Last year’s UN Cop26 climate talks in Scotland were framed by John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy on the climate crisis, as the “last best hope for the world to get its act together” and avert climate breakdown. As world leaders gather in Egypt for Cop27, evidence suggests they have yet to fully do so.
The Glasgow conference drew collective promises by governments to “phase down” coal use, curb deforestation, advance remedial payments to developing countries hit hardest by floods, heatwaves and droughts, and to come back the following year with more ambitious emissions reduction targets.
While the proliferation of clean energy is likely to have averted apocalyptic climate breakdown, where the world heats up by an average of 4-5C compared with pre-industrial times, a series of UN reports has made it clear that the world is lagging badly in its efforts to cut emissions, with “no credible pathway” to avoid breaching an agreed limit of 1.5C in global heating.
This century, 2.5C is most likely under current pledges, a scenario that would bring, as the UN stated gloomily, “endless suffering”. As the climate talks begin in Sharm el-Sheikh this week, the finding is a sobering one.
“The last year has been a missed opportunity by many countries,” said David Waskow, the director of the international climate initiative at the World Resources Institute, which recommends coal be phased out six times faster than it is currently and that people eat no more meat than the equivalent of two burgers a week to help meet the 1.5C target.
“There is progress, but there is much to be done, more quickly and deeply,” he said. “We are seeing headway with renewables and electric vehicles – but even with those we are not on track. Everything needs to move at a faster clip.”
Waskow said the world had been gripped in a “polycrisis” of war and rising energy and food costs, as well as severe climate impacts, that was obstructing any focus on global heating. “There has been some modest progress on reducing methane and deforestation since last year, but not as fast as I would like,” he said.
“I think there will be a lot of talk about climate impacts at Cop27 because they are right up in our faces now. There has to be a recognition that we are not heading for a fun place – 2.5C is not going to be fun for anyone.”
Below, we look at five key pledges made at Cop26 and what progress has been made towards achieving them.
Cop26 ended with an agreement that governments would “revisit and strengthen” their plans to slash planet-heating emissions before the 2022 conference. According to the UN, however, just 24 of 193 countries have submitted improved emissions reduction targets since then.
Global emissions must be cut by half by 2030 if there is any chance of avoiding 1.5C or more of heating. However, on our current course they are likely to rise by more than 10%, compared with 2010 levels.
Getting to net zero emissions
By 2050, the world will have to eliminate its entire carbon emissions from electricity generation, transportation, industry, agriculture and other sources that cannot be offset if disastrous climate change is to be avoided, scientists have warned.
A net zero future was officially embraced by 74 countries at Cop26. Since then, another seven, including Indonesia and South Africa, have pledged to reach this point by mid-century.
Since 2020, there has been an overdue bill hanging over the leaders of wealthy countries. A total of $100bn a year was pledged to developing countries, many of which are struggling to adapt to damage caused by the climate crisis and need help moving away from fossil fuels.
Despite mounting pressure at Cop26, which is likely again in Egypt, this total target has not been met. Developed countries were still about $17bn short of the goal, a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found in July. A separate analysis released by Oxfam is more damning: only $21bn has been mobilised, with 70% of this taking the form of loans, it says.
At Cop26, 103 countries pledged to collectively cut methane emissions to 30% below 2020 levels by the end of the decade. Over the past year, another 19 countries have joined this pact, which now covers half of global emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas released via agriculture and gas drilling. The challenge is steep, however: the largest increase in global methane levels on record occurred in 2021.
Forests are havens of biodiversity and essential for carbon storage. In Glasgow, 145 countries promised to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030, and since then four other countries have joined this pledge. But the target is “hollow” based on current trends of deforestation, with almost 7m hectares of forest razed in 2021, according to the authors of a recent report.