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COP26: 11 decisions that could actually reverse the climate crisis

The final pledges fell short, but there was still some progress made in Glasgow.

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Many came away from COP26, the UN climate conference, with a strong sense of disappointment. Activist Greta Thunberg summed up the proceedings as more ineffectual “blah, blah, blah.”

The final agreement and pledges made at COP26 fall short of curbing global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius — the metric that scientists say is necessary to prevent the worst effects of the climate crisis. Instead, the pledges will only get us to 2.4 degrees Celsius — better than our current emissions, but still not enough.

However, several pledges by individual countries and joint agreements by dozens of top-polluting nations — along with a commitment by world leaders to meet again in Egypt in 2022 — suggest reaching 1.5 degrees is possible, even as the window to achieve it narrows.

“COP26 is a step in the right direction,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, tweeted following the conclusion of the UN conference.

Here are 11 new climate crisis commitments — the COP26 silver linings.

11. Ending deforestation by 2030

World leaders pledged to end deforestation by 2030.Getty/Michael Hall

In the first major pledge of COP26, leaders of more than 100 nations made an agreement to end deforestation by 2030. Collectively, these leaders represent more than 85 percent of the world’s forests.

Included in the pledge are countries like Brazil and Indonesia, where there is rampant deforestation. Deforestation is a major cause of climate change. Trees store carbon, which gets released into the atmosphere when they’re cut down.

“These great teeming ecosystems — these cathedrals of nature — are the lungs of our planet,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain said about the new pact. The new initiative seeks to reduce the financial incentives driving deforestation, including the demand for soy and palm oil and grazing land for cattle.

10. Expanding the Galápagos Marine Reserve

During the conference, the government of Ecuador announced measures to expand protections around the Galápagos Marine Reserve — one of the first and largest marine reserves in the world.

The new measures result in an additional 23,000 square miles of marine reserve, adding to the 50,000 miles already established.

The measure comes at a crucial time: A 2021 study published in Scientific Reports suggests the Galápagos Islands are especially vulnerable to climate change, and these threats endanger its extraordinary biodiversity.

9. A space mission to save Earth

A European Space Agency mission could help measure solar radiation and get ahead of global warming.Getty

The European Space Agency launched the Traceable Radiometry Underpinning Terrestrial- and Helio- Studies (TRUTHS) mission at COP26.

The mission aims to measure incoming solar radiation and “radiation reflected from Earth back out into space” using traceable units. With this more precise data in hand, scientists can better detect changes to Earth’s climate — helping us get ahead of global warming.

8. The Holy See’s Clean Energy Transition

It was a small moment in a conference filled with big pledges, but on November 11 the Holy See — the government of the Roman Catholic Church — signed the Clean Energy Transition, which would phase out fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy sources.

Pope Francis has been vocal in calling for “radical” action ahead of climate talks, even issuing an official papal document on the subject in 2015 when the landmark Paris Agreement was signed.

As the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Francis wields enormous sway over the 1.3 billion Catholic individuals worldwide — roughly 17 percent of the world’s population.

7. Brazil makes some big promises (but doesn’t literally show up)

Brazil has faced staunch criticism for its failure to preserve rainforests in the Amazon — an essential carbon sink on Earth. Getty / Ignacio Palacios

Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has faced an onslaught of criticism and even accusations of “crimes against humanity” for allowing the widespread deforestation in the Amazon.

The Amazon is a vital carbon sink — a place that stores significant amounts of carbon dioxide and curbs its release. But recent research suggests large parts of the Amazon are no longer carbon sinks — and are turning into sources of carbon emissions.

Bolsonaro didn’t help matters by failing to show up to COP26, which many critics saw as an attempt to avoid blowback from the burning of the Amazon.

But at the beginning of the conference, Brazil’s government did make three big pledges that watchdog groups will surely keep an eye on:

  1. Become a carbon-neutral nation by 2050
  2. Cut carbon emissions in half by 2030
  3. End illegal deforestation by 2028

6. India pledges to cut fossil fuels by 2070

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has historically been slow to make promises on reducing emissions. His environment minister even dismissed the idea of reducing to net-zero emissions days before the climate conference

So it came as something of a surprise when Modi pledged to do just that at COP26. He pledged to get India to net-zero emissions by 2070 — a later deadline than most countries, but one that could help give the country’s coal-reliant economy time to decarbonize.

