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The Climate 202

Five big takeaways from COP26

The Climate 202

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Good morning! We're back in Washington after two weeks in Glasgow, Scotland, covering COP26, the United Nations climate conference. We regret that we didn't bring back any whisky or Irn-Bru, the second national drink of Scotland. But first:

Five major takeaways from the U.N. climate talks in Glasgow

After two weeks of intense deliberations, diplomats from nearly 200 countries reached a final deal Saturday evening to work together to stave off the worst effects of climate change for current and future generations. 

As soon as the agreement was announced, a variety of hot takes started flooding our Twitter feed. Youth climate activists including Greta Thunberg slammed the deal, while some delegates from vulnerable countries defended it as “real progress."

It can be difficult to sort through these takes and figure out what, exactly, was included in the “Glasgow Climate Pact.” Here are our major takeaways from two weeks of tracking the negotiations:

1. Weakened fossil fuel language made the cut

The Glasgow Climate Pact is the first U.N. climate deal to explicitly mention the need to move away from coal power and subsidies for fossil fuels. But in the face of lobbying from top fossil-fuel-producing countries, the language was watered down several times during the negotiations.

  • A preliminary draft of the deal released Wednesday called on nations to “accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels.” However, a second draft released Friday instead urged countries to move away from “unabated coal” and “inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels.”
  • And on Saturday, China and India successfully pushed for another last-minute change to the crucial phrase, saying they would agree only to “phase-down unabated coal,” rather than “phase out."

U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry defended the weakened wording during a news conference Saturday evening. “While some may have wanted even stronger language, the text that we agreed to has the first-ever — believe it or not — mention of coal and fossil fuel subsidies,” he said. “That’s never happened.”

2. The deal doesn't include a fund for loss and damage

Even if the world stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, the irreversible effects of climate change are already here, from rising sea levels to more intense storms. In COP26 parlance, these unavoidable effects are known as “loss and damage.”

Wealthy nations, which have historically added the most greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, successfully fought off a proposed fund to help poor nations deal with loss and damage. Instead, delegates agreed to start a “dialogue” about the idea, angering those who say such reparations are long overdue.

“In Glasgow, the needs of the world's vulnerable people have been sacrificed on the altar of the rich world's selfishness," tweeted Mohamed Adow, director of the think tank Power Shift Africa

3. The deal keeps the 1.5-degree target alive — sort of

The Glasgow Climate Pact does not achieve the more ambitious goal of the 2015 Paris agreement: limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. But it means the world still has a shot at meeting that target.

As the negotiations stretched on, the U.N. Environment Program reported that COP26 would probably end with the world on track to warm 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit), though other analyses suggested that number could drop if countries took swift action to fulfill long-term climate pledges.

"Today we can say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees within reach, but its pulse is weak," COP26 President Alok Sharma said Saturday. "It will only survive if we keep our promises."

4. The timeline for climate action was accelerated

The deal “requests” that world leaders “revisit and strengthen” their 2030 targets under the Paris agreement, known as “nationally determined contributions” or NDCs, by the end of 2022. That speeds up the typical five-year timeline for countries to submit new or updated NDCs.

Tina Stege, climate envoy for the Marshall Islands, one of the countries most vulnerable to sea-level rise, called the faster timeline a “priority that didn't always seem possible."

5. Young people had a big presence at COP26

More than 100,000 young people marched in the streets of Glasgow last weekend to demand climate action. Their presence was palpable inside the conference venue, where even former president Barack Obama urged the youth to “stay angry” about inaction on global warming.

Michele Dunn, a nonresident scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Climate 202 that such protests may not be permitted at COP27 next year in Egypt, where President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has cracked down on peaceful dissent.

“It's hard for me to imagine Egyptian officials being comfortable with the massive, freewheeling street protests that we saw in Glasgow,” Dunn said.

In tomorrow's edition of The Climate 202, we'll delve into expectations for COP27 in greater detail. In the meantime, check out this helpful annotated version of the Glasgow Climate Pact from our Washington Post colleagues.

