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Guest post: COP26 heats up and global temperature pledges spur optimism

As the 2021 United Nations Climate Change conference gathers momentum, Tim Baines, counsel in Mayer Brown’s environmental team, finds optimism beyond the platitudes.

Now that heads of state have left the building, the COP gets into full business mode with delegates moving between meeting rooms and many having to juggle competing demands on their time. We are only nearing the mid-point of an exhausting couple of weeks.

The University of Melbourne’s research has offered the conference a glimmer of hope by suggesting that countries’ emission pledges would limit global temperature rises to below 2C, with India’s recent announcement making all the difference. This remains a long way from the 1.5C that many are aiming for, and which is targeted in the Paris Agreement. Advocates of 1.5C include members of the High Ambition Coalition, which the US has re-joined.

Further optimism had arisen over an announcement by the British government that more than 100 leaders had committed to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030, in a pledge backed by almost £14bn ($19.2bn) in public and private funding. However, on Thursday (4 November) this appeared to unravel somewhat, as Indonesia reportedly said it only agreed to keep its forest cover steady over the period and Brazil said it would only target ‘illegal’ deforestation.

Many had also vaunted the Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement, which notes that coal power generation is the single biggest cause of global temperature increases and recognises the imperative to scale-up the deployment of clean power to accelerate the energy transition. However, it became apparent that this initiative might be less of a game-changer than had been hoped. Indonesia, the world’s biggest coal exporter, didn’t sign up to a clause calling for an end to building and financing new unabated coal. Poland, another signatory, won’t phase out coal until the 2040s, which does not change its current transition path. Australia, China, India and the US do not appear to have signed up at all.

Both of these initiatives sit alongside or outside of the formal COP negotiations.

Discussions rumbled on, for example, in respect of market mechanisms, with ‘big picture’ items such as whether some of the rules should be agreed at Glasgow or rolled into a future work programme. More detailed discussions included the inter-relationship between guidance for art 6.2 and 6.4, setting baselines and additionally. These are all matters that, although not easy to resolve, have been on the table for some time. A further bust-up is reported to have occurred on Thursday in respect of ‘share of proceeds’ language being insisted on by some developing countries.

All eyes will remain on the conference for another week, so watch this space for more updates.