November 16, 2021 9.15 am

Professor Duncan French: The Juggernaut of climate politics rolls on

Professor in International Law and Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of Lincoln, Duncan French assesses CoP26

Professor in International Law and Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of Lincoln, Duncan French assesses CoP26.

How should one score the Glasgow CoP? Is it even possible, or meaningful, to try to give a balanced scorecard for an event – actually more like a process – that is both so complex (i.e., made up of many actors and so many moving parts) and so political and thus contentious? And from a legal perspective, how does one evaluate what is essentially a political and diplomatic exercise?

So, there were some key outcomes of CoP26, both from the formal (though not legally binding) process and the informal (but politically significant) negotiations. First, the Glasgow Climate Pact as the headlining final day decision, and which has rightly received significant attention, reflects the strained consensus achieved on the broad range of issues, including mitigation (notably, strengthening Parties’ Nationally Determined Contributions), adaptation, Loss & Damage, finance and technology, and the specific referencing of coal and fossil fuel subsidies.

The “Pact” of course, though difficult to negotiate, is not a legally binding treaty but the best that could be achieved on that day, and in light of both global and domestic political considerations. The best that could be achieved on mitigation was a commitment to review national determined contributions (NDCs) again next year, but as most States feel they have gone as far and as quickly as they can up to this point) many will wonder if this is simply postponing the admission of where ambition hits the realpolitik.

However, despite the challenge, it is fundamentally important, as based on reports, current NDCs will get us to 2.4°C above pre-industrial levels, way above the stated ambition of either 1.5°C or 2°C by the end of the century. This level of temperature rise will cause untold human and planetary damage.

Moreover, most NDCs get to where they state they want to get to by being “net zero” – and not by mitigation alone. Net zero importantly includes the significant use of natural and technical sinks and reservoirs – but as we have seen recently, forests can also be net emitters (particularly due to deforestation). As many noted, we don’t have enough land, seas and forests to absorb the carbon which NDCs hope to capture (rather than simply not emitting in the first place). The Deforestation Declaration from the first week of CoP26 was a welcome surprise but forestry remains an exceptionally difficult issue to regulate globally, and commercial pressures on forests means that stopping deforestation by 2030 is an ambitious (too ambitious?) goal.

Most of the attention however was on the inclusion of language on the “phasing down” rather than the “phasing out” (following India’s late intervention) of unabated coal – the combustion of coal, the GHG consequences of which are not removed by technological interventions – as well as inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. The language was already precariously weak, and corresponded poorly with the more positive rhetoric (and hopefully action) of the Oil and Gas Coalition of the Willing which developed during the Conference. Fossil fuel corporate actors were said to be the largest non-State presence at CoP26, and if so, they failed if they primary objective was to remove all references to coal from the documents (the first time it has been explicitly mentioned) but were successful if their secondary objective was to minimise the impact of its inclusion.

Of course, a CoP has many aspects to it, including important – but less headlining – work on completion of the “Paris Agreement” rulebook, which governs how the treaty is to be implemented, with important provisions on transparency and verification. It will be these rules that determine how States must account for themselves going forward.

But ultimately, this was a Conference about climate politics and not climate justice. The calls on developing countries for more finance, and for a clearer commitment from development countries on “Loss and Damage” – supporting ecological and human harm which has already occurred and can’t be adapted to, remain inchoate and far from adequate, by the order of billions and billions of dollars.

The juggernaut of climate politics rolls on; unfortunately as the extreme weather events this year has shown, we don’t have a lot of time left. Whether Glasgow was a success or not can only be judged by future generations.

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Duncan French is Professor in International Law and Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of Lincoln