faculty & experts
12 November 2021

The Road after Glasgow

In looking at the COP26 outcomes, Joëlle Noailly, Head of Research of the Centre for International Environmental Studies (CIES), argues that proposals for environmental change still leave the world off-target and in need of more concrete actions.

In 2015, the Paris Agreement on climate change set out the goals of limiting global temperature increase to two degrees by the end of the century – with a recommendation to work towards a stricter goal of 1.5°C.

Last month, a group of highly motivated students from the Graduate Institute played the World Climate Game, a highly simplified but realistic simulation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations, in an event co-organised by the CIES and the student-led Environmental Committee.

The students’ ambitious pledges led to an agreement of 2.1°C. The role-playing game was a stark lesson for students on the necessary speed and level of action that nations must take to address climate change.

Fiction met reality over the last two weeks when negotiators from more than 190 countries met in Glasgow for the 26th Conference Of Parties (COP26) aiming to halt climate change.

The first week of COP26 saw many important announcements to keep the world on track to 2°C.

First, India (the worlds’ fourth largest emitter) promised to join the club of net zero countries by 2070. New coalitions of countries announced efforts to phase-out coal fired power, to halt deforestation (again) and to cut methane emissions back by 30% by 2030.

At the end of the first week, a report from the International Energy Agency calculated that with these new promises, the world could head toward 1.8°C by century’s end – so below the 2°C objective but missing the 1.5°C target – although such computations are always subject to controversy.

Activists, NGOs and scientists rightly pointed out the gap between long-term commitments and short-term goals: most pledges for 2030 have still not been worked out and a recent assessment from the Climate Action Tracker science group found that actual nationally determined targets for 2030 currently set the world on track for 2.4°C.

Yet, a promising outcome was the surprising joint announcement last Wednesday from the US and Chinese delegations that both countries, which together represent 40% of greenhouse gas emissions, will enhance their climate action in the 2020s. China will also join the coalition on reducing methane emissions.

On the road after Glasgow, we still need to see how the promised deep emission reductions will be successfully implemented in domestic policies.

Countries have agreed to take action but will face no repercussions if they withdraw or fail their commitments. Specific policies, such as the EU Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, may be more effective in triggering actionable plans.

As of 2025, non-EU companies that want to sell carbon-intensive goods in the EU will need to buy certificates based on EU carbon prices. Hence, countries without effective climate policies in place will run the risk of being financially penalised when entering the EU market. This could encourage the US and China to clean their export production and adopt more stringent policies at home.

There are, nonetheless, obvious concerns on how such carbon border measures will impact the least developed countries without important financial and technological support from advanced economies.