Did COP26 Move Us Closer To Realising A Right To A Clean Environment?
Environment / 24 Nov 2021

Did COP26 Move Us Closer To Realising A Right To A Clean Environment?

By Hannah Shewan Stevens, Interim Editor
Credit: Callum Shaw / Unsplash

With the latest Conference of the Parties (COP26) coming to an end earlier this month, we break down the results of the multilateral gathering to evaluate progress, given the UN Human Rights Council’s recent declaration of everyone’s right to a clean and healthy environment.

In Glasgow, COP26 brought global leaders together to tackle climate change head-on. Running between 31 October and 12 November at the Scottish Event Campus, the summit was a crucial opportunity for delegates and leaders from 196 countries to commit to a global agenda focused on slowing climate change. 

“On the surface, there seems to have been some positive outcomes,” said Professor Tahseen Jafry, director of Glasgow Caledonian University’s Centre for Climate Justice. “The decision to end and reverse deforestation by 2030, with countries including Brazil signing up, is to be applauded. Likewise, the EU and US agreeing to cut methane gas by 2040 are also to be welcomed, as are the 40 countries that have pledged to move away from coal, including major users such as Poland.”

After six years of discussions, the “Paris Rulebook” – guidelines for how the Paris Agreement is enacted – was also completed

With involvement from private industries from the outset, some of which have been directly linked to irresponsible climate practices, the conference faced an uphill battle from the beginning. 

“It does seem like we, as a global community, may be reaching a watershed moment, inspired by a greater public understanding of the importance of addressing climate change and more widespread public attention on the importance of climate equity and justice,” said Hannah Blitzer, a doctoral researcher in environmental and human rights law at the University of Sussex and executive committee member of Action4Justice. “Though, it does reflect how much of the movement is being driven on the ground by affected communities and via grassroots organisations rather than by states at the negotiating tables. The market economy continues to be a priority of states, which is problematic.”

Credit: Fredrika Carlsson / Unsplash

Key Commitment: 1.5°C 

One of the main focuses of COP26 was reaching a worldwide commitment to keep the global temperature from rising by more than 1.5°C, or holding any rise to “well below” 2°C.

The Paris Agreement (PA) – negotiated in 2015 – was the first step in coming to an agreement on global temperature. Countries pledged to keep global temperature rises to well below 2°C and to make a concerted effort to limit warming to 1.5°C with a long-term strategy.

A number that has long featured in climate change headlines, that limit is essential to abide by because a 2°C rise would lead to more extreme rainstorms, heatwaves, droughts, lower crop yields and higher sea levels, according to a special report by the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018.

By the end of COP26, all countries involved agreed to the Glasgow Climate Pact and to keep the goal of 1.5°C alive. The pact aims to speed up the pace of climate action and all signatories pledged to revisit and strengthen their current emissions targets in 2022. A leader’s summit has also been set for 2023 and the pact includes a commitment to a yearly political roundtable to review progress. 

Credit: Maxim Tolchinskiy / Unsplash

However, some believe that the commitment to 1.5°C is simply not enough. 

“The data indicates the world is on track to heat up by 2.4 degrees by 2100,” explained Jafry. “Therefore, we’ve far surpassed the 1.5°C limit that was set at Paris. Global warming of 1.8°C is possible by 2030, but only if those emission-reduction targets are achieved faster and within the next nine years. We have less than a decade left to tackle this crisis.” 

The end of COP26 also brought the PA to a close. After six years of discussions, the “Paris Rulebook” – guidelines for how the PA is enacted – was also completed. Conclusions included agreeing on a transparency process to hold countries accountable while they take action against climate change.  

“It was a small positive to see agreement on the need to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net zero around 2050, although this still doesn’t go far enough and there are serious problems with the net zero rhetoric,” said Blitzer. “​Once again, there is a general over-reliance by high-emitting states on the private sector to rectify environmental issues and climate breakdown. Without states’ adoption of stringent, binding action across the topics of negotiation, the outcome of COP26 appears broadly aspirational at best.”

