Top Takeaways from the UN World Leaders Summit at COP26
The first two days of the UN Climate Conference (COP26) featured over 100 high-level announcements and speeches during the "World Leaders Summit," helping set the tone for the two-week long conference. The gathering of world leaders was immediately preceded by the G20 Summit held in Rome.
While several important announcements were made that will help to move the needle on global climate action, negotiators will still have their work cut out for them as they try to pave the way for more progress in the coming days.
Here’s a look at the developments so far.
Limited Progress at G20 Summit in Rome
In a final communique, G20 nations recognized the importance of strengthening national climate action this decade, and committed to revisit and further enhance their 2030 emission reduction targets where necessary. This should pave the way for negotiators at COP26 to agree that major emitters will further strengthen their 2030 targets within the next couple of years to keep the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) temperature goal within reach.
Notably, G20 nations’ unequivocal message to stop financing unabated coal power abroad is significant, but they failed to make the obvious leap to stop building coal-fired plants at home as well. Building new coal plants will lock in future warming at a moment when emissions must be reduced as quickly as possible. More announcements on phasing out coal financing and power are expected during COP26.
Good and Bad Emissions-reduction Targets Unveiled in Glasgow
Over 140 countries submitted updated 2030 climate plans, or nationally determined contributions (NDCs), under the Paris Climate Agreement in advance of COP26. Just ahead of or during the negotiations, several countries, including major economies, updated their climate targets — for better, worse or in between. Here’s a snapshot:
India announced a commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2070 and unveiled significant near-term commitments to work toward that goal. This included pledging to install 500 gigawatts of non-fossil fuel electricity and generating 50% of India’s energy capacity with renewable energy sources. India also committed to reduce its carbon intensity 45% by 2030 and to cut its projected carbon emissions by 1 billion tons between now and 2030. These commitments go beyond India’s existing national climate plan; they will put the country on a low-carbon development pathway and sends strong signals to every sector about what the future holds.
Brazil formalized its pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 — ten years earlier than previously pledged. The country also set a new goal of reducing emissions by 50% by 2030, however the emissions impact from this goal is no stronger than what the country put forward in 2015, meaning the country is not on track to reach its goal of climate neutrality by 2050. It’s critical that Brazil comes back soon with a serious commitment that drives down emissions.
China released its new climate commitment just ahead of COP26, which includes a plan to peak emissions by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality before 2060. This reiterates President Xi’s announcement last December at the Climate Ambition Summit and is only a modest improvement over the country’s previous climate commitments from 2015. China needs to take more action domestically to rein in greenhouse gas emissions this decade, such as rapidly shifting its energy mix from coal to wind and solar, starting to shrink its carbon footprint by 2027 or sooner, and peaking its non-CO2 emissions (which had the same warming impact as Russia’s total greenhouse gas emissions). WRI research indicates that China can reap significant economic benefits by adopting ambitious climate policies.
New Zealand submitted an updated climate plan with a strengthened 2030 emissions reduction target, aiming to cut its emissions in half from 2005 levels.
Argentina also nudged its 2030 emission cap downward from 359 to 349 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2030.
Wave of Net-zero Targets
In addition to India, a dozen smaller countries also made net-zero pledges, including: Mauritania (carbon-neutral by 2030, on the condition of receiving international support); Israel, Vietnam, Rwanda, Lithuania, and Montenegro (all by 2050); Nigeria (net-zero by 2060); and Ukraine (carbon-neutral by 2060). Nigeria’s announcement is especially significant as oil and gas production is currently a major part of its economy. In total, countries covering more than 70% of global emissions now have set net-zero emissions targets through law, in policy documents, or as a clear political pledge.
Overall, countries’ announcements were heavy on net-zero but light on further action in the near term. At this point, all G20 countries, with the exception of Mexico, have expressed some intent to reach net-zero emissions. But achieving net-zero in the coming decades won’t be possible without robust 2030 emission reduction targets.
