A rundown of the first week of COP26 in Glasgow

Governments made announcements, leaders spoke, decisions were made, civil society protested. This is what happened during the first week of COP26.

Many announcements, lots of heartfelt appeals, some concrete facts, and a good deal of controversy. The first week of activities at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, taking place in Glasgow, comes to an end amidst light, shadow, and hope. The goal, for the next seven days of work, is to finally mark a new start in the concrete implementation of the Paris Agreement, which was signed at the end of COP21 in 2015.

António Guterres and Patricia Espinosa speak out

The first two days of the Conference saw the leaders of the United Nations, governments, and international institutes take the stage. UN Secretary-General António Guterres asked COP participants to “save humanity” and to stop “digging our own graves”. “It’s time to say we’ve had enough,” he added. “Enough of brutalizing biodiversity, killing ourselves with carbon, treating nature like a toilet, burning, and drilling and mining our way deeper”. Instead of exploiting our planet further, Guterres believes we must “choose to safeguard our future”. As the Portuguese diplomat reminded us, “our addiction to fossil fuels is pushing humanity to the brink“.

cop26, guterres
António Guterres at COP26 © Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

“Humanity faces several stark but clear choices,” said Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the organiser of COP26. “We either choose to recognize that business as usual isn’t worth the devastating price we’re paying and make the necessary transition to a more sustainable future — or we accept that we’re investing in our own extinction”. “COP26 is our last best hope to keep 1.5 in reach,” said event president Alok Sharma, adding that “climate change did not take time off. The lights are flashing red on the climate dashboard. If we act now, and we act together, we can protect our precious planet”.

David Attenborough’s moving speech at COP26

British naturalist and COP26 ambassador David Attenborough gave an impassioned, stirring speech at the Conference, clamouring for world leaders to “rewrite history”. He warned that those most severely affected by climate change are not part of “some imagined future generation”, but rather “young people alive today“.

Attenborough said that our species has shown that by working apart, “we are a force powerful enough to destabilise our planet”. Then surely, he continued, by “working together we are powerful enough to save it”.

No-show for the presidents of China, Russia, and Brazil

“If we fail they will not forgive us,” UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said of future generations at the conference. The English leader added that if the lack of action seen at 2019’s COP25 in Madrid was to be repeated, “the anger and impatience of the world will be uncontainable”. This is because all the promises would prove to be “nothing but blah blah blah“, said Johnson, repeating the phrase used on multiple occasions by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. “Yes, it’s going to be hard,” the British PM concluded, “but yes, we can do it. So let’s get to work”.

The delegate list also included the heads of state and government leaders of the United States, India, and all EU countries. But there were also notable absences. First among these was Xi Jinping, the president of China, whose country is the worst global emitter in terms of total output. Another no-show (without even giving a reason) was Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has significantly cut down on trips abroad since the start of the pandemic. Turkey’s president, Erdoğan, immediately returned home after taking part in the G20 summit in Rome, while Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro stayed in Italy for a few days. His vice-president, Hamilton Mourão, talked about a fear of being drowned in criticism.

(Criticised) promises on deforestation and methane

Nevertheless, 100 countries (including those whose leaders were absent) made a commitment to putting a stop to deforestation and land degradation between now and 2030. The list includes the United States, China, Russia, Germany, France, and the UK. Most importantly, it includes Brazil, which is home to most of the Amazon rainforest, Canada (taiga or boreal forest), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (tropical rainforest). Overall, the countries in question are home to over 85 per cent of the world’s forests.

However, the announcement was met with a cold reception from NGOs. Greenpeace, for example, said that the 2030 deadline is “too far in the future”, essentially giving the green light for “another decade” of deforestation. Carolina Pasquali, from Greenpeace Brazil, added that “Indigenous Peoples are calling for 80% of the Amazon to be protected by 2025″. The Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA) has stated that it will monitor progress and whether the funds are actually made available.

cop26, protest, edinburgh
A COP26 protest in Edinburgh © Peter Summers/Getty Images

Similarly, 100 countries also signed the Global Methane Pledge, aimed at reducing methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. The signatories once again include the US, Brazil, Germany, and Italy, but some of the main culprits for greenhouse gas emissions were conspicuously absent: Australia, Iran, India, China, and Russia.