She added: “Net zero masks these concerns through the same old neoliberal solutions that spark the question: on the whole, have we really changed enough, if at all, or do we remain at a standstill, unable to progress in the way the world needs to?”

“The data indicates the world is on track to heat up by 2.4 degrees by 2100”

Credit: Andreas Gucklhorn / Unsplash

“The data indicates the world is on track to heat up by 2.4 degrees by 2100”

Fossil Fuel Agreement Watered Down 

The end of COP26 saw an agreement to phase down coal and fossil fuel subsidies, a dilution of the initial goal of “phasing out” these approaches. 

Changes to the agreement have been blamed largely on countries such as India, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Iran because their countries rely heavily on coal and fossil fuel for energy and want a slower transition period. 

“If we are to successfully transition to the energy system of tomorrow, we cannot simply unplug from the energy stem of today,” said Sultan al-Jaber, chief executive of Abu Dhabi state oil company Abu Dhabi National Oil. “We cannot just flip a switch.”

In its defence, India highlighted its bid for all fossil fuels to be treated equally, which would include oil and gas as well as coal, but that did not make it into the final pact. 

“There is a continued lack of understanding or commitment to equity from high-emitters in the Global North,” explained Blitzer. “There has been widespread criticism of the watering-down of agreements, such as the last-minute change in wording to phase down coal, yet there appears to be a general lack of awareness of the requirements of global equity in relation to fossil fuels. Coal may not be a central source of energy for some countries, but remains a vital source of energy for others. This indicates a need to balance state accountability with climate justice and equity in decision-making and commitments.”

Credit: Karsten Wuerth / Unsplash

Ending Oil And Gas Extraction

At COP26, ten national and regional governments, including those of Wales and Ireland, announced an end to the extraction of oil and gas. 

Named the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA), it marks the first time governments have collaborated to start moving away from oil and gas production. Core signatories also included Costa Rica, Denmark, France, Greenland, Quebec and Sweden. New Zealand and California joined as associate members, as they have undertaken significant measures to end oil and gas production.

Although the International Energy Agency, the IPCC and the UN Environment Programme are urging all governments to end fossil fuel extraction and use, major oil and gas economies, including Saudi Arabia and Russia, have not joined BOGA. 

Credit: John Cameron / Unsplash

Providing Climate Information And Funding 

The World Meteorological Organisation and the UN’s climate finance body, the Green Climate Fund (GCF), united to offer new information and tools on climate science data to help countries make informed decisions about climate change investments, especially in relation to adaptation. 

Translating science into policy support to tackle climate change drivers, such as sea level rises, natural disasters and deforestation, the initiative aims to help countries build resilience to growing extreme weather incidents with information on coastal management, disaster risk reduction, forestry, agriculture and energy. 

“One of the biggest issues for the poorest nations at this COP is climate finance,” said Jafry. “It still remains to be seen what, if any, of the Paris commitment – the $100 billion pledge – will be taken forward. It has been stated that this is still outstanding and this is a huge disappointment for the least developed countries. It should have been delivered by 2020 and is now nowhere near what is needed. Under a 1.5°C scenario, the cost of adaptation is $180 billion annually from 2020 to 2030.”

Credit: Angela Benito / Unsplash

Ending Deforestation

Near the beginning of COP26, more than 100 nations agreed to end deforestation by 2030. 

Brazil, where vast areas of the Amazon have been wiped out, committed to the agreement, which includes committing almost £14 billion of public and private funds to tackle the issue. 

“There has already been backtracking from states on [deforestation], such as Brazil and Indonesia,” said Blitzer. “For example, Brazil indicated they would prioritise tackling illegal deforestation, yet legal deforestation remains a significant issue from both an environmental and human rights perspective.”

