COP26: a mixed bag for Africa

While COP26 didn’t produce any rapid or large-scale commitments, it did provide some tools to improve the future.

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow was a decidedly mixed bag for developing nations, including many in Africa.

On the one hand, world leaders failed to take the steps necessary to prevent the worst effects of climate change. The long-established target of limiting global temperature increases to 1.50C above pre-industrial levels, for example, represents a very optimistic outcome at this stage. 

Based on the commitments made in Glasgow, analysts from Climate Action Tracker estimate there’s a roughly 70% chance that the world can anticipate warming between 1.90C and 30C by the end of the century – though this analysis excludes net-zero commitments due to their lack of specificity. The world has already warmed by more than 10C relative to the pre-industrial baseline and it would take an inconceivable technological advancement to prevent further warming in coming decades. 

The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates that in the absence of ‘immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions ... global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.50C of warming’ when averaged over the next 20 years.

Even in a charitable analysis, COP26 didn’t produce any commitments that could be characterised as immediate, rapid or large-scale.

World leaders failed to take the steps necessary to prevent the worst effects of climate change

On the other hand, the world is beginning to get a much better sense of what the future of climate change – and the policy scaffolding surrounding it – will look like. This outcome is a distant second to fully-fledged climate mitigation efforts. And developing countries should continue to demand deeper reductions to carbon emissions and adequate financial support from developed countries at future COPs. But it is a significantly better place from which to plan contingencies than before COP26. 

The certainty supplied at COP26 will help African countries primarily by narrowing the band of possible warming scenarios. Fewer potential scenarios will allow governments with limited resources to devote attention where it’s most likely to be needed. 

This certainty is provided in three ways. Advanced timelines for country-level commitments to limiting greenhouse gas emissions – known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – means the world will know roughly how much carbon will be emitted in the coming decades. Renewed pledges of financial assistance from rich nations and the introduction of a global emissions trading scheme mean that African countries can more easily mobilise financial flows for promoting sustainable economic development at home.

The timeline for 2030 NDCs has been advanced from 2025 to the end of 2022. Although not outlined in the agreement, it is still possible that countries will commit to new, stricter 2035 goals in 2025, a development that may keep the 1.50C goal within reach. 

The timeline for 2030 NDCs has been advanced from 2025 to the end of 2022

Another encouraging development to come out of Glasgow was more clarity surrounding financial commitments from developed countries. A frequent talking point going into Glasgow was the shortfall between what rich countries pledged to raise for developing countries to aid with climate change adaptation and mitigation and what sum was actually realised. (US$100 billion a year by 2020 vs about US$80 billion in 2019.)

The COP26 meeting both upped the stakes in terms of what is required financially and changed the rhetoric surrounding the money in two important ways.

The first is that funding for climate change had previously been skewed significantly towards mitigating climate change, a rather laughable notion given the historical emissions produced by developing countries. In Glasgow, rich countries promised to at least double the amount of money dedicated to adaptation by 2025.

However the more important rhetorical shift came in the move away from framing climate change financing as a binary choice between adaptation and mitigation. At COP26, it was framed as compulsory for developing countries to transition away from fossil fuels and promote the development of less carbon-intensive economies. In this light, climate change financing can be seen as part adaptation, part mitigation and part economic development.

The United States has been particularly vocal in its opposition to loss and damage funds

This new approach to financing is most evident in the agreement between America, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union (EU) and South Africa. In what could be a decarbonisation model for many developing countries, South Africa has agreed to use the US$8.5 billion provided to move its electricity sector off of coal while simultaneously protecting the tens of thousands of jobs dependent on the industry.

South Africa uses coal for more than 80% of its power generation and is estimated to be the 13th largest carbon emitter in the world, despite being the 33rd largest economy. An aggressive move away from coal could demonstrate to other middle-income countries that decarbonisation and economic growth are not mutually exclusive and can in fact be self-reinforcing.

At COP26 leaders also ironed out lingering details from the Paris Agreement to establish the world’s first market for carbon emissions. There’s certainly room for improvement. But vice president for global climate at the Environmental Defense Fund Kelley Kizzier believes the agreement ‘provides the rules necessary for a robust, transparent and accountable carbon market to promote ... a further avenue for finance flows from developed to developing countries.’ 

One specific area where African countries can focus attention at future COPs is on ‘loss and damage’ funds. Loss and damage funds would hold rich countries directly responsible for compensating poor countries for the negative effects of climate change. This could include anything from crop assistance for East African farmers facing persistent drought to relocation aid for West Africans living in increasingly flood-prone coastal settlements.

As the largest cumulative emitter of fossil fuels, the United States has been particularly vocal in its opposition to loss and damage funds, though resistance can also be found in many EU countries. In short, many stumbling blocks to establishing loss and damage funds remain, but eliminating them could provide a way to directly compensate individuals and countries suffering from the ravages of climate change.

The world didn’t solve the climate change crisis in Glasgow. But it is difficult to argue that the global community is in a worse position to deal with climate change than it was when the conference started. While this was not what was needed, it certainly is something to build on.

Zachary Donnenfeld, Research Consultant, ISS

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Photo: Neil Palmer CCAFS/Flickr

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