In fact, a number of G20 countries are currently not on a credible trajectory to reach their net-zero goals, including Australia, China, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Turkey, whose targets are not meaningfully enhanced from what they submitted in 2015.
In general, NDCs and net-zero targets aren't yet adding up to what is needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C. This makes it imperative that countries revisit their 2030 targets and achieve much deeper emission reductions in the 2020s.
WRI research shows that if all G20 countries align their targets with a 1.5 degrees C pathway, they alone could limit global warming to 1.7 degrees C (3.06 degrees F) by the end of the century, keeping 1.5 degrees C within reach.
Several Leaders Committed to Close Funding Gap with New Climate Finance Pledges
A myriad of announcements on climate finance were made by several high-income countries in a bid to fund urgent climate action.
Scottish Minister Nicola Sturgeon kicked off the string of pledges by announcing £1 million ($1.3 million) specifically to support developing countries dealing with loss and damage. Along with adaptation finance, this area of climate policy is a top priority for climate-vulnerable countries, as it will help address the climate impacts that are too extreme to adapt to.
In an effort to ramp up finance for adaptation, the United States and Canada announced their first-ever contributions to the Adaptation Fund, marking an important milestone for developing countries as they largely have ownership in terms of where this funding is distributed. Switzerland also pledged to contribute $11 million for the Adaptation Fund.
A further three countries stand out for their climate finance efforts: Spain committed to increase its climate finance at least 50% above current levels by 2025, amounting to $1.35 billion per year; Italy will triple its climate finance to reach $1.4 billion per year for the next five years; and Japan will contribute an additional $10 billion in finance over the next five years, as well as doubling its amount for adaptation to climate change to $14.8 billion, and offering $240 million in financial support for global forest conservation.;
What’s more, South Africa announced a historic partnership with France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the U.S. and the European Union to mobilize an initial $8.5 billion over the next three to five years to support a just transition toward a low-emissions and climate resilient economy in South Africa. This partnership is a historic opportunity to accelerate investments in renewable energy in South Africa, while also ensuring a just transition for workers as coal is phased out.
The partnership comes after South Africa put forward an ambitious 2030 climate target that is nearly aligned with what is needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C, based on deliberations and technical analysis done by the Presidential Climate Commission.
These pledges are a step in the right direction. Developed countries should enhance their collective efforts to deliver on the previous pledge of $100 billion per year to support climate action in developing countries (starting in 2020 and through 2025), and rebuild trust with the countries that need funding to take urgent climate actions.
The new delivery plan for the $100 billion is a sign of progress, but all finance pledges must be complemented with concrete plans during the COP26 negotiations; specific details must be ironed out while building on the encouraging signals to further scale-up adaptation finance.
More Pledges to Protect Forests, End Deforestation, and Restore Landscapes
More than 100 countries — representing over 85% of the world’s forests — have pledged to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030, supported by $19.2 billion in public and private funding. If successful, this pledge would play a huge role in fighting the climate crisis; recent analysis from WRI shows that the world’s forests can absorb 1.5 times more carbon than the U.S. emits annually.
Many observers have pointed out that previous pledges to halt deforestation have not been successful in reversing upward trends in forest loss, including the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests, which included some 40 countries pledging to halve deforestation by 2020 and end it by 2030. It is significant that many additional countries have now signed up to the 2030 target, including Brazil, which hosts the largest expanse of tropical forests, and China, with its large forest footprint through trade and investment flows.
Many of the countries signing up to the Glasgow Declaration would need to embark on significant near-term course corrections to align national policies and plans with the Declaration’s collective goal of ending and reversing deforestation — so holding governments accountable for doing so will be essential for that goal to be reached.
