The COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow was a crucial moment for climate action. The Conference commenced amid concerns about the IPCC’s August 2021 Assessment Report – described as a ‘code red’ for humanity – and the international community’s underachievement in relation to the emissions reduction targets set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The UK COP26 presidency set a high bar for negotiations, calling for a focus on reducing emissions related to “coal, cars, cash and trees” and a renewed commitment to the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C target. The summit concluded with the establishment of the Glasgow Climate Pact on 13 November 2021. While some features of the Pact have been regarded as promising, there remains serious concern about the proportionality and enforceability of the agreement overall.

Why COP26 was important

The Conference coincided with key transition dates in the Paris Agreement. Ahead of the Conference, signatories to the Paris Agreement were required to revise and communicate to the UN the next phase of their five yearly Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Agreement’s ‘ratchet’ mechanism.

NDCs are a crucial indicator of future emissions reduction. The UN’s NDC Synthesis Report anticipates current NDC commitments will result in a 13.7% increase in real global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 on 2010 levels. In contrast, the IPCC estimates a 45% reduction in emissions by 2030 will be required to limit warming to below 2C. It was against this backdrop that COP26 commenced.

The Pact – key takeaways

The Glasgow Climate Pact was agreed on 13 November 2021. The Pact recognises the vital importance of slowing global temperature rise within the next decade, reaffirming the Paris Agreement target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5C. The Pact also:

  • recognises the importance of the best available science for effective climate action and policymaking;
  • expresses concern that carbon budgets consistent with achieving the Paris Agreement temperature goal are being depleted;
  • re-emphasises the need for wealthy countries to commit to climate adaptation finance for poorer countries through a $100bn per year climate fund for the period 2021-2025;
  • stresses the urgency of enhancing ambition and action… to address the gaps in the implementation of the goals of the Paris Agreement;
  • recognises that the impacts of climate change will be much lower at the temperature increase of 1.5C compared with 2C;
  • recognises that limiting global warming to 1.5C requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions;
  • notes the importance of aligning NDCs with long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies; and
  • Emphasises the importance of protecting, conserving and restoring nature and ecosystems to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The Pact also makes the Conference’s first ever agreed reference to fossil fuels, calling upon Parties to ‘accelerate efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies’.

For the optimists

Overall, the Pact has done very little to allay the scientific community’s concerns about the proportionality and enforceability of international climate agreements. That being said, the Pact acknowledges some important developments with respect to the full implementation of the Paris Agreement. Most notably, this includes the adoption of decisions on:

  • common time frames for the submission of NDCs;
  • the introduction of modalities and procedures with respect to the establishment, operation and use of a public registry documenting the NDCs of countries; and
  • the establishment of a work programme designed to encourage more equitable practices in the development of NDCs.

It is hoped that these changes will result in more robust and transparent NDC submissions, as well as a greater degree of accountability surrounding the commitments of countries.

Australia and beyond

In the lead up to the Conference, Australia was ranked last out of 193 members of the UN on climate action. This was reflected in Australia’s approach to the Conference negotiations, which included lobbying efforts to underplay the need to transition away from coal and fossil fuel industries, and the watering down of the wording of the Pact. While the Pact calls for governments to deploy ‘clean power generation and energy emissions’, Australia and a small handful of big polluters supported the last-minute amendment of references to fossil fuels. The final Pact was amended to call upon parties to accelerate the ‘phasing down’, rather than the ‘phasing out’, of coal power and fossil fuel subsidies.

Domestically, the path to net-zero set out for Australia does not mirror the general sentiment of the Glasgow Pact. As it stands, the Morrison Government’s “Plan to Deliver Net Zero: The Australian Way” by 2050 is not in keeping with the science of proportionate emissions reduction or Australia’s commitments under the Paris Agreement. Despite this, Mr Morrison stated that the reliance on coal would continue for ‘decades to come’. In his closing remarks in Glasgow, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres emphasised that “we must end fossil fuel subsidies [and] put a price on carbon”.

With tentative plans for another summit in 2023, Australia’s actions in the next two years will significantly impact the ability of the UN to achieve the goals set out in the Glasgow Pact, and its own targets for net-zero by 2050.