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COP26: Assessing Climate Action

By Asish Singh

Five years after the historic Paris Agreement was adopted, countries returned to COP26 2021 to update their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The COP26 summit is bringing parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to discuss roadmaps to achieve complete decarbonization by mid-century and to ensure a clean environment for all. 

What are NDCs?

To meet the mission of limiting average global temperature rise to below 2° C, every signatory is expected to draft and communicate an NDC every five years. These include targets, measures, and policies which constitute the basis of national climate action plans and associated implementation mechanisms. NDCs are the centerpiece of the Paris Agreement and the achievement of the long-term objectives it purports to pull off. NDCs embody efforts by each country to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. The Paris Agreement (Article 4, paragraph 2) requires each Party to prepare, communicate, and maintain successive NDCs that it intends to achieve. Parties shall pursue domestic mitigation measures, with the aim of achieving the objectives of such contributions. For example, Bangladesh has pledged to reduce Greenhouse Gasses (GHG) emissions by 6.73% below the BAU (Business As Usual) scenario by 2030.

What does net zero mean?

Climate action is at the top of the agenda at Glasgow. One broader theme is reaching net zero. The UK became the world’s first major economy to set a target of being net zero by 2050. We have technologies across multiple sectors that can bring emissions to zero. Electricity, for instance, can be generated using renewable and nuclear generation. A transportation system running on electricity or hydrogen can also bring sectoral emissions to absolute zero. Nonetheless, emissions in certain sectors like aviation and agriculture cannot be brought to absolute zero. Some emissions from these sectors will possibly remain. To offset these, an equivalent amount of CO2 will need to be filtered out of the atmosphere. This is what negative emissions stand for. Therefore, the goal becomes ‘net zero’ for the economy as a whole.

Quantifying progress

As of November 6th, 2021, 150 countries accounting for 80.7 percent of global emissions have submitted a new or updated NDC. Before Paris, global greenhouse gas emissions were estimated to reach 60 gigatons CO2-equivalent by 2030: north of double what they ought to be to limit warming to 1.5° C. The first round of NDCs filled approximately 10 percent of that gap, and preliminary calculations suggest that the current round is on track to fill another 10 percent. With India’s and other recent national pledges, 90 percent of global GDP is now covered by net zero pledges, up from only about 30 percent over a year ago. However, we are not en route to achieving the near-term target of halving global emissions by 2030. At least 65 countries have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Factoring in both the NDCs, additional 2030 pledges from South Korea and China, the net-zero targets, warming could be limited to 2.1° C. Despite that it exceeds the Paris Agreement’s upper limit, it is concrete progress from 2015, when warming was on track to breach even 3° C mark. 

Source: IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers.

As of now, we are well on the road to breaching the 1.5° mark. As per the IPCC’s Report 2021, human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since the fifth assessment report (2014). These weather events are projected to worsen if net zero is not adhered to.

Climate Finance: Common But Differentiated Responsibility?

India has officially joined the net-zero pledge club. The 2070 target set by Prime Minister Modi on November 1 presents a reasonable yet challenging net-zero timeline for one of the world’s fastest-developing economies. It is now time for developed nations of the Global North to step up their support to India and other developing economies to ensure a universal transition to renewable energy, lest these surging economies doom all climate efforts. Although India is the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases, it also houses 17% of the world’s population. In per capita emissions then, it is less than half the global average: well below top emitters. When we consider historic records, India is responsible for less than 5% of cumulative CO2 emissions. The US and China account for 20% and 11% respectively. 

Nearly 80% of climate finance to developing economies has been in the form of loans and not grants. As per a recent report, India would hit net zero emissions in the mid-2060s. It estimates that hitting this target would require USD 1.4 trillion in additional capital for clean energy projects between now and 2040. 

Borrowing from the UNFCCC, climate finance refers to local, national or transnational financing—drawn from public, private and alternative sources of financing—that seeks to support mitigation and adaptation actions that will address climate change. The UNFCCC, the Kyoto Protocol, and the Paris Agreement call for financial assistance from richer countries to those that are less economically endowed and more vulnerable. This admits that the contribution of countries to climate change and their capacity to prevent it and cope with its consequences differ enormously. Climate finance is required for mitigation, since large-scale investments are needed to substantially reduce emissions. Climate finance is equally important for adaptation, as significant financial resources are needed to adapt to the adverse consequences and reduce the impacts of a changing climate.

