During his final address at the United Nations’ COP26 climate summit in Glasgow last November, the conference’s president, Alok Sharma, declared: “We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees alive. But its pulse is weak and it will survive only if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action.”
As COP27 approaches, it seems that the chances of keeping the Earth’s average temperature to 1.5C above its pre-industrial level remain slim. While delegates in Glasgow made many positive commitments, the wide-reaching socioeconomic crises that have struck since then have prevented most of these from being honoured.
Factors such as the spiralling price of fuel and other essentials – exacerbated by Russia’s war with Ukraine – have meant that many governments’ pledges to tackle climate change have fallen by the wayside. Similarly, the relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions on travel and other economic activities have caused carbon dioxide emissions to rise by 6% year on year.
Ioannis Ioannou, associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School, is a specialist in sustainable business. He reports that, “unfortunately, progress has not been as expected. Very few countries have updated their commitments to make them more ambitious, as was the original plan.”
The main goals of COP26 included: accelerating the phasing out of coal as an energy source; increasing investment in renewables; curtailing deforestation; mobilising $100bn in climate finance for developing nations; increasing uptake of electric vehicles; and developing adaptation strategies.
The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero gains – and loses – members
One key outcome of COP26 was the formation of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), a coalition of banks, asset managers and insurers, with total assets exceeding $130tn. This has committed to help finance the global transition to net zero.
The GFANZ’s co-chair and UN special envoy for climate action and finance, Mark Carney, spoke to British MPs at a parliamentary environmental audit committee on 24 October. He assured them that the CEOs of those three firms had shown “no intention” to leave, stressing that the net total of businesses involved in the alliance had increased by 100 since COP26.
Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England, pointed out that the GFANZ’s collective asset base was “one of the few figures in [climate] finance that has grown over the course of the past year… from $130tn to $150tn.”
The voluntary nature of the alliance has been criticised by some environmentalists, who argue that it amounts to little more than greenwashing. Although Carney said that a statutory approach would be welcome, he added that “a voluntary system is better than no system at all”.
A key commitment made back in 2009 at COP15 in Copenhagen was for developed nations to provide $100bn in climate finance to developing countries each year. It was originally intended for this target to be met by 2020 and there were hopes that it might be achieved last year, but EU finance ministers don’t expect it to happen until 2023.
Deforestation commitments ring hollow
During COP26, the leaders of 145 countries signed a declaration to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030, while CEOs from 30 financial institutions pledged to eliminate investments in activities linked to deforestation.
At the time, it was described as a “landmark agreement”, but there are already fears that the target will be missed. Although the rate of destruction fell by 6.3% in 2021, Amazonian deforestation hit record levels and worldwide an estimated 27,000 square miles of forest were lost.
David Gibbs, a research associate with the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch, told The Guardian: “We are quickly moving towards another round of hollow commitments and vanished forests.”
The net-zero commitment gap
At the closing stages of COP26, nearly every nation agreed to the Glasgow climate pact. One of the main sticking points during talks was a pledge to phase out coal. The wording was changed to “phase down” to appease the Indian delegation.
Two years before the pact was signed, only 30% of the world’s emissions were covered by net-zero targets, whereas now the figure is about 89%. This gap in net-zero commitments remains.
There have been improvements from the private sector. Kaya Axelsson is net-zero policy engagement fellow at the University of Oxford and a strategic adviser to the UN’s Race to Zero campaign. She says: “A year ago, one in five companies had committed to net zero. Now the proportion is closer to one in three. This shows us that there’s increasing commitment.”
But Axelsson adds: “We’re starting to see that, as the criteria for what it takes to meet net zero in line with the 1.5C target tighten, there has been a backlash from some companies and finance organisations that are realising this is actually a really hard thing to do.”
Analysis from climate consultancy EcoAct shows that, although many businesses have set out their intentions to cut emissions, they have yet to meet the required reductions. It means that many such commitments are unlikely to be honoured.
What needs to be achieved at COP27?
COP27, due to start in Sharm El Sheikh on 6 November, has been described as an implementation conference. It’s widely viewed as a chance for many of the pledges made at previous events to be put into action.
The event “will help us to take stock of where we are. Unfortunately, we’re always behind,” says Axelsson, who hopes that policy-makers will make innovative use of the mechanisms at their disposal to tackle the climate crisis
“We need a conversation about the how, not just the what,” she stresses. “This is going to be a COP where we really reckon with the need for finance in emerging markets, given that it will be held in Africa – and considering the rage and disappointment felt at COP26 when the $100bn climate finance target was missed.”
Speaking on 17 October at the handover of the COP presidency, Sharma admitted that there was still a “big deficit in political will… We have to question whether all our international institutions have fully internalised the grave urgency of our climate situation.”
According to Ioannou, COP27 should be seen as a chance for governments to “get their act together” and meet the commitments made to the developing world.
“We saw the private sector really step up at COP26. But now, given the geopolitics and the potential for reversal, we really need policy to step up too,” he says. “I have low expectations going into COP27 and, unfortunately, I fear that even those might not be met.”