Credit: Markus Spiske / Unsplash

Did COP26 Address Issues Impacting Marginalised Groups?

Led by the UK’s presidency, the conference faced some criticism for not centring the countries most affected by climate change. 

Jafry said: “The clock is ticking. That clock is a time bomb for the poorest – especially women and girls – who are on the front line of the climate crisis. Much more emphasis needs to be given to access and availability of climate finance to the poorest communities.”

Jafry also highlighted the failure to strike a gender balance at the conference. She added: “It was good to see a gender balance of people attending this COP, but what actually transpired is that male voices seemed to be the dominant ones at the main conference sessions for the leaders and policymakers – in fact, 74% of those at the plenaries were men.”

Although not placed front and centre at the conference, indigenous activists worked hard to spotlight the harm caused by issues like greenwashing but the event still lacked adequate representation – an issue highlighted by the hashtag #MissingVoicesCOP26 on Twitter. 

“I hope their rights, work and voices are centred going forward and in future negotiations, particularly as the broad, unjust exclusion of Indigenous peoples, local communities and civil society observers whilst allowing dominant voices from the Global North, polluting businesses and members of the fossil fuel industry to attend was telling,” said Blitzer. “It signifies markets and profits over human rights.”

Credit: Grant Ritchie / Unsplash

What’s Next?

Now that CO26 is over, the conference rejuvenated the Paris Agreement and garnered a global commitment to keeping to a temperature-rise target of 1.5°C. 

However, people’s right to a healthy environment now depends on how countries move forward in the next few years. Nations not considered to be doing their bit to minimise global warming are expected to return to COP27 in Egypt next year with plans to increase their efforts. 

“For the UK, the government will need to follow through on its ‘green rhetoric’,” said Blitzer. “It cannot be a climate leader if it fails to reinforce its rhetoric with binding obligations. After a long wait, the Environment Act has now become law, and this will, of course, contribute to making COP26 a legislative reality.” 

“With no agreement on a loss and damage fund, it is apparent that the Glasgow Climate Pact reflects a weak commitment to climate justice.”

Although climate-vulnerable countries demanded that 50% of climate finance go to adaptation funding (which encompasses the costs triggered through adapting power sources and other resources to a changing climate), final commitments were lacking. Agreements were reached to increase financial support through the Adaptation Fund but no official commitments were made to deal with loss and damage already suffered by countries facing climate change-induced droughts, famines and floods.

“The lack of support for loss and damage is another major point of criticism,” added Blitzer. “It demonstrates that equity is still not a central concern of the wealthiest countries that are historically responsible for the climate crisis. The rhetoric of these countries at COP26 does not match their actions at the negotiating table. 

“With no agreement on a loss and damage fund, it is apparent that the Glasgow Climate Pact reflects a weak commitment to climate justice.”

For the UN Human Rights Council to declare access to a clean and healthy environment a right, as it has, is one thing. For the nations of the world to realise that right is quite another. COP26 took us a limited step closer to making such a right a reality. But it is still going to take much more considered and concerted action from the global community to make this right a reality.

About The Author

Hannah Shewan Stevens Interim Editor

Hannah Shewan Stevens is an NCTJ-accredited freelance journalist, editor, speaker and press officer based in Birmingham. Her areas of interest are broad-ranging but the topics she is most passionate about are disability, social justice, sex and relationships and human rights. Hannah believes in using her own voice and elevating others to create meaningful change in the world. She is also a sex columnist for The Unwritten and has recently completed her first accreditation in delivering Relationships and Sex Education.

Hannah Shewan Stevens is an NCTJ-accredited freelance journalist, editor, speaker and press officer based in Birmingham. Her areas of interest are broad-ranging but the topics she is most passionate about are disability, social justice, sex and relationships and human rights. Hannah believes in using her own voice and elevating others to create meaningful change in the world. She is also a sex columnist for The Unwritten and has recently completed her first accreditation in delivering Relationships and Sex Education.