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Pledges, Progress and PR Spin? What You Need to Know as the COP26 Climate Talks Enter the Final Week

Jeff J Mitchell | Getty Images News | Getty Images
  • Ministers arriving in Scotland's largest city of Glasgow early this week will strive to resolve any outstanding sticking points and conclude the talks with an agreement that is sufficient to avoid more frequent and progressively worse climate impacts.
  • The first week of COP26 has been framed as a "big step forward" by some, albeit with the need for much more action.
  • Speaking shortly after a rally organized by Fridays For Future, Greta Thunberg said it was clear the COP26 summit was turning into a public relations exercise.
A child waves a saltire flag as pollution spills from a chimney at Glasgow Green as climate protestors gather for the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice march on November 06, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Christopher Furlong | Getty Images News | Getty Images
A child waves a saltire flag as pollution spills from a chimney at Glasgow Green as climate protestors gather for the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice march on November 06, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland.

GLASGOW, Scotland — The COP26 climate summit entered its second and closing week of negotiations on Monday, with national delegations working behind closed doors to reach the all-important goal of capping global heating at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Ministers arriving in Scotland's largest city of Glasgow early this week will strive to resolve sticking points and conclude the talks with an agreement that is sufficient to avoid more frequent and progressively worse climate impacts.

COP26 President Alok Sharma has described this as the moment "where the rubber hits the road."

Delegates need to iron out a plan to contain global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to prevent the worst of what the climate crisis has in store. This temperature threshold is a key global target and refers to the aspirational goal inscribed in the landmark Paris Agreement.

There is not yet any clear indication of whether the talks will be able to meet the demands of the climate emergency.

Pledges

The first week of the U.N.-brokered talks saw a blizzard of climate pledges, with countries promising to end and reverse deforestation, phase out coal and reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030.

Business leaders and financial instructions have pledged to invest more in "net zero-aligned projects." This has since been criticized, however, for "missing the point" on fossil fuels.

"I came to COP, as I think many of us did, with very low expectations. And I think so far, they have been surpassed," said Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and one of the world's most influential Earth scientists.

Rockstrom highlighted pledges to restore and protect forests and a deal to cut methane emissions as two "very promising" developments. He said it was encouraging to see Brazil among the signatories to reverse deforestation by the end of the decade.

The so-called Global Methane Pledge, an international initiative put forward to reduce emissions of a potent climate heating gas, was also a "really good" step to move the climate debate on from carbon emissions-only, Rockstrom said.

In the days ahead, Rockstrom warned it would be imperative for countries and companies not to allow complacency to set in. He described the tendency among some actors to "slow down a bit" after announcing a series of pledges as "complete stupidity" and urged policymakers to do all they can to reduce fossil fuel use and maintain carbon sinks.

To be sure, burning fossil fuels is the chief driver of the climate crisis and yet the world's fossil fuel dependency is expected to get even worse.

"It's been a bad week for the fossil fuels companies, but not bad enough, and things need to get a lot worse for them before this COP is over if we're going to call Glasgow a success," said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, an environmental group.

"We've seen some big announcements, but too many pledges have been voluntary and too often the small print includes big loopholes. The goal hasn't changed, it's 1.5C, and while we're closer than we were, there's still a long way to go."

To be sure, the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold is a crucial global target because beyond this level, so-called tipping points become more likely. Tipping points refer to an irreversible change in the climate system, locking in further global heating.

Progress?

The first week of COP26 has been framed as a "big step" forward by some, albeit with the need for much more action.

U.N. climate chief Patricia Espinosa told CNBC that the flurry of announcements in the opening days of COP26 had given her reason to be "cautiously optimistic," while U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has welcomed the "good progress" made to date.

The influential International Energy Agency published an updated analysis on Thursday that shows if countries were to follow through with their commitments, it would be enough to limit global heating to roughly 1.8 degrees Celsius.

That's a substantial breakthrough insofar that it represents the lowest credible projection of global heating yet and sits in stark contrast to the U.N. warning in the runup to COP26 that the world was on a "catastrophic pathway" to 2.7 degrees of heating by the end of the century.

However, while the IEA described this as "a landmark moment," the energy agency's workings assume that all countries meet their pledges in full and on time — a major red flag given many countries have repeatedly failed to deliver on their climate promises.

It also illustrates that even when all countries are assumed to fully achieve their climate ambitions, the world's plans still fall disastrously short when it comes to keeping the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal alive.

PR spin?

The gap between rhetoric and climate action at COP26 has been condemned by climate activists and campaigners, with tens of thousands marching through the streets of rainy downtown Glasgow and in many other cities worldwide in recent days.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg said Friday that it was clear the COP26 summit was turning into a public relations exercise.

"It is not a secret that COP26 is a failure. It should be obvious that we cannot solve the crisis with the same methods that got us into it in the first place," Thunberg said in Glasgow's city center — less than 2 miles from where the COP26 event is being held.

"The COP has turned into a PR event, where leaders are giving beautiful speeches and announcing fancy commitments and targets, while behind the curtains governments of the Global North countries are still refusing to take any drastic climate action."

Thunberg also accused world leaders of "actively creating loopholes" to benefit themselves.

Climate scientists have repeatedly stressed that the best weapon to tackle rising global temperatures is to cut greenhouse gas emissions — fast.

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