Nature claims that the 100-billion USD pledge by wealthy countries twelve years ago was broken. In fact, trillions of dollars will be needed every year to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals. This is the crux of the concept of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR). Discourse around mobilisation of finance at COP25 and transformation of global financial flows squarely attend to this concept. 

What is the ideal Net zero target?

A stalwart net zero target should mark out reductions and removals separately. Mixing both together would only add confusion. Any offsets used towards a net-zero target must really remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Restoring ecosystems like forests and grasslands in and around depopulated forest areas can aid in removing carbon from the atmosphere. As carbon sinks, they absorb more CO2 than they emit. 

A meaningful net zero plan must also include a solid near-term target. That means laying out the nitty gritties of the transition. Currently, plans which are looking at 2050 and beyond may not be getting net zero fully right insofar as they do not include policy particularities, which are not always underpinned by any credible policies at home. A 2018 IPCC report noted that emissions must be halved by 2030 to give humanity a shot at limiting warming to the ideal of 1.5° C. Moreso, work by Rogelj and colleagues showed that the faster countries reach net zero carbon emissions, the less we will emit overall and the better our chance of limiting warming.

A recent report shows that the financial stimulus packages announced during the start of the pandemic will have a net negative environmental impact in two-thirds of the 30 largest economies worldwide. All targets are welcome, but victory must not be claimed on the basis of vacuous targets to be hit at least three or four decades hence. For example, Australia has a 2050 net zero target but its 2030 goals are in line with 4° C warming, flouting all norms of fighting the climate crisis. 

Global attitude is reflecting urgency

COP26 has marked a seismic shift in international climate politics. Less than a decade ago, the proposal of reaching net zero emissions was a concept mostly echoed in scientific chambers and scoffed at by most politicians. In COP26 however, we saw India, Russia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Australia walking out with net zero commitments. This is indeed positive, given that the world has already warmed 1.1° C above pre-industrial levels, with the seven warmest years just in the last decade. However, these commitments are contingent on international financial assistance which must materialise. 

G20 leaders have promised to end overseas financing for coal projects. They have also pledged plug leaks of methane and recognised the “key relevance” of getting global net emissions to zero by mid-century. However, they have set the horizon for attaining net zero at least by 2050. Lastly, they pledged to cut emissions to strengthen national plans “where necessary.”

The Green Grids Initiative

More crucially, many of the performance indicators we use to assess SDG progress are interconnected. Movement along one metric will necessarily further or hinder progress along others. Going forward, electrifying the transport and construction sectors, industries like cement and steel production, should all be subject to decarbonizing the grid through coal phaseout and increasing the share of renewable sources in energy generation. The launch of the Green Grids Initiative – One Sun One World One Grid (GGI-OSOWOG)—primarily pushed for by India at the COP26—aspires to improve the viability of solar power. It also encapsulates India’s imperative of addressing multiple important goals. These include stimulating green investments, reducing carbon footprints and energy costs, and enabling climate cooperation across countries and regions. The initiative is backed by 80 countries and wishes to “dramatically accelerate” the global transition to clean energy.

Way forward

Although some progress has been made, much remains to be done. A net zero date will not convey the full story of an economy’s climate action. Climate financing needs to be directed more at adaptation than mitigation to create a shock absorber for developing, small and island states to buckle up against the near-term peaking of emissions. Many regions are projected to experience an increase in the probability of compound events involving extremes of weather with higher global temperatures. In other words, concurrent heatwaves and droughts are expected to become more frequent as we begin to hit the 1.5° C mark, post which these events will stabilize and allay given we attain net zero emissions by then.

Rolling back emissions and walking the talk on net zero targets will constitute the promise to keep a tab on after Glasgow.

Asish Singh is a first-year undergraduate student at Ashoka University and the Regional Officer for Asia/Pacific at the UN SDSN Youth’s SDG Students Program.

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