Demand was high, but expectations were low. Nearly 200 governments from around the world concluded their two-week conclave in Glasgow, Scotland without a binding treaty to stop pouring greenhouse gases into the planet’s thin atmosphere. They were not expected to do so.
In their “Glasgow Climate Pact,” they did not swear off starting new projects to burn fossil fuels to generate electricity; they did not sign agreements to ban future gasoline-guzzling automobiles from rolling off assembly lines; they did not set punishments for ongoing destruction of forests so crucial to absorbing excessive carbon dioxide from burning those fossil fuels.
Going into the last days of COP-26, negotiations had led to a pledge that the burning of coal to produce electricity would be phased out, but at the last minute India and other governments managed to change that to “phased down,” rather than out.
What they did do at COP-26, this year’s intergovernmental conference on climate change, was “increase ambition” to slow the worrying trend of global warming. The mantra from leaders of United Nations agencies, scientists and non-governmental organizations was to “keep 1.5 alive,” the global average temperature expressed in Centigrade over that of pre-industrial times. If those temperatures could be stabilized at 1.5 degrees C above the carbon emissions that began roughly with Scottish inventor James Watt’s introduction of the steam engine in 1776, the earth’s climate probably would remain habitable. But, as scientists today warn, greenhouse gas emissions are on a trajectory to rise steadily to 2.7 degrees C by 2100 —an impending catastrophe for most living things on the planet, including ourselves. A somewhat better projection has been issued by the Carbon Tracker website: perhaps it will rise only by 2.4 degrees C compared to pre-industrial times within the next 79 years.
What’s not obvious to most people, including many who follow the developing climate crisis, is that those three-tenths of a degree would make an enormous difference in life on earth, if only due to frequency and intensity of natural disasters such as extended droughts accompanied by successive year crop losses, hurricanes, unprecedented flooding, spread of diseases and unmanageable wildfires. Think back to 2020 and this past year: the flooding of low-lying areas of Manhattan and New Jersey, destruction of wide areas of California and Washington State and the accelerating loss of the world’s glaciers and polar ice caps. All of that is reliably attributed to a rise of just 1.1 degrees C.
Demand was high that COP-26 produce tangible results, measures imposed by national governments or at least international sanctions against institutions that flagrantly aggravate the climate crisis. Ahead of the conference, key governments did issue more ambitious promises to bring down greenhouse gas emissions, sometimes earlier than already promised. The United States was among them, as was New Mexico, which assumed a leadership role in commitments to reduce methane releases, chiefly from the flaring of oil and gas production and processing sites.
And New Mexico’s main producer of electricity, Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), announced last year that it would stop burning coal for its generators, setting 2040 or before to be coal-free. PNM said it would divest from the San Juan Generating Station next year, and replace that with 650 megawatts of new solar generating capacity and 300 megawatts of battery storage.
But a significant part of PNM’s plan is to substitute some of that coal power with gas power. And that’s a big caveat in the widespread praise at COP-26 for the shift away from coal. At a press briefing November 10, five representatives of Citizens Action Network (CAN), made up of more than 1,500 climate-related non-governmental organizations around the world, said promises to stop burning coal were welcome but not nearly sufficient. The shift away from fossil fuels needs to include abandoning use of natural gas as well, they insisted. “We need to phase out oil and gas as well as coal, and we need to do it fast and fair,” said Mohamed Adow, director of PowerShift Africa.
The press briefing assessed progress at COP-26 mid-way through the conference’s second week. Panelists said they were heartened that more ambitious de-carbonization goals had been announced in the governments' new “nationally determined contributions” to efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, and that delegates had finally included in COP-26’s main negotiating product the need for immediate action on damages that have already occurred around the globe due to climate change. Time and again over the previous 10 days, prime ministers and presidents stressed that their countries have already suffered enormous losses… not computer-modeled simulations of rising seas, eroding shorelines, flooding, persistent droughts and potential crop losses but billions of dollars in damage already sustained.
It is the difficult issue referred to as “loss and damage,” that surfaced at COP-21 which produced the 2015 Paris Accord, only to be shunted aside so that at least some international agreement could emerge. The obvious was asserted in Glasgow again and again: the peoples of the world who have produced the least greenhouses gases have suffered the greatest damage.
How should they be compensated, by whom, and how can they be assisted proactively since the calamities that have befallen them will grow more frequent and more intense? It’s a matter of liability which the developed countries such as the United States are not anxious to see addressed.
At a session on loss and damage during week two of the conference, one of the negotiators expressed certainty that such claims eventually will go to the International Court of Justice In The Hague, Netherlands.
Inclusion of the need for the international community to address loss and damage in the draft text for an agreement to come from COP-26 was welcomed but also largely discounted by the CAN panelists. “These are just words that will make no difference to the people hardest hit by climate change,” said Teresa Anderson, of Action Aid International. “This text gives the illusion of progress when there really is none. You will search in vain for any radical change in the way loss and damage is addressed.”
Another panelist in the press conference, Tzeporah Berman, who leads the Fossil Fuel Non-proliferation Treaty movement, decried the fact that projects already underway or approved around the world will increase 110 percent more fuel than can be burned and still keep the climate below 1.5 degrees C. “We already have enough oil and gas under development to take us past two degrees, so we cannot allow the marketplace to solve this problem. It’s not working fast enough to keep us safe. That’s why we’re seeing real anger and frustration.”
The final, official document adopted at COP-26 on Saturday, November 13, included the following in an introductory section labeled “Science and Urgency.” The U.N. “Expresses alarm and utmost concern that human activities have caused around 1.1 degrees C of warming to date, that impacts are already being felt in every region, and that carbon budgets consistent with achieving the Paris Agreement temperature goal are now small and being rapidly depleted.” It also noted that its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change earlier this year had reported that “climate weather extremes and their adverse impacts on people and nature will continue to increase with every additional increment of rising temperatures.” (For the text of that report, see series starting in Corrales Comment Vol.XXXX No.13, August 21, 2021 “Text of UN Climate Change Report.”)
“To mitigate the effects of that documented change in global climate, the Glasgow Pact said the UN “Reaffirms the Paris Agreement temperature goal of holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels;
“Recognizes that the impacts of climate change will be much lower at the temperature increase of 1.5 degrees C compared with 2 degrees C and resolves to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C;
“Recognizes that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, including reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net zero around mid- century, as well as deep reductions in other greenhouse gases;…”
Some breakthroughs on the international effort to hold down global temperature came in the lead-up to COP-26. After the United States and the European Union pledged they would achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, China, the second biggest emitter, promised to do so by 2060.
Then in Glasgow, the other big hold-out, India, said it would be net zero by 2070.
For many observers, those targets, even if realized, are too little too late. But two other factors offer more hope. New Mexico is expected to play a significant role in one of those, a promised dramatic reduction in methane releases. This state leads the nation in methane emissions due to production of oil and gas. Cutting methane releases would have a big impact because that gas is far more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so that would produce a rapid improvement.
The second factor is the global commitment to halt destruction of forests. One hundred thirty governments promised in Glasgow that they would stop the wholesale clearing of forests within the next nine years.
Despite those promises extracted in Scotland, the threat of systemic climate collapse remained. As United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, “Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe.”