One reason for optimism is that the Declaration is only one element of a package of complementary initiatives announced in Glasgow that are designed to catalyze systemic change in the international trade and finance systems and domestic politics that drive deforestation. For example, commitments by financial institutions to get deforestation out of investment portfolios should encourage companies seeking private finance to take forests into account in their decision-making, while pledges of new finance to support Indigenous peoples should strengthen the voices of these critical stakeholders in forest protection.
Pledges to Slash Global Methane Emissions
More than 100 countries signed the Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions, demonstrating a significant increase from just a handful of countries when the pledge was first announced in September. The signatures cover nearly half of global methane emissions and 70% of global GDP.
Countries signing the pledge are committed to collectively reduce methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030, relative to 2020 levels, which would reduce global warming by at least 0.2 degrees C. So far, 11 of the 20 countries that produce the most methane worldwide have signed the pledge — though notably several of the biggest producers (including China, Russia and India) have yet to do so.
In other methane news, Canada is the first country to answer the International Energy Agency’s call for a 75% reduction in methane reduction goal by 2030 below 2012 levels, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a proposal to limit methane emissions from new and existing oil and gas infrastructure. If implemented, the resulting emissions reduction would be larger than the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from all U.S. passenger cars and commercial aircraft in 2019.
Other Notable Highlights from the World Leaders Summit
- Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ): Formed earlier this year to push the financial sector to commit to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century, GFANZ members now control over $130 trillion in assets, as of this week. While the momentum behind this movement is a positive sign, there remains a huge disconnect between these pledges and current investment flows; in the financial sector more funding still goes toward fossil fuels than climate-friendly alternatives. The credibility of these net-zero targets will lie in the finance institutions establishing clear science-based trajectories and intermediate goals and ensuring enhanced transparency and accountability.
- Science-based targets: Net-zero Guidance for Corporations: Shortly ahead of COP26 the Science Based Targets initiative released the world’s first science-based verification of companies’ net-zero targets. It should serve as a gold standard that the over 900 companies that have already committed to set targets in line with 1.5 degrees C must follow to demonstrate climate leadership and avoid claims of greenwashing.
- First Movers Coalition: A new initiative called the First Movers Coalition was created by U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, with support from U.S. State Department and the World Economic Forum. This coalition, whose members include over two dozen major companies, aims to decarbonize heavy-emissions industries by greening private sector supply chains by 2030. It will initially target four sectors where emissions have historically been difficult to abate: aviation, shipping, steel and trucking. Collectively these sectors currently make up at least 20% of global emissions.
- Solar: The International Solar Alliance announced a new Green Grids Initiative designed to build interconnected solar energy infrastructure at a global scale, starting with a partnership between India and the U.K.
- Oceans: This week the U.S. became the fifteenth country to join the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy. By joining, all these nations affirm their commitment to sustainably manage 100% of their countries’ national waters and urged other countries to join them in this undertaking.
What the COP26 Climate Negotiations Need to Deliver
Attention now turns to the formal negotiations in Glasgow. The talks need to deliver three things to keep building momentum toward a net-zero future and meet the needs of climate-vulnerable countries:
First, COP26 negotiations must conclude with countries agreeing that major emitters come back within the next couple of years to step up their 2030 targets further to align with the 1.5 degrees C goal. The only way for this goal to remain in reach is if major emitters rapidly drive down emissions in the next decade — much more than they have committed to already.
Second, developing countries deserve much more confidence that finance pledges will be met. Developed countries must reassure developing countries that shortfalls in 2020 and beyond will be filled and that there will be a significant increase in finance for adaptation and loss and damage. Glasgow should also address matters of quality of climate finance, especially to ensure that the needs and priorities of developing countries are met without creating additional debt burden.
Finally, the outstanding rules of the Paris Agreement must put the right conditions in place to accelerate efforts to cut emissions and deliver finance to developing countries. It is more important to get the rules right than to adopt rules that are weak and would undermine the global accord.
All this needs to come together for COP26 to be a success and secure a safer, more prosperous and more equitable future for us all.