Although the recent COP26 conference in Glasgow made progress on climate ambition, there is still a lot of work left to limit global warming to 1.5°C and prevent runaway climate change, according to Green MEP Bas Eickhout.
Bas Eickhout is Vice-Chair of the Greens/European Free Alliance and was part of a delegation of MEPs who went to COP26 to help drive ambition. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Kira Taylor in the days after the conference.
The COP26 climate conference in Glasgow finished on Saturday after two weeks of meetings, negotiations and pledges – was it a success?
I think, in the end, no. I do not agree with people who are saying that it was only blah, blah or that it was a failure – that is too strong. The point is we want to keep the 1.5°C alive and, for that, the big step still needs to be taken and that is more action this decade.
It’s good that this has been recognised, but still, the action needs to come and that will be next year. If we have eight years, then one year is a lot. You can say what is a year in the world of climate policy? But we have lost so much time already each year counts.
In that sense, we are still dependent on what’s going to happen at COP27 next year in Egypt. On the basis of that, I would say no, it’s not a success. But of course, advances have been made so it’s half full, half empty, but I only call something a success when the glass is full.
We saw the final conclusions of COP26 being watered down over the last few days of the conference. How effective are they now and how much did we lose?
To be very honest, there was already no date on the phase out of coal. So if you phase out coal without a date, what exactly does that mean? It has been watered down. So politically speaking, that is not good, but I think the message still is that there is an end to coal.
Whether you call it phase down or you call it phase out, this was more the annoyance by some countries – and India was vocal on it but there were more countries behind it. There was annoyance, like: ‘you are putting all the pressure now on us when you still have a lot of coal, but without giving us access to technology, without giving us money’.
So there is a frustration in the developing world, which I can understand very well, and that was most fought over on this formulation. I think what we were seeing was a much broader discontent – you always get some points where it converges.
Just for the future of coal, I think the message is very clear. Coal will end.
You mentioned those tensions around climate finance and technology sharing. Do you think that COP26 went in any way to start mending those divides?
There, unfortunately, a lot of work has to be done and it will be central next year. We had a British Presidency of the COP that put mitigation as their priority. So we had a COP presidency putting mitigation at the centre. We had an active United States with one big priority: mitigation. In the end, we managed to get movement and strong language on mitigation because there were so many parties fighting for it.
Next year, adaptation and loss and damage will be the key fight that Egypt will push for, coming also from the African Union. There, we will have a more difficult setting. Next year we will have pressure on updating the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) for action this decade – parties are requested to come with an updated NDC, so there is still a big step to be taken next year.
But we will have a COP presidency that will put finance, adaptation and loss and damage more central. So the agenda of the Egypt COP presidency will be less aligned with that debate than we had this year. There, we need to prepare ourselves for a tougher situation, including the United States that probably will be more inward-focused again given the midterm elections that are upcoming. So in that sense, the settings will be more complicated next year, whereas the big step needs to be taken next year. So that I’m concerned about.
Mitigation was a key item at this COP. There were a lot of pledges on methane and coal and forestry. And I’ve seen different analyses on how effective those will be. What is your opinion on those?
At COP meetings you either have the COP conclusions which are done by consensus or you have statements by a leading group, a coalition of the ambitious countries. If that coalition has more than a hundred signatories, you can already wonder how strong it is. And I think that’s a good rule of thumb. So if you see any pledge with more than a hundred signatories, you can have some issues there.
I think you have that with all three, which got more than a hundred signatories. First of all, the methane pledge. I think it’s very good to focus on short-lived gases, but the big elephant in the room on methane is of course agriculture. It’s still unclear what this will mean for agriculture policy.
On deforestation, the can is kicked down to 2030 and it’s totally unclear what’s going to happen. We talked to the Brazilian delegation and when I asked, What is your policy going to be? The only answer was ‘we are going to link the Ministry of Environment with the Ministry of Justice because we will tackle illegal deforestation’. But that’s not the biggest problem in Brazil, I can tell you.
The third one on coal, as I said, the end of coal is there – the big question is when? That point was too open. Even Poland subscribes to it, but said already we will do it in the 2040s. That’s too late. The reason why you have so many signatories shows you that there are weaknesses.
For example, the one which was much more difficult to get countries behind was stopping the fossil fuel subsidies abroad, which we had to fight to get first Italy, then the Netherlands, then Germany, then France, then Belgium. More countries were dribbling in, but that was purely because of pressure because this one is saying by the end of 2022, you need to stop it. So that’s much more short term and much more binding and then immediately you see that the coalition is much smaller.
I’ve seen criticism of the EU Commission, that it was the missing leader and not driving enough ambition. Do you agree with that criticism?
Yes, I could see where that comes from. I think we were seeing insufficient steps by Europe on adaptation and finance and loss and damage. That made some annoyance and that gave China the possibility of making loss and damage big. The more you get a rich versus poor battle, the more difficult it is to have a good result.
Indeed, I read some criticism by some quite important people who were saying Europe needs to be much more outspoken about it. I think what was good is that Europe made some pledges, we were driving the doubling of adaptation [finance]. There was money put into loss and damage by some countries and, in the final hours, Germany also took a big step there.
