Climate and Environment
Climate talks march past deadline
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Leaders depart and COP26 climate summit turns to finding the money

U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John F. Kerry arrives onstage to deliver a speech at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 2. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
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World leaders have left the COP26 global climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, and negotiators are getting down to business on how to fund the pledges made in the first few days and make good on past promises.

Here’s what to know

  • Wednesday’s sessions are focused on financing climate measures — how wealthy countries can help poorer ones cut their greenhouse gas emissions, deploy cleaner technologies and mitigate disruption from extreme weather events.
  • Rich countries previously agreed to collectively contribute an annual $100 billion, starting in 2020. But that target has yet to be met and is part of the discussions.
  • In addition to how to raise the money, country delegates need to figure out how to spend it.

GLASGOW, Scotland — With world leaders flying home, the U.N. climate conference is now about who pays.

Negotiators at COP26, as the conference is known, started Wednesday to hammer out the details of a deal to address the growing climate crisis, in part by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and by supporting a global transition toward cleaner technologies.

On a day devoted to financing the high price of fighting emissions, a consortium of philanthropic foundations and international development banks announced a $10.5 billion fund to help emerging economies make the switch from fossil fuels to wind, solar and other renewable energy sources.

Leaders also touted a pledge by some of the globe’s biggest bankers, investors and insurers, who together control $130 trillion in assets, to use their money to reach net-zero emission targets by the middle of the century.

Despite the eye-popping pledge to marshal trillions of dollars, environmental groups said the announcement was less meaningful than it sounded because the financial giants didn’t commit to stop investing in fossil fuels any time soon.

“These commitments live and die on how they treat fossil fuels. It’s the elephant in the room that they seem to conveniently ignore,” said Justin Guay, a climate expert formerly at the Sierra Club. “Dealing with fossil fuels is not optional; it’s mandatory.”

Critics said the continued failure by rich nations to deliver on their funding promises to developing countries was a more worrisome indicator of the gathering’s direction.

The first days of the conference were a star-studded affair, with prime ministers mixing with princes and movie stars. Leaders made bold pledges to reduce methane emissions and end deforestation in the next decade.

Now comes the less glamorous coda: at least 10 days of finely wrought talks among experts who know what a ton of carbon dioxide looks like and how to weigh the air.

Despite the myriad disappointments and mishaps in the early days of the conference — lackluster emissions-reduction commitments from some countries, the glaring absence of the leaders of China and Russia, long lines and technical difficulties — COP26 President Alok Sharma adopted a cheery outlook on the first day of formal negotiations.

“I’m very pleased by the can-do attitude shown by leaders,” Sharma, a British government minister, told journalists Wednesday, adding that negotiators were already “picking up on that call for a greater acceleration” toward meeting climate goals.

New climate pledges submitted this week — including India’s goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2070 — mean that countries representing 90 percent of the world’s economy have now committed to zeroing out carbon pollution. When Sharma assumed the COP presidency, he said only 30 percent of the global economy was on a path to net zero.

But Sharma acknowledged that the pledges stretching past 2050 will not bring the world within reach of its ambitious goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Over the next week and a half, he said he hoped, countries could develop strategies for getting on the right path.

The British hosts of the talks made Wednesday “finance day,” a moment when they hoped governments and companies would step up with fresh pledges to fund efforts to fight warming and adapt to climate change. So far, the picture has been mixed.

Rich nations had promised in the 2015 Paris climate accord to channel $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing nations adapt to climate change. But when the bill came due, they fell short, sparking anger among poorer countries that had made painful climate commitments of their own.

Donor countries sought Wednesday to sand away the frustration, saying that after accounting for funding that has now been budgeted until 2025, developing countries will get what they had been promised, even if donations this year may fall several billion dollars short.

“There’s no reason for developing countries to be fundamentally upset about the figures,” Jochen Flasbarth, Germany’s state secretary for the environment, told reporters Wednesday.

Also Wednesday, the Kremlin defended Russia’s actions on climate change in the face of harsh criticism by President Biden, who accused President Vladimir Putin — a no-show at the conference — of inaction.

“Literally, the tundra is burning. He has serious, serious climate problems, and he is mum on willingness to do anything,” Biden said Tuesday.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters it was not just the Siberian wilderness in flames. California’s forests also have been burning as a consequence of global warming.

Peskov said that when the two leaders meet again, “I think President Putin will have an excellent opportunity to tell President Biden about what we’re doing on climate.”

