COP26: Goal of restricting global warming to 1.5°C could remain elusive

Mayank Chhaya-

As the much-anticipated COP26 climate summit in Glasgow winds down in the next three days, the goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius rise in global temperatures by the turn of this century will likely remain elusive. Instead, there are clear signs that the eventual agreement at the summit could maintain the target at 2 degrees Celsius as included in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

COP26 president Alok Sharma, who is also a British Member of Parliament, said at a news conference yesterday, “We are making progress at COP26 but we still have a mountain to climb over the next few days.  And what has been collectively committed to goes some way, but certainly not all the way, to keeping 1.5C within reach. The gap in ambition has narrowed.”

This reality of the gap between what the goal is —restricting temperature rises to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels—and what the pledges by various countries at the Glasgow summit might accomplish has been glaringly highlighted by the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), the world’s most respected climate analysis coalition, which is warning of disastrous levels of heating despite many commitments of net-zero emissions by 2070.

On the sidelines of the ongoing COP26 summit in Glasgow, CAT has made observations which are all portentous for the stability of global climate.

“The CAT warned that the “good news” of the potential impact of announced net zero targets was bringing false hope to the reality of the warming resulting from government inaction,” the coalition’s website said.

It then made the following specific observations:

“With all target pledges, including those made in Glasgow, global greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 will still be around twice as high as necessary for the 1.5°C limit.

Stalled momentum from leaders and governments on their short-term targets has narrowed the 2030 emissions gap by only 15-17% over the last year.

With 2030 pledges alone – without longer-term targets – global temperature increase will be at 2.4°C in 2100.

The projected warming from current policies (not proposals) – what countries are actually doing – is even higher, at 2.7 ̊C with only a 0.2 ̊C improvement over the last year and nearly one degree above the net-zero announcements governments have made.

Since the April 2021 Biden Leaders’ Summit, the CAT’s standard “pledges and targets” scenario temperature estimate of all NDCs and binding long-term targets has dropped by 0.3°C to 2.1°C, primarily down to the inclusion of the US and China’s net zero targets, now formalized in their long-term strategies submitted to the UNFCCC.

While the projected warming from all net zero announcements, if fully implemented – the CAT’s “optimistic scenario” – is down to 1.8 ̊C by 2100, this estimate is far from positive news, given the quality of the net zero goals and the massive ambition and action gap in 2030.

This ‘optimistic’ pathway is a long way from the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 ̊C limit, with peak 21st century warming of 1.9 ̊C and about a 16% chance of exceeding a warming of 2.4 ̊C.”

Those are deeply disturbing observations which go to the very heart of what this generation of humanity will leave for the next several generations until the year 2100 when the full measure of devastating consequences of its wayward ways would be on display. CAT’s analysis is based on the targets set by various countries for 2030.

A significant part of the COP26 draft is a call to accelerate the phasing out of coal as well subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. It also points out the need for a 45% cut in global emissions by 2030 in order to achieve net-zero by the middle of the century. That seems like an extravagantly ambitious target given that China and India, the world’s two most rapidly growing economies accounting for more than 25 percent of the global population, are unlikely to be net-zero emission before 2070. While China has set the target of net-zero emission by 2060, India has set 2070. Of course, along the way there is a whole slew of economic, technological and societal vagaries to confront for these giant economies.

CAT’s dire words that “Glasgow has a massive credibility, action and commitment gap as the world is heading to at least 2.4 ̊C of warming, if not more” even as the summit is coming to an end are unlikely to distract developing economies from their individual national obligations to deliver all-round development for their citizens, which will inevitably come at the expense of global climate. The developing world has justifiably argued that the burden of combating climate change cannot be so inequitably borne by them when the developed world has already devoured global resources on their path to a certain level of economic prosperity even if it meant causing much of the current mess for the planet.

With that as the backdrop the COP26 may not have much choice but not to insist on the previously cherished goal of 1.5 degrees C. Calls for tougher pledges first by 2030 and then beyond are expected to be met with skepticism.