Better Than Nothing? Glasgow Climate Pact Leaves Much to be Desired

At the beginning of November, climate activists and world leaders started converging in Glasgow, Scotland in preparation for COP26, the United Nations’ 26th climate summit. Billed as the “last, best hope” to save the planet from climate catastrophe, the summit ended with an agreement that climate activists and leaders of nations hard-hit by climate change are calling disappointing at best.

The U.N. had set three criteria for success: pledges to cut carbon dioxide emissions in half by 2030, $100 billion in financial aid from rich nations to poor, and ensuring that half of that money went to helping the developing world adapt to the worst effects of climate change. None of these were met. Though the agreement does not put the world on track to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), world leaders are still framing it as progress.

The Glasgow Climate Pact paid lip service to environmental justice and meeting the needs of Indigenous people but, due to vaccine inequality and the complexities of international travel during the ongoing pandemic, the conference was one of the whitest and most privileged in recent years. This exclusion of activists and leaders from the global south has led to an agreement that fails to hear the concerns of those most affected by climate change and fails to bring us closer to climate justice.

The agreement, which can be found with a quick internet search, is an aspirational document filled with words like “urge”, “request”, “acknowledge”, and “emphasize”, but is devoid of substantive actions. For example, it “Invites Parties to consider further actions to reduce by 2030 non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions, including methane” and “Calls upon developed country Parties, multilateral development banks and other financial institutions to accelerate the alignment of their financing activities with the goals of the Paris Agreement”, rather than setting clear goals for methane reduction or demanding that financial institutions stop investing in the industries that are driving climate change.

​​Although both the Glasgow Climate Pact and the most recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) finally acknowledged that climate change is caused by human activities, those specific activities, i.e. burning fossil fuels, are rarely mentioned. The ratification of the final version of the agreement hinged on coal, specifically the draft provision to “phase out” the use of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. Representatives from India successfully argued that developing nations are entitled to the responsible use of fossil fuels and put the blame for our current climate predicament on developed nations and their wasteful consumption patterns (which is not untrue). As a result, “phase out” was changed to “phase down,” a turn of phrase that many of us see as weak and watered down. One positive result of the pact is a commitment by signatory countries to convene in 2022 with concrete plans for how they will strengthen their emissions reductions plans by 2030, though again this commitment is vague and doesn’t meet the goal of cutting emissions by half by 2030.

It’s hard to see how this pact will effect real change when signatory countries, like the U.S., continue to subsidize the fossil fuel industry. The day after the Glasgow Climate Pact was signed, President Biden signed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill which, according to an analysis by the Center for International Environmental Law, contains at least $25 billion in new subsidies for fossil fuel companies. This is on top of the existing government subsidies that the industry receives. These new subsidies are for the development, by the very companies who are putting carbon into the atmosphere, of “carbon capture” technologies and decarbonized hydrogen fuel. Technologies which are used as a way for companies to mask their continued release of carbon and to carry on with business as usual. The Glasgow Pact also established rules for carbon markets, the mechanism by which companies and countries can offset their continued release of fossil fuels by purchasing credits in the form of investment in carbon sinks, like forested land, another market-based mechanism that allows industry to keep polluting while moving toward “net zero” emissions.

Until the U.S. invests in clean energy technologies and stops subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, we have no hope of reducing our emissions to the degree necessary to halt the progression of climate change. Dealing with the climate crisis will necessitate change, which can be difficult. But after decades of government subsidies and unabated growth, it’s time for Chevron, BP, Exxon Mobil and their ilk to retire so we can move into a cleaner future and start to clean up the mess they caused.