COP26 agreements come up short for people in the world's most vulnerable communities
This year’s COP was hosted in the shadow of a shocking IPCC report that put us on a ‘Code red’ for humanity in the face of climate disaster. The report stated that climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying, and some trends are now irreversible.
The talks finished last Saturday, a day later than intended, with 197 countries approving a ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’. There were reports of a last-minute deal, brokered between China and India, relating to the weakening of the ‘Fossil Fuels’ language we had seen in previous drafts, watering down the text from “phasing out” coal to merely “phasing down” and excluding the all-important oil and gas.
The agreement is not legally binding (as is the case for all pacts made at COPs) but serves to set the global agenda on climate change over the next ten years and ahead of COP27 in Egypt next year.
Beyond the Glasgow Climate Pact, countries such as Germany, Italy and the UK also made collective commitments to curb methane emissions, to halt and reverse forest loss, align the finance sector with net-zero by 2050, ditch the internal combustion engine, accelerate the phase-out of coal, and end international financing for fossil fuels. Spearheaded by the UK government, the axing of public financing of fossil fuels follows on from a landmark recommendation from the International Development Committee (IDC) recommending that the Government stop using aid money to invest in fossil fuels, via its overseas aid investment bank the CDC.
So what does COP26 mean for international development, both in the UK and abroad?
Loss and Damage
Many development professionals found hope at the start of the conference at a growing conversation around the negotiating halls, the topic? Loss and Damage. Developing countries, representing over 6 billion people, such as the Climate Vulnerable Forum and the Small Island Developing States put forward a proposal for a loss and damage finance facility to build back in the aftermath of extreme weather events linked to climate change.
As well as negative economic impacts, such as damage to crops, homes or infrastructure, countries experience non-economic losses and damage. These impacts include harm to human health and mobility, loss of access to territory, cultural heritage and traditions and indigenous and local knowledge, and damage to biodiversity and habitats. Article 8 of the Paris Agreement includes the “role of sustainable development in reducing the risk of loss and damage”, so many countries came to COP26 expecting to see separate financing for Loss and Damage as well as a separate agenda specifically to discuss the issue. While some politicians like Nicola Sturgeon made bold commitments to separately financing Loss and Damage (2 million pounds in Scotland’s case), the agreement fell short and only agreed to limited funding for technical assistance and a ‘dialogue’.
For development professionals, we know this is simply too little too late for the communities that we work in, such as the Pacific Island states who are already facing monumental losses from rising sea levels.
Commitments were made to revisit the issue at COP27 and with the next conference taking place in Egypt, where many African nations will be demanding greater action on Loss and Damage. The stakes are already perilously high.
Keeping 1.5 Alive?
Scientists warned that allowing global heating to rise higher than 1.5C would be catastrophic for people in the most marginalised communities around the world, with even more severe and frequent disasters destroying lives and livelihoods. Governments in Glasgow didn't make bold enough commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions urgently, and deeply, enough to put the world on track to keep temperature rises below 1.5C.
Countries at COP26 agreed to come back to COP27 with enhanced plans for cutting emissions - what is known as 'nationally determined contributions’ (NDCs) - however, whether this will still align with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C goal remains to be seen. During the conference a report was released by a collection of climate scientists stating that the world may be on track for warming of 2.4C. Such levels of climate change would leave earth, for the most part, inhabitable and would cause untold suffering to all forms of life.
The Glasgow Climate Pact is the first COP agreement, or 'cover decision', to explicitly reference fossil fuels. However, the COP26 decision fails to give a timeline for phasing out fossil fuels and leaves loopholes – including options for unproven technology to be used in a way that could allow business as usual for the fossil fuel sector. This is real progress, but it’s important as development professionals we work to hold our Government’s to account on this and not take our foot off the gas (no pun intended).
In 2009, a collection of G20 promised that by 2020 they would provide at least $100bn each year to countries being hardest hit by the crisis. However, this pledge was broken in the months leading up to COP26, and negotiators focused on agreeing new plans for achieving the commitment and increasing financial support to low-income countries in the meantime. These climate finance commitments are also committed via already existing ODA budgets, taking much-needed funds away from education and healthcare to name a few. This has to be new finance if we are to make any headway in properly tackling the climate crisis.
Those in the international development sector know that after the aid budget was slashed to 0.5% earlier this year, there was already not enough money to go around - and losing even more of this to fighting an issue as big as the climate crisis would spell disaster for many local projects already operating on a shoestring. With the news that Chancellor Rishi Sunak is set to include the UK’s allocation of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) into the aid budget, it’s clear that the sector will need to fight hard to ensure any climate finance comes separate from the current ODA budget.
COP26 did however make a commitment to double financial support for adaptation. This will be a huge boost to many development agencies across the world working on the mitigation of the climate crisis in local communities and on projects like drought-resistant and flood-resistant crops in countries like Kenya and Mozambique.
The climate crisis is fast becoming top of the agenda for all development agencies, but the scale of concern is not yet being met by the same scale of action. For many of the communities we work in, time has already ran out - so pushing issues like Loss and Damage and Climate Finance has to be our top priority as we begin to tackle this next stage of climate change as temperatures rise across the world.
Frances Leach is an international development communications specialist and former Labour Party advisor. She is currently a media officer at the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) and a freelance writer on sustainability and human rights.