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Climate change: COP26 ambitions met with skepticism after week one

GLASGOW — World leaders in Glasgow came armed with bold ambitions this week that vowed to move the world closer to averting a climate disaster. Business leaders and climate scientists say it still may not move the needle enough.

Halfway through a UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) dubbed “the last chance for humanity,” skepticism abounds about the ability to turn lofty promises to reduce emissions into action quickly, without the proper tools and enforcement mechanisms in place.

IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol put it bluntly, saying all of the commitments announced so far, would amount to capping global warming to 1.8 degrees Celsius, if implemented fully.

“A big step forward, but much more needed,” Birol said in a tweet.

The 26th annual meeting marks the first time governments have raised emissions reduction targets that are sufficient within keeping global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius, in line with the Paris Agreement.

U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry hailed progress so far as “a game-changer” adding that the discussions happening in Glasgow are “far from business as usual.”

“There is a greater sense of urgency at this COP. There is a greater sense of focus. I have never in the first few days of any other COPs I've been to, counted as many initiatives and as much real money being put on the table,” Kerry said.

How that money is put to use and how quickly those initiatives are implemented will be critical to any success, given the non-binding nature of the agreements and the decades-long timeline.

Climate scientist Kim Cobb, who co-authored the UN’s landmark IPCC report, applauded the headlines but said the lack of details and absence of a framework to measure progress make it too early to declare any victory.

“It’s not just the size of the emissions cuts, but when they are slated to occur,” said Cobb, ADVANCE Professor at Georgia Tech. “We cannot make modest cuts now, delaying more aggressive cuts until the 2040’s to achieve net zero by 2050, and keep warming to a 1.5 degrees Celsius limit, because the total emissions that accumulate between now and then will blow the 1.5 degrees Celsius budget.”

The slew of commitments announced so far, touch a vast sphere of the climate crisis. From a pledge by more than 100 countries to end deforestation by 2030 to a commitment by over 40 countries to phase out the use of coal, and a pact to cut the world’s methane gas emissions by 30% by the end of the decade, the initiatives point to heightened urgency of the climate crisis.

Yet, there are no fines or penalties imposed for countries who don’t live up to their promises. Enforcement is largely voluntary. In the case of deforestation, critics point to a 2014 deforestation pledge as proof of the challenges of implementation. That agreement called for the practice to be halved by 2020, and eliminated altogether by 2030. Neither has been successful.

With global temperatures on track to rise nearly 3 degrees Celsius, according to the UN, Cobb said there is little room for error.

“There seems to be far too much talk of 'net zero by 2050' without recognizing the need to achieve as much as half of those reductions this decade, if we are to keep the 1.5 degrees Celsius target alive,” she said.

U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry speaks at a news conference during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, November 5, 2021. REUTERS/Phil Noble
U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry speaks at a news conference during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, November 5, 2021. REUTERS/Phil Noble

Setting a standard to measure emissions

The promises on climate financing are equally void of consistent guardrails, specifically on the call to action by UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, who vowed to “rewire the financial system” by requiring publicly listed companies in Britain to present a public blueprint detailing steps they plan to take to reach carbon neutrality.

Steve Varley, Global Vice Chair of Sustainability for EY, said holding companies accountable will be a challenge given the absence of universal reporting standards on climate risk, particularly around scope 3 or indirect emissions.

"The frameworks that currently exist for helping customers calculate and report their carbon footprint are not subject to the same level of rigor as financial reporting — and this needs to change," he told Yahoo Finance. "“We welcome the announcement of the new International Sustainability Standards Board, which will hopefully galvanize the move towards a common set of measures and a harmonized system of reporting that will help both investors and businesses to measure progress."

The very definition of “net zero” also remains a point of contention. When former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney announced that 40% of the world’s financial assets had committed to meet the goals set out in the Paris Agreement, think tank Carbon Tracker’s executive chair contended that “no group of companies can say they are meeting the Paris target by continuing to invest in fossil fuels.”

Demonstrators hold placards at a Fridays for Future march during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, November 5, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Demonstrators hold placards at a Fridays for Future march during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, November 5, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

BlackRock’s Larry Fink gave his own rebuke, questioning the efficacy of a climate policy focused on publicly listed companies.

“We are seeing more hydrocarbons moving away from public entities to private entities,” he said. “If we’re serious about this... we have to ask all of society to move forward or we’re lying to ourselves.”

Additional details are set to be hammered out in the second week of COP26, where individual countries will be asked to present updated commitments on emissions reduction or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). But Mars CEO Grant Reid said the "plumbing" for the private sector needs to be laid out more explicitly, with businesses expected to carry the bulk of an estimated $100 trillion transition to a low-carbon future.

"If you just pick 100 companies at random and see how they define net zero, you'll find it varies. So first, we have to get to what, let me just make sure everybody's talking about the same thing. When they're talking about the same thing. Then we need the metrics and just transparency to see how our roadmap is coming together," Reid said. "Then we're setting standards after that. So, it's going to be a rolling program. And that's going to be the critical part."

Akiko Fujita is an anchor and reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @AkikoFujita

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