What Is Success?

What Is Success?
U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry (R) with COP26 President Alok Sharma walking off stage. (Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell, Getty Images)

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND — The curtain came down on United Nations climate talks a day later than expected. It’s a strange feeling as representatives from countries around the world said they were willing to accept an agreement that they all said sucks.

Lichtenstein’s negotiator? “A bitter pill.” The Marshall Islands’? “Profound disappointment.” Antigua and Barbuda’s? “We are disappointed.” Yet in the end, all nations signed off on the so-called Glasgow Climate Pact. The source of so much frustration was the continual weakening of language around fossil fuels. The outcome raises the question about these talks and the state of the planet in 2021: What, exactly, constitutes progress and success?

The pact includes the first-ever language around phasing down of coal and fossil fuel subsidies, the first time in 26 meetings about climate change that countries have agreed the world should stop doing the things that cause it. When you’re zoomed in on UN talks, that shift is downright profound given that each country gets a vote on the agreement. That the entire world agreed to “escalating efforts to phase down unabated coal power and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” is a revelation.

“​​Compared to just a few years ago, the progress and momentum made in the last two weeks towards phasing out fossil fuels is striking,” Elizabeth Bast, Oil Change International’s executive director, said in a statement.

But zoom out and the talks are like watching a turtle cross a lawn. From that vantage point, what was a big step from up close looks much less revolutionary. More worryingly, it’s clear the turtle has moved very little from its starting point when it began its march at 1992 talks in Rio.

The language around fossil fuels, which was introduced by the coal-dependent countries of India and China at the last minute, is both new and maddeningly riddled with loopholes for polluters. “Phase-down” of coal is open-ended and “efforts” provides no certainty on actions. Calling subsidies “inefficient” also leaves the door open to interpretation and could allow countries to keep digging up reserves while banking on unproven carbon capture technology under the banner of efficiency.

Special Envoy John Kerry invoked the well-trod line in a speech to the group of assembled negotiators that the group couldn’t “let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” That’s a fair tactic when you’re looking to compromise. But physics doesn’t do compromises.

In the atmosphere, success is simply this: Humans need to create a credible, actionable plan to reduce carbon emissions at the speed necessary to avoid catastrophic levels of planetary overheating. That speed, the United Nations has said, is roughly 8% per year this decade if the world is to warm no more than the 1.5 degrees Celsius, a target agreed to at talks six years ago. Coal use must decline 78% this decade to align with that target. Other reports have shown that new fossil fuel exploration needs to stop next year for success to be realised.

There are other signs of progress at the talks around fossil fuels. A group of countries agreed to stop funding fossil fuel projects abroad, while another group agreed to reduce oil and gas methane emissions 30% by 2030. But outside a small group of countries planning to take that step, the world collectively — including the biggest fossil fuel producers — failed to step up to that challenge. In the real world, carbon emissions continue to increase and new fossil fuel lease sales are just around the corner.

“For the first time, we have a COP decision calling for efforts towards the phase out of coal and fossil fuel subsidies,” Mohamed Adow, the head of Power Shift Africa, said. “The narrowing of the language to just cover ‘unabated’ coal power and ‘inefficient’ subsidies leaves room for untested technologies such as CCS which only the rich world has access to. We need a global phase out that is fast, fair, and final for all fossil fuels.”

The fact that each country gets a vote means that talks inevitably result in some degree of disappointment. Still, it is a testament to small island states, civil society, and others who have been fighting for years to include fossil fuels in any international agreement. But outside the negotiation halls, the climate is heating up and the clock is ticking. The world is on track to warm 2.4 degrees Celsius even if all the commitments made by world leaders are met. (A big if.)

“Please do us the courtesy to acknowledge that it does not bring hope to our hearts but serves as yet another conversation where we put our homes on the line, while those who have other options decide how quickly they want to act to save those who don’t,” said Aminath Shauna, environment minister of the Maldives. “We have 98 months to half global emissions. The difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees is a death sentence for us.”