In other significant news, Modi also pledged to reduce the emissions intensity of all greenhouse gases — not just carbon dioxide — from India’s economy by 45 percent by 2030.

Other Asian nations joined the net-zero fight at COP26. The leaders of both Vietnam and Thailand pledged to make their countries net-zero by 2050. Nepal set an even more ambitious goal of a carbon-neutral economy by 2045.

5. Seven nations join the “Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance”

Shifting to renewable energy is key to keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius. Getty / Justin Paget

Over the summer, Costa Rica and Denmark soft-launched the “Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance,” which they officially unveiled at the UN climate conference. Research shows the majority of the world’s fossil fuels must remain in the ground if the world is to halt global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The first members of the alliance include Costa Rica, Denmark, Ireland, France, Sweden, Wales, Greenland, and Québec. California and Italy are “friends” of the agreement — parties that want to end oil and gas extraction but have made no pledges yet.

5. Pledged money for developing nations

In September, before COP26, President Joe Biden pledged to quadruple funding by 2024 for developing nations to transition to clean energy and deal with global warming.

Specifically, the US put forth a climate finance pledge of $11.4 billion by 2024. At COP26, the UK published its plan for following through with its own commitment of $11.6 billion between 2020 and 2025.

However, other world leaders, like Modi, called on the US and other countries to do more and commit to $1 trillion in climate finance aid.

Through USAID, Biden also announced three key measures to further help developing nations.

  • President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience: A government initiative mobilizing more than $1 billion to help developing countries adapt to climate change by 2030.
  • Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM for Climate): A commitment of $215 million in “climate-smart agriculture to help 200 million people in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
  • Plan to Conserve Global Forests: Critical Carbon Sinks: A plan to halt deforestation and conserve carbon sinks — largely in developing nations. One element of the plan includes $21.5 million to support Indigenous Amazonian leaders.

Philanthropic leaders and international banks also created a $10.5 billion fund at COP26 to help developing economies switch to renewable energy.

4. A landmark methane agreement

Nations pledged to tackle methane emissions at COP26. Getty/Carl Young

COP26 also resulted in a historic agreement to tackle methane — a potent greenhouse gas.

More than 100 countries — 70 percent of the global economy — signed the non-binding Global Methane Pledge, agreeing to reduce methane levels 30 percent by 2030. Measures to slash methane levels include reducing leaks from oil and gas wells. The European Union and the US jointly launched the pledge.

According to an EU statement, “delivering on the Global Methane Pledge would reduce warming by at least 0.2 degrees Celsius by 2050,” prevent 200,000 premature deaths, and 20 million tons of crop losses annually.

3. China and the US join forces on climate

During COP26, both China and the US agreed to “enhance ambition” on the crisis and released a joint statement committing both nations to do more to address greenhouse gas emissions.

In the statement, known as the “Glasgow Declaration,” China also committed to tackling methane emissions for the first time and to “phase down” coal consumption in 2026. Meanwhile, the US promised to end carbon-polluting electricity by 2035.

2. Nations promise to phase out coal

Coal is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, and several nations pledged at COP26 to phase it out altogether.Getty / Monty Rakusen

Coal is the world’s most carbon-intensive fossil fuel and it is responsible for roughly 0.3 of the 1-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution. Scientific research suggests we need to leave 90 percent of the world’s coal in the ground to have a shot at limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Although the two biggest coal-burning countries — India and China — continue to burn coal at significant rates, overall, coal extraction rates have been falling in other countries.

On the heels of this decline, 77 nations at COP26 agreed to a landmark agreement.

The agreement proposes more developed nations will phase out coal by the 2030s and less developed nations by the 2040s. However, the absence of Australia, India, the US, and China — among the top coal polluters — weakens the influence of the agreement.

1. “Fossil fuels” is included for the first time in a final UN climate agreement

Much of the media coverage on the COP26’s final agreement, or “Glasgow Climate Pact,” focused on changes made in its final hours, which activists, scientists, and some world leaders have heavily criticized.

India and China helped weaken the final agreement at COP26, changing the language from a “phase out” to a “phase down” of coal.

But what went overlooked was the agreement’s landmark inclusion of the phrase “fossil fuels” — the first time in the conference’s history that fossil fuels have been openly recognized as the leading cause of climate change in the final text.