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COP26: UN conferences do not catch up on climate action

The delay with which the delegates of COP26 closed the climate negotiations scheduled from November 2 to 12, but concluded a day latersummarizes in an ironic metaphor the delay that humanity continues to accumulate in taking action against the climate crisis. The event on climate of the yearor, as some liked to say, of the decadewent on to the tune of "no deal is better than a bad deal," but it actually ended with a bad deal. The result is the Glasgow Climate Pact, a lofty name that masks a faded pact and does not fairly reflect what COP26 was all about.

Among the reasons that have determined the delay, one in particular stands out, which is extremely relevant: it concerns the debate on fossil fuels, a key issue in the fight against climate change, which has accompanied and animated the entire duration of the Glasgow negotiations, so much so as to decree its prolongation.

Something new… but late

If there is a reason why COP26 represents a break with the past it is that, for the first time in an international climate agreement, the term fossil fuels appears. In fact, although almost 30 years have passed since the first COP organized in 1995 by the UN, it took 26 international meetings for the idea that fossil fuel subsidies are one of the main problems of climate change to be accepted.

On the seventh day of negotiations, England announced the appearance of the term in the first draft of the COP26 outcome document; the news created excitement within the halls of COP26 and seemed to predict a major leap forward on the issue of sustainable energy. What's more, on the penultimate day of negotiations, a group of countries led by Costa Rica and Denmark announced the creation of the Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance (BOGA), a coalition of twelve governments and stakeholders with the goal of facilitating the abandonment of fossil fuels.

However, the final product of an agreement is always the result of dialogue and compromise, and it is difficult in such a vast and varied environment to get everyone to agree. Some global players proved hard to convince, and showed their muscles during the course of the negotiations. Among them, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's India played a central role.

India's central role

India's Prime Minister opened the negotiations with ambitious statements that were more precise than those of many other major emitters, pledging to cut net emissions by 2070, reduce carbon emissions by 2030 and increase the share of renewables in the country's energy mix to 50%. If, however, the initial promises had shocked for the accuracy and ambition with which they were presented, India's final positioning has caused a stir for the exact opposite.

The twist concerned the change in terminology on the worst of the fossil fuels, namely coal, which marked the three drafts preceding the official document. Initial expectations spoke of a total abandonment of coal, leaving hope that even the most reluctant countries were determined to leave behind the use of the most polluting energy source of all. Already in the second draft the friction of the Indian delegates began to be perceived, who proposed to add to the verb phaseout, the adjective unabated ("inefficient, difficult to break down"), to mean that only coal that could not be mitigated with CO2 capture and storage technologies should be abandoned. The third draft, the one that would become the Glasgow Climate Pact, has definitely dissolved the hopes of those who hoped for a firm commitment on the issue of coal. In fact, the last minute proposal, put forward by the Indian delegates and accepted by all for lack of time, was the expression “phasedown unabated coal”.

Better than Madrid, but worse than Paris

Better than Madrid 2019, but definitely worse than Paris 2015: that's how one could sum up the outcome of COP26. Indeed, if the Madrid conference had turned out to be a total failure, Glasgow managed to fill the gap left in 2019, but without making any major progress.

If nothing else, Glasgow and Paris have twists and turns in common. Both agreements were decided by last-minute compromises that actually altered the effectiveness of the measures. In 2015, it was the U.S. that asked for a last-minute change: to the phrase "developed countries shall," the U.S. asked for a single word change, preferring the term "should," which effectively nullified the binding nature of the Paris Agreement. This time, however, it was another major emitter that watered down the agreement, one that represents how the ecological transition does not mean the same in developed and developing countries.

Overall, COP26 seems not to have met the expectations of the participants either. Beginning with Boris Johnson's "if Glasgow fails, everything fails" plea, the conference ended with his own appointed president, Alok Sharma, almost in tears as he apologized for the watered-down passage on coal.

The Glasgow Climate Pact creates another huge gap once again deferred to posterity, and in particular to COP27 scheduled to be held in Sharm-el-Sheik, Egypt, next year. We hope that the analysis of Saleemul Huq, who argues that COPs are more successful when held in sunny places, can explain the failure of COP26 and the desirable success of COP27.


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