries for Glasgow will fall significantly short. At the same time, discussions on a new higher collective finance goal for the post-2025 era must be initiated. Finance must be fossil-free (as discussed above) and must exclude support for false solutions, like carbon capture and storage, that lock in fossil fuel systems and prolong polluting industries, rather than accelerate their phase-out and replacement.

To restore trust and meet the urgent needs, Parties should pledge new, increased climate finance, mainly in the form of grants and for adaptation. Further, two new UNFCCC reports presented by the Standing Committee on Finance assess developing countries’ needs as being in the trillions of dollars and describe the inadequacy of current climate finance flows. These assessments should guide Parties’ consideration of how to deliver on past due amounts and provide adequate finance to address the scale and scope of the need through 2025, and beyond. Parties must also initiate a process to establish an urgently needed loss and damage finance facility. Enormous loss and damage are already occurring. Communities cannot wait. When it comes to delivering needed finance, further delay is deadly.

Lastly, the COP must provide guidance to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the world’s preeminent climate finance mechanism, as well as the other funds it oversees with a focus on expanding and simplifying access in countries most in need and excluding support for oil, gas, or coal, as well as risky carbon capture or carbon removal technologies that seek to fix rather than replace fossil fuels and threaten frontline communities. This guidance should focus on ensuring the GCF increases its efforts to provide grants-based finance to those countries, communities, and people that need it most through direct access entities, to ensure gender-responsive access to finance, to increase its adaptation financing, and to ensure that its implementing partners (in GCF jargon: “Accredited Entities”) are doing their part to advance the goal set in article 2.1(c) of the Paris Agreement by shifting their entire portfolios away from fossil fuels and towards low-GHG emissions and climate-resilient development.    

Responding to the Plea of Those Most Impacted: COP26 must strengthen the institutional framework to effectively mobilize resources for loss and damage

From the deadly floods in China, Germany, and Belgium, historic fires in North America, the Mediterranean, and Australia, to Madagascar being on the brink of a climate-induced famine: 2021 has made it crystal clear that we are living the climate emergency. Climate impacts are hitting hard, fueling global inequality, and threatening human rights. Communities at the frontlines are often least responsible for the climate crisis as well as ill-equipped to deal with the consequences. We have entered the age of loss and damage and it is high time for the international community — and especially historic polluters — to deal with it. While Paris recognized loss and damage as the third pillar of climate action, richer countries have so far done extremely little to meet actual needs.

Decisions at COP26 must change this. Real recognition requires a full and rights-based operationalization of the institutions that have been set up to address loss and damage such as the Santiago Network. Moreover, only by making loss and damage a fixed agenda item of the negotiations, will it receive the political weight it deserves as well as a recurring assessment of its realization. Above all, to address loss and damage there is an urgent need for resources. The most vulnerable countries are piling up debt to deal with a crisis they have done little to cause. Adequate and additional resources are needed to lift the burden off these countries. The discussions on the post-2025 finance goal have to take loss and damage into account and also in the near term solutions are needed to mobilize new and additional financial resources, including by levying funds from the industries contributing most to climate change. A proper financing mechanism must ensure that these means reach the most vulnerable communities. With affected communities all over the world watching, COP26 needs to deliver. Countries have a human rights obligation to help millions of people all over the world cope with the damage the climate crisis is already doing.

Towards People-Centered Climate Action: Human rights, including Indigenous Peoples’ rights, gender equity, and social inclusion, must now be at the heart of climate responses

Over the past months, momentum has grown on the need to better address human rights and environmental issues in a holistic manner. In October 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted two landmark resolutions, acting upon more than a decade of advocacy from civil society and Indigenous Peoples’ organizations. The Council recognized the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and established a new UN Special Rapporteur to promote human rights in the context of climate change. These resolutions echo a growing number of court decisions reaffirming that States have the duty to protect human rights from climate-induced harms through effective regulation.

Placing peoples and communities at the heart of climate action

At COP26, Parties must build on this, and ensure that climate action at the national, regional, and international level is inclusive, effective, rooted in human rights, and contributes to a just transition. Placing peoples and communities at the heart of climate action will also contribute to counter efforts to increase the financialization of climate policies and ecosystems – including so-called “nature-based solutions” – which have the potential to undermine effective climate action, and jeopardize the rights of affected communities, especially women or Indigenous Peoples. Human rights, social and environmental safeguards, and avenues for redress can counter such trends, ensure that these mechanisms do not pose a threat to human rights and, if violations do occur, that adequate systems for remedies are in place.

Over the past years, the need to reconcile climate action and the promotion of human rights has been increasingly addressed through thematic workstreams and specialized bodies established under the UN Climate Agreements, such as the Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE), the Local Community and Indigenous Peoples’ Platform (LCIPP), the Gender Action Plan (GAP), and the Katowice Committee on response measures. COP26 must not only expand these mandates but must also ensure that human rights, including the rights of Indigenous Peoples, gender equality, and a just transition be reflected adequately across all outcomes of the COP so as to effectively drive national climate action towards just, inclusive and people-centered policies.

The authors are grateful to Lili Fuhr and Liane Schalatek for their review of this text.