More on COP26

Many world leaders and activists are disappointed with the climate deal

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Britain’s President for COP26 Alok Sharma spoke on Nov. 14, a day after the end of the United Nations climate summit. (Video: Reuters)

Many world leaders expressed disappointment with the final agreement, saying it is not enough to stop catastrophic warming, The Post's Steven Mufson and Annabelle Timsit report.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that while some progress had been made, it remained to be seen how the commitments would be implemented. "The work is far from done,” she said.

COP26 President Alok Sharma appeared emotional after China and India pushed for the last-minute change to the language on fossil fuels. “We’re all well aware that, collectively, our climate ambition and action to date have fallen short on the promises made in Paris,” Sharma said.

A senior Biden official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the change to the fossil fuel language riled the U.S. delegation. But in the end, the senior official added, “‘phase down’ is on the route to phasing out. You don’t turn it off tomorrow.” The official credited Kerry’s work with Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua for the fact that China accepted any agreement on the future of coal. 

Many delegates and advocates were also frustrated that wealthy countries did not commit to fulfilling a long-overdue promise to provide $100 annually to help poor nations most vulnerable to climate change.

“COP26 was a failure, and the main failure was on financing,” said Jeffrey Sachs, an economist and climate expert at Columbia University. “The rich countries couldn’t even come up with the meager $100 billion per year after 12 years of promising."

The United States reclaimed a leading role at COP26

"Delegates from around the world have praised the United States and condemned the United States, but one thing they could not do was ignore the United States,” Steven and The Post's Michael Birnbaum write.

It's a shift from the American role under former president Donald Trump, who withdrew the U.S. from the Paris agreement. At COP26, the U.S. and European Union were central in corralling more than 100 countries into supporting deep cuts to methane emissions. The U.S. also helped convince other countries to halt financing for the construction of overseas coal plants. 

Still, political realities at home constrained the U.S. delegation. Climate action remains stalled in Congress, and Americans at the conference suggested that the U.S. delegation was hesitant to sign on to certain commitments that could anger centrist lawmakers such as Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

Panama channeled a warning from young people at the climate summit

Panama, which claimed to have the youngest delegation at COP26, became a voice for young people around the world, The Post’s Dan Zak reports.

When youth activists were desperate to send a message to the conference, even though they lacked the status of a nation-state, they turned to Panama. 

Panama’s deputy lead negotiator, Mari Helena Castillo Mariscal, 25, delivered a rousing speech at Thursday’s plenary “on behalf," she said, "of over 11,500 youth from more than 129 nations.” 

“You say your actions are ‘ambitious,’ but your ambitions keep us on track to a fatal 2.4 degrees of warming,” Castillo told world leaders.

Agency alert

The Biden administration proposed a 20-year ban on drilling in Chaco Canyon

The administration is directing the Bureau of Land Management to consider a ban on oil and gas drilling within a 10-mile radius around Chaco Culture National Historical Park, The Post’s Joshua Partlow and Darryl Fears report.

The canyon and its surroundings are the home of an ancient Puebloan civilization, the remains of which are considered sacred by Native American tribes. Last year, Congress passed a one-year moratorium on drilling in the area, but tribal leaders and environmental groups have been pushing for more permanent protections.

Extreme events

Extreme weather was rampant during COP26

As world leaders made pledges and delegates negotiated the intricacies of a climate agreement, their constituents at home were dealing with heat, floods and other extreme weather, The Post's Kasha Patel reports.

In India, people grappled with a monsoon season that has brought heavy rain, deadly flash flooding and landslides. Meanwhile, southern Africa experienced extreme heat, with temperatures in Mozambique reaching 111.6 degrees Fahrenheit (44.2 Celsius) on Nov. 3. The following day, as more than 20 countries announced in Glasgow that they would stop spending tax dollars to support international fossil fuel projects, Uzbekistan experienced its worst dust storm in 150 years of monitoring.


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