It was another busy day for protesters. Extinction Rebellion activists held a “greenwash” march in front of JP Morgan bank, where they let off green smoke flares. A group of anti-poverty campaigners tried to float a 26-foot-long, inflatable Loch Less Debt Monster along the River Clyde, which runs by the event conference center. But police seized “Nessie.”

“This is almost a sad reflection of what’s going on inside of COP,” Heidi Chow, executive director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, told the Scotsman newspaper. “Debt has not been able to get onto the agenda as developing countries are demanding. Debt in the global South will prevent countries from tackling the climate crisis.”

Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist, tweeted out a petition for leaders to “end the climate betrayal during COP26.” More than 1.5 million people have signed it.

On finance, policymakers acknowledge that without the rich nations living up to their funding promises, pushing the developing world to set even more-ambitious climate goals is a hard sell. Leaders of developing nations argue that richer countries got their wealth through industrialization, which set the world on its current climate path. If poorer countries are to grow wealthier in a greener way, they say, they need others to show some solidarity.

Politicians have turned to the private sector to help bolster funding for green efforts. The up-to-$130- trillion effort announced by the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero and led by former Bank of England governor Mark Carney, said its more than 450 members had joined the pledge in the biggest-ever commitment of private capital to stopping climate change. Under the pledge, the projects and companies tied to loans given by banks and other financial institutions would by 2050 be “net zero,” meaning they would in aggregate not add to carbon emissions.

In closing COP26 remarks, Biden pitches his $1.75 trillion spending package

Leaders including Britain’s finance minister, Rishi Sunak; the president of the World Bank, David Malpass; and the finance ministers of several developing countries called the announcement an important step.

“As big as the public-sector effort is across all our countries, the $100 trillion-plus price tag to address climate change globally is far bigger,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said Wednesday in Glasgow at an event devoted to climate finance. “The private sector is ready to supply the financing to set us on a course to avoid the worst effects of climate change.”

Asked whether it was fair that global financial institutions that were once major investors in fossil fuel industries would now be profiting off the world’s transition to a green economy, Patricia Espinosa, head of the U.N. climate office, said it was necessary.

“There is no doubt that we need to have a complete transformation of the economy, and that includes, of course, the private sector,” said Espinosa, a Mexican diplomat.

The day’s announcements from corporations and financiers were further signs of the progress the world has made on climate, Sharma said. A veteran of London’s financial world, he said he knew how long the idea of green investment had been considered fringe. People should welcome the fact that companies now see climate action as vital to their bottom lines, he said.

“The force of the private sector is plain to see,” he said. “The task is to ensure the finance flows where it is needed most.”

Some participants at the gathering said that asking whether there was enough money flowing toward climate efforts was the wrong question.

“The entire physical economy is totally implicated. Every material we make, every factory that exists in the world is involved in this,” Bill Gates said in an interview. “So no, there’s no set of numbers that are up to saying now, ‘Hey, we paid for that thing.’ ”

Gates has channeled his foundation’s money toward helping vulnerable parts of the world adapt to climate change. That effort includes a $315 million pledge to help small-scale farmers in the developing world that he announced Tuesday.

A separate Gates initiative, Breakthrough Energy, is making investments in renewable-energy technologies that may take decades to pay off.

While national leaders were in town, rushing about in brisk squadrons within the crowded conference confines, negotiators largely cooled their heels, partly because coronavirus considerations limited the spaces where they could gather for discussions. Now, though, it’s the bean counters’ time to shine. They will spend most of the next 10 days locked away and hammering out the finer points of an agreement that leaders are expected to sign at the end.

Their work is less lofty than the grand speeches delivered by their leaders. Some of the talks are held in tents. Delegations spy on one another. Lawyers haggle over the finer points of progress reports that measure whether countries are living up to their commitments.

The stakes are high. For all of Wednesday’s announcements about private-sector plans to fund climate efforts, many in the developing world think the public sector should bear the brunt of the responsibility.

“Markets can provide money for solar and wind farms. They can provide money where there is a business model,” said Harjeet Singh, a New Delhi-based senior adviser for Climate Action Network International, an advocacy group. “But what is the business model for helping a poor farmer build dikes so he can protect his crops from floodwaters? What is the business model for making hospitals and schools stronger so they can withstand more intense and frequent and violent storms?”

It is the public sector’s responsibility to provide adaptation funds and disaster aid, Singh said.

“Markets are not going to help vulnerable people,” he said. “I think this is the least our leaders can do.”

Kaplan reported from Washington. Karla Adam and Maxine Joselow in Glasgow contributed to this report.

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