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COP26 – fail to act today, repent at leisure

The first draft of the COP26 agreement in Glasgow was released yesterday morning. In the draft, the COP acknowledges the need to renew efforts to limit temperature increase to 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels, echoing the recommendations of the most recent IPCC reports. 

School girl in Kenya

The first draft from COP26 reminds us that the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees is potentially catastrophic, and although not mentioned, it is evident that the disastrous effects of climate change would not be felt evenly across the world. Global inequality means that the brunt of the damage will be felt by communities and countries that are the most vulnerable already.

This draft will be negotiated intensely in the time that delegates have left before the close of the conference on Friday this week. The tepid tone of the first draft reveals the fissures between countries. Developed countries are not only struggling to acknowledge their historical responsibility for climate change, but are also attempting to escape the burden of financing adaptation and mitigation activities in the developing world.

Here are four areas where the lack of progress should be of serious concern to us.

  1. Perhaps the most significant statement in the draft is the call to accelerate the process of phasing out fossil fuels. This is a welcome development, although it is already known that a few influential fossil fuel producing and consuming countries have been trying to dilute these references. It is also disappointing to find no reference, in the first draft, to fiscal instruments such as carbon taxes. Without a time-bound plan for phasing out fossil fuels, the global net zero plans will remain unattainable. Meanwhile today, the US and China came together to announcetheir intention to cooperate on reducing emissions, which may well be one of the few highlights of COP26.
  2. Section V of the draft on financing is the portion that developing countries will examine with the greatest interest. Here, the statement merely “notes with regret” that developed countries had failed to meet their target of raising $100 billion annually by 2020. Developed countries have reportedly been resisting these targets. They are now aiming to meet this target by 2023, giving themselves three additional years. While one can refer to Covid19 and the global economic contraction, in reality, climate finance has fallen far short of the mark, and the ambiguities in definitions paints a dismal picture. The bottom-line is an unwillingness by developed countries to live up to the promises they made in 2009 at the Copenhagen COP.
  3. While there is acknowledgement that climate finance needs to be more transparent, the first draft also points out that eligibility for specific types of financing and process of accessing these funds remains extremely complicated. This is an area where far more needs to be done. Transparency in how financial contributions are computed has been a longstanding demand. International private finance instruments have been variously accused as being too complex, of being green-washed, and are in general, too difficult for developing countries to access.
  4. On loss and damage, the first draft makes a rather feeble mention of ‘finance’, and in saying “climate change has already and will increasingly cause loss and damage”, carefully steers away from mentioning the role of industrialised countries in climate change. Loss and Damage is a key aspect of the ‘climate justice’ agenda. While a forum such as the COP cannot realistically be expected to produce a statement that would satisfy climate activists, a clearer emphasis on financing that recognises historical responsibility is the need of the hour, and would set the tone for global cooperation.

Overall then, for a landmark summit of the nature of COP26, this first draft gives us surprisingly little that is newsworthy. The ‘net zero’ commitments made by countries – for instance, India – gave the COP an impressive start. It also put the focus on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) – domestic action driven by conscious policy choices made by countries for themselves. That’s where the action is going to be if the world is to have any hope of reaching its target of reaching net zero by 2050. However as negotiations progress and an agreement is reached by the end of COP, it is clear that without adequate financing for climate-vulnerable developing countries to support them in making those crucial policy choices and timely transition, limiting global temperature to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels may well be a bridge too far.

From the evidence of this first draft, world is failing to unite in the face of the climate crisis. If this is where we end up as negotiations close, there is no doubt that we will repent at leisure.

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