Commentary. An amendment proposed by India, and then approved in order to close the negotiations, replaced the ‘phase-out’ of coal with its ‘phase-down,’ a sign of the failure of this COP26.

The legacy of Glasgow, a ‘phase-down’ of coal

The Glasgow Conference closed with a text which, having started out weak, was further weakened on the final stretch on the issue of the elimination of coal, at India’s request.

The gap between the urgency of the actions needed and the slowness of the negotiations is certainly nothing new, but this time it is written in black and white.

Indeed, looking at the few positive aspects of the document, the reference to the scenario of containing warming under 1.5°C and the consequent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45% within the decade has survived.

But the gap between the current trend (which goes towards at least +2.4°C) and the commitments to achieve the target is not mentioned. The submission of new voluntary targets has been postponed until 2022, thus lagging behind the roadmap set in Paris in 2015.

Let us recall that the COP26 was supposed to be held last year, and was postponed because of the pandemic. Its importance lay in the fact that, five years after the Paris Agreement, more ambitious commitments needed to be presented, as required by the negotiating mechanism. Since 2015, it was clear that the trend of emissions and the commitments already made were leading towards a much greater increase in the average global temperature, well over 2°C, and therefore failing the objective of remaining “well below” that threshold, possibly around 1.5°C.

The most painful issue concerns coal. The amendment proposed by India, and then approved in order to close the negotiations, to replace the “phase-out” of coal with its “phase-down,” is the sign of the failure of this COP26. But even with this watering down, coal remains the first energy source to be phased out on the list, it is in the interest of all countries to do so and the rich ones should help finance this transition.

On the subject of subsidies, a reference to a “just transition” has been included—another positive point—in order to address the issue of both the conversion of workers from the fossil sector and aid to prevent the weakest groups from bearing the costs of transition.

On the issue of “forest offsets”—i.e., emission permits associated with planting forests, the text is very ambiguous and full of loopholes, and the UN Secretary General has announced that it will be reviewed.

Much remains to be done to prevent the trade in these certificates from undermining any serious efforts to reduce emissions.

On the financial commitments of the more developed countries aimed at compensating climate damage suffered by the less developed countries, the necessary figures are still far from what is needed, and this is also an aspect that should be among the priorities of next year’s Conference in Egypt.

On the positive side, there was the unexpected presentation of a joint China-US document, which, although it does not contain commitments that are in any way up to the task, it is hoped that it will translate into much-needed practical cooperation.

Entirely disappointing, however, was the presence of the European Union, marked by hypocrisy and outright greenwashing. In the last two weeks, the Commission has given the green light for authorizing in an accelerated manner the fossil gas infrastructure projects that they have included in the proposed Taxonomy (which aims to define what is “sustainable”) along with nuclear power, and, during these days, the officials are working to weaken the proposed legislation that would ban the import of products resulting from deforestation. The European “Green New Deal” is really being downsized (while waiting for the new German government?).

In other unexpected news, Italy has joined the BOGA (Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance) coalition. This is a small group of countries whose aim is to eliminate both oil and gas. However, we have joined without definite commitments, with the minimum degree of involvement, as “friends.”

Since we are “friends” of those who want to eliminate oil and gas, let’s see if the government will be able to restart renewables (and not oil drilling), as it has promised, unlocking the authorization processes as it’s been claiming it’s going to do these days. It would be about time.

Giuseppe Onufrio is the director of Greenpeace Italy.

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