So Europe absolutely did steps on the money, but also in the negotiations, sometimes the formal speaking notes of Europe were very defensive. I think this goes a bit back to a point that I think becomes more crucial: these COPs are becoming more political. What we see is that, in some delegations and also by the Commission, you sometimes see very, very experienced negotiators who have been in this round for more than 20 years almost playing a kind of chess game, like if I give too much now that will not work, I keep the cards against my chest etc.
We are seeing COPs become more political and now we’ve concluded the Rulebook I would say even more so. You can really say all the legal experts were useful for the rules, but we finished that. We now need more political debates and political input.
I think the Commission next year needs to be much more political as well and not have negotiators who always play with their cards close to their chest. I think we are done playing cards with climate – we now need to put them all on the table because urgency is asking for it.
We now have a completed Rulebook. What difference do you think that will make?
In the implementation, there will still be questions emerging. I think, most importantly, we concluded it. It was giving a bit of an excuse – China, for example, said ‘you are now talking about more and new NDCs, whereas it took us six years and the Rulebook is still not concluded. So let’s do the things we need to do first.’
So it became politically an argument to delay things. That’s why we had to say let’s get it off the table. To be very honest, on the carbon markets I’m not sure how many parties will in the end be really interested in it. The United States made it very clear to us that they’re not so much interested. They think they can solve climate change with a big investment package.
It’s hilarious to see the opposite in Europe and America: Europe is good in regulation, usually less good in investments. America is good in investment, they throw money at it, but they’re not good in regulation. The ideal world would be the two: investment and regulation. Europe is catching up on investment, but needs to do much more there, the US is not catching up on regulation.
So the carbon market, they were not interested in it because they will not make use of it. So Europe has achieved taking the biggest environmental integrity attacks off the table. In the implementation, we will see open issues again, of course, but I think politically the most important thing is that it’s closed and that no one can use that as an excuse not to talk about ambition.
The International Energy Agency came out midway through saying current pledges if implemented would limit warming to 1.8°C. But other studies are saying 2.4°C is more realistic. What’s your take?
The big difference between those numbers is what you assume in the coming decades. I think we now have all the pledges for climate neutrality on the table – yes, the level of detail varies a lot, but let’s take it at face value. There are now climate neutrality pledges from all the big players, almost everyone. That’s from 2050 to 2070. Some countries even a bit earlier.
That is an improvement compared to Paris because, in Paris, we had to fight into the last hours about the exact formulation, about the balance of emissions and sequestration. We were not allowed to call it climate neutrality back then – that term was not accepted. We had to say ‘in the second half of this century’ – that now has been quantified.
The calculations are: either you assume a linear trajectory to that climate neutrality or you look at what is promised for the first decade and are you more critical about that? That difference gives you the different numbers.
Unfortunately, we have to be more on the careful side because, for the coming decade, many many countries are still very unclear. For example, China: ‘We promised to peak our emissions this decade’. What does that mean? That can be 2029 – that’s still this decade. That matters a lot. Whether China is going up until 2029 and then going down or it’s going down much faster. That’s what matters.
Finally, what happens now both on the EU level and on the global stage?
For Europe, it’s now very clear that we need to deliver on our Fit for 55 package. Europe at least has a plan for this decade. Unfortunately, the Commission is still saying that is sufficient for 1.5°C – it’s really a bit of an insult to scientists. All the scientists say that for 1.5°C, the Fit for 55 package is not enough.
Even if Europe does all the COP26 pledges on the table, including the long term pledges, the most optimistic calculation is 1.8°C – that is not 1.5°C. Europe needs to look at doing more for the 1.5°C. That’s a fact that cannot be ignored. That’s probably the next debate which we need to have, but first, let’s really make sure our 2030 package will be approved.
On the global stage, I think the big discussion is now going to be loss and damage for next year. This will be the big demand of Egypt. They will put that central on the agenda and what you will expect in Egypt is the debates on increasing NDCs for this decade, combined with the wishes of the least developed countries – the African Union, the Latin American countries, the low lying islands – on adaptation finance and very strongly loss and damage.
Here, Europe needs to be the bridge builder and needs to work on intensifying the work of the High Ambition Coalition. This was an instrumental part of the Paris Agreement that was not so active in Glasgow. That really needs to be intensified towards Egypt in order to make sure that we do not have the rich versus poor opposition, but have the countries that want ambition, both on the mitigation and adaptation finance versus those who are okay with leaning back so to say. The US will be a bit more silent. China will only move if they feel the pressure. So it’s now really working on this High Ambition Coalition of Europe and the least developed countries.
One other point is fossil subsidies. This is homework for Europe. Yes, we are performing on mitigation. Yes, on adaptation we’re making steps – can still be a bit more, but we are making steps. But the third part of the Paris Agreement is aligning the financial flows with the Paris commitments and there Europe really has homework to do.
The taxonomy is going to be the Litmus test for that – is Europe, after Glasgow, when we were finally talking about fossil fuel subsidies and the end of fossil fuel subsidies, are we then going to call investment in fossil green? Here, the big test is whether Europe is going to be consistent with its pledges in Glasgow.