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Last November, the international community concluded its 26th United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland. Reviews were mixed. Among its successes, COP26 concluded the Paris “rulebook,” adopted a consensus decision on next steps, and produced a series of multilateral commitments on limiting methane emissions and deforestation, strengthening climate finance, and more. A surprise joint declaration between the United States and China offered hope that the world’s two largest economies and carbon emitters can still work together.
At the same time, despite substantial progress since adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015, the world remains off track to limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Key countries have not yet aligned their “nationally determined contributions” with the Paris Agreement’s temperature goal. How should the world view COP26? Is progress being made, or are countries avoiding the tough choices? How essential is the United States? And where do international climate negotiations go from here?
On February 1, EPIC hosted Sue Biniaz, Deputy to Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, who played a critical role in both the forming of the Paris Agreement and in the latest talks. Biniaz talked with EPIC journalism fellow and The New York Times climate reporter Lisa Friedman, who was in Glasgow covering the conference. They discussed the successes, setbacks and steps forward.
Biniaz started by outlining several objectives heading into the talks: to get the world closer to keeping the 1.5-degree limit on warming alive and accelerate climate action during the 2020s, as well as to finish the Paris Climate Agreement “rulebook”—the set of rules that operationalize the agreement.
“All three of those objectives were pretty challenging, but all three of them were accomplished,” Biniaz said.
One point of contention during COP26 was whether countries would agree to phase out fossil fuels.
“At the end of Glasgow, it became evident that China and India had a problem with this particular provision,” Biniaz said, leading to the change from “phase out” to “phase down.”
This change also spurred some unhappiness with other countries who had not been in full agreement with all of the language of the agreement, but who were willing to go with it for the “greater good.” Now, when two countries had the “privilege” to get their changes made, some groundwork had to happen to keep everyone on board—and the UK leaders, who were hosting the conference and responsible for its progress, were able to accomplish that, Biniaz said.
One take-away from COP26 that made Biniaz optimistic was the methane agreement—reducing methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030 below 2020 levels.
“I don’t think we would have believed it in September, if someone had said you’re going to leave COP with 110 countries signed up,” Biniaz said, noting that if fully implemented this could result in around .2 degrees in avoided warming, “which might sound tiny and insignificant if you don’t follow this issue, but if you do, you know that that’s like a really big, big deal.”
Looking forward, Biniaz noted that China had shifted to a more “incremental” approach to reducing emissions. Moving forward, the two countries would work together towards further progress. As part of this, China had agreed to develop a national action plan on methane in 2022, to accelerate their phase down of coal consumption, and to work together with the United States to enforce anti-deforestation laws in their respective countries.
“In the meantime, China is already working on the things that we agreed to,” Biniaz said. “I call it a kind of force multiplier these commitments that we agreed to bilaterally because they have a tendency to get the work going domestically in China by virtue of just existing.”
In terms of progress in the United States, U.S. leaders went into the conference after having re-entered the Paris Agreement but still unable to pass comprehensive climate legislation in Congress. Friedman asked what the international community’s reaction to this has been.
“The international community is still very positive about the United States,” Biniaz said.
While Biniaz noted there are many ways to meet the goal of reducing emissions by 50 percent by 2030, so everything does not need to be placed on the Build Back Better Act, the more progress the United States can make at home, the better positioned the country is to negotiating abroad.
“Obviously, the more we can show that we are on track to get to 50 percent by 2030, the stronger position we’re in internationally to get others to do more,” Biniaz said.
As the COP goes on with time, Biniaz wonders if it as an institution will shift focus away from negotiating what countries will do and more on implementation of the promises.
“I would say the most important aspect of the [original framework convention] treaty was setting up this annual COP, which although some may say it hasn’t achieved enough, it certainly has gotten countries and state actors to do probably much more than they would have done in the absence of an annual COP,” Biniaz said. “So I don’t think COPs are going to go away anytime soon…but it will need to be reconceptualized.”