Yet, according to a report by the Climate & Clean Air Coalition, which is part of the United Nations, a significant reduction in methane emissions could prevent a 0.3 degrees centigrade increase in global average temperatures by 2040, avoiding 255,000 premature deaths and 775,000 medical interventions due to respiratory issues.

A stop to fossil fuel investments and Italy’s last-minute yes

Another decision made in the first week of COP26 relates to 20 nations’ promise to put an end to international investments in fossil fuels, starting from 2022. Notably, the United States and Canada were both part of the group of signatories, who recognised that this kind of investment “increasingly entails both social and economic risks“. UK energy minister Greg Hands said that “we must put public finance on the right side of history”.

The 20-nation group also includes Italy. However, according to international press revelations, the country’s position was uncertain until the last moment. In fact, it seems that Ecological Transition minister Roberto Cingolani initially responded with a “no”.

Roberto Cingolani
Roberto Cingolani, Italy’s Minister for the Ecological Transition © Wikimedia Commons

The decision to create a huge marine protected area, covering 500,000 square kilometres, was also made in the first week of COP26. Known as the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor, it was jointly announced on Tuesday, 2nd November by the governments of Panama, Ecuador, Colombia, and Costa Rica. Fishing will be banned in the area to protect the migratory routes of turtles, whales, sharks, and rays.

News from the world of finance

There were also developments regarding the world of finance. The United Kingdom promised to set new rules for financial institutions and companies listed on the London Stock Exchange. The aim is to impose a net-zero CO2 emission target for these companies by 2050. Furthermore, a working group – made up of managers, academics, monitoring body directors, and civil society representatives – will be set up to determine monitoring methods to oversee the actions of banks, funds, and businesses, with the goal of unmasking greenwashing practices.

On the other hand, according to 350.org‘s Tommy Vickerstaff, the City of London is “far from being the global centre of green finance. Rebecca Newsom, Head of Policies at Greenpeace, also denounced the fact that the new rules “seem to leave a lot of room for manoeuvre for financial institutions”.

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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and natural historian David Attenborough © Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

A weather warning system funded by WMO, UNDP, and UNEP

Meanwhile, a more technical but no less important commitment was made by the United Nations Development and Environment Programmes (UNDP and UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). The three agencies will help developing countries, which are highly vulnerable and often ill-equipped to deal with the impacts of climate change, to access funding for the creation of weather forecasting and warning systems.

According to the UNEP, this will “deliver tangible benefits in terms of lives saved, improved disaster management, livelihoods, biodiversity, food security, water supply and economic growth”. However, Ulisses Correia e Silva, the Prime Minister of Cape Verde, despite welcoming the news, reminded us that “even ambitious emission reduction measures will no longer be able to save us from the considerable impacts of climate change in the coming decades”.

Civil society: “They don’t let us attend the negotiations at COP26”

All of this, however, has essentially been decided behind closed doors, despite UNFCCC rules stating that civil society observers can be present at meetings between the parties. This provision serves to monitor the negotiations, facilitate debate, and make governments face their responsibilities. But at COP26 in Glasgow, thousands of experts from agencies and NGOs have complained that they’ve been literally shut out of the negotiations.

This is the first time this has happened. And it’s a choice that seems in total contrast with Alok Sharma’s promise to make COP26 “inclusive”. In fact, Greta Thunberg has called it the “most excluding COP ever”. And Teresa Anderson, from ActionAid, similarly stated that “stopping civil society from taking part risks having serious consequences for the peoples who are on the front line in facing the effects of the climate crisis”.

Philanthropists’ commitments at COP26

Finally, during the first seven days of COP26 in Glasgow, several philanthropists also made some promises. Amazon founder and richest man in the world Jeff Bezos promised a 2 billion dollar donation for the restoration of degraded land in Africa. However, many have observed that this commitment seems to clash with the magnate’s recent space tourism ventures, which are essentially useless and massively environmentally damaging.

A one billion dollar plan, called the EU Catalyst Partnership, was also launched to encourage investment in useful technology for the fight against climate change. Microsoft founder Bill Gates and the European Investment Bank are among the major partners of this project. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen explained that, in this sense, “innovation is leading the way, it’s what our citizens want and we won’t let them down”.

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