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Glasgow talks: results and challenges

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By Yoo Youn-cheol

The 26th session of the Conference of Parties (COP26), the annual United Nations Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks, took place from Oct. 31 to Nov. 13, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland.

This was the first in-person multilateral environmental meeting that took place after a delay of a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the list published by the UNFCCC, around 40,000 participants registered for COP26, making this the largest COP in history. COP26 featured unique arrangements, including daily self-testing requirements and socially-distanced meeting rooms.

It is noteworthy that the venue, Glasgow in Scotland, was the hub of the Industrial Revolution in the 1800's along with Manchester and Liverpool in England. The main cities that gave rise to the Industrial Revolution which had the most impact on global warming in the past. It was, therefore, a significant place to renew and restart the determination of the world to tackle climate change.

The World Leaders Summit was held Nov. 1 and 2 to focus on the need for an increased ambition to tackle climate change. It brought over 120 heads of state and government together. The U.K. tallied that $800 million was pledged for adaptation at COP26, including the first-ever U.S. contributions to the Adaptation Fund.

COP26 aimed at discussing the progress and challenges related to the Paris Agreement. At the heart of the Paris Agreement are the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), the climate commitments put forward by governments to reach the goals set in France. This year, there were a few new NDCs and net zero pledges. Most notable among these were Saudi Arabia's 2050 carbon neutrality and India's 2070 net zero pledges.

The Republic of Korea declared its ambitious NDCs with a 40 percent greenhouse gases reduction from 2018 levels by 2030. The parties that have not submitted their updated NDCs are given one more year to communicate before the next COP.

The surprise package at COP26 was the adoption of a "Glasgow Climate Pact," an unprecedented wide-ranging political decision toward a more ambitious climate response.

Under the first subheading "Science and Urgency," the Glasgow text puts the IPCC's findings front and center, saying it "recognizes" that the impacts of climate change will be much lower at a rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius in global temperatures compared to 2 degrees Celsius. This is huge progress from three years ago at COP24 in Katowice, where Saudi Arabia and the U.S. under the Trump administration had fought off "welcoming" the findings of the IPCC Special Report on 1.5 degrees.

Another critical issue was how to address Article 6 of the Paris Agreement regarding the international carbon market. Since 2018, when countries completed most elements of the Rulebook, the international carbon market issue has remained missing. In Glasgow, a decision was adopted on the issue to operationalize carbon credit trading. By completing the Paris Agreement Rulebook, the Agreement is now operational.

Finance was the key issue that defined COP26 negotiations more than any other. However, the COP26 decision text "notes with deep regret" that the $100 billion goal has not yet been met. A plan set out how richer nations would deliver the money by 2023. In the adaptation finance section, the decision urges developed countries to at least double their collective provision of climate financing to developing countries from 2019 levels by 2025.

Moreover, for the first time in the UNFCCC process, there is reference to phasing down unabated coal power and phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. Actually, the P4G Summit held at the end of May this year adopted the Seoul Declaration including halting financial assistance for overseas coal-fired power plants, which China joined for the first time in terms of a document containing coal power. In this context, there is no doubt that the P4G Seoul Summit played the role of a stepping stone to COP26.

Furthermore, the Glasgow Climate Pact invites future presidencies of the COP to facilitate the organization of an annual youth-led climate forum for dialogue between the parties and younger generations, which the Korean President proposed in his speech at the summit.

It can be said that throughout COP26, U.S. leadership on climate change was restored through active participation in the negotiations and its great contributions in reaching compromises. In addition, the U.S. and China, the two largest CO2 emitters, released an unexpected joint declaration on enhancing climate action.

Overall, it is quite fortunate that no cases of COVID-19 infection were reported from the largest COP ever. Moreover, the completion of the Paris Agreement Rulebook by adopting the decision on the international carbon market was the greatest achievement at COP26.

There has been progress in striking a balance between mitigation and adaptation by expanding the adaptation fund. However, there was a mismatch between pledges in the World Leaders' Summit and progress in COP negotiations, which resulted in many delayed agreements on issues such as financing.

Despite the many challenges, it can be said that with the Paris Agreement ready to go into operation, COP26 has charted the future of climate action. Solid climate action is required for a cleaner and greener future. So far, Korea has worked out the best policies but with little practice. Now is the time for Korea to show the best practices in response to climate change.


Yoo Yeon-chul (ycyoo87@gmail.com) was ambassador for climate change at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is now serving as vice chair of the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). He also served as Korea's ambassador to Kuwait.




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