One More Step Forward Along the Long Journey: On the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow
The 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Glasgow, the United Kingdom from October 31 to November 13, 2021, captured attention worldwide. The event, attended by 39,000 participants and over 100 world leaders in person from all over the world, was closely followed by the international community. After nearly three weeks of negotiations, COP26 finally concluded after a one-day extension. What positive outcomes did the conference produce? What was left unfulfilled? And how did China contribute to its success? It is important for us to take a moment and have a thorough and systematic review.
I. Positive outcomes of COP26
In recent years, humanity has witnessed increasing adverse impacts of climate change, rising importance of climate governance on the global agenda and a surge of attention to the issue. In the meantime, the international community has made deep reflections on lessons drawn from COVID-19. Bolstering climate action and pursuing green recovery has gradually become a consensus for the international community. That said, however, global climate governance faces complex and serious challenges.
First, there is still a significant gap between the aggregate actions taken by all parties and the Paris Agreement target of capping global temperature rise. Multilateral climate governance endeavor is yet to recover from the severe setback caused by the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement under the Trump administration. How to bridge the gap, intensify climate action and accelerate the low carbon transition has become a major issue of our times. Second, in the course of implementing the Paris Agreement, market mechanisms and quite a few other unresolved issues stand in the way of its full and effective implementation. Third, developed countries fell far short of delivering their support to developing countries in finance, technology and capacity-building. This has become a pressing issue that must be addressed to maintain mutual trust in climate negotiation and keep all sides motivated in climate response.
COP26 was the first Conference of the Parties convened after the Paris Agreement entered the implementation phase and the US rejoined the Paris Agreement, hence drawing much attention from all sides. The international community wanted to see that COP26 could finalize negotiations on the remaining elements of the implementation guidelines of the Paris Agreement, so as to send a strong signal of upholding multilateralism; that developed countries could address the concerns of developing countries and deliver on their commitment of supporting developing countries; and that countries could focus on practical actions to promote the full and effective implementation of the Paris Agreement and boost the green global recovery.
2. COP26 outcomes
Thanks to the joint efforts of all parties, COP26 finally produced a package of balanced and inclusive political outcomes, with the Glasgow Climate Pact at the core. United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pointed out that the Glasgow Climate Pact reflects the interests, the contradictions and the state of political will in the world today, and also firms up the global agreement to accelerate action on climate this decade.
The Glasgow Climate Pact consists of a preamble and eight sections: science and urgency; adaptation; adaptation finance; mitigation; finance, technology transfer and capacity-building for mitigation and adaptation; loss and damage; implementation; and collaboration.
Major points in the Glasgow Climate Pact can be highlighted as follows: the Glasgow Climate Pact stresses the urgency of the climate crisis and the importance of a just transition. It reaffirms the goal of holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2℃ and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5℃. The pact also recognizes that limiting global warming to 1.5℃ requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, including reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net zero around mid-century.
On mitigation, parties are called upon to scale up climate ambition in the coming decade and requested to revisit and strengthen the 2030 targets in their nationally determined contributions as necessary to align with the Paris Agreement temperature goal by the end of 2022. The pact calls upon parties to transition towards low-emission energy systems, phase down unabated coal power and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. The pact invites parties to consider further actions to reduce by 2030 non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions, including methane.
On finance, discussions on long-term climate finance will be continued up to 2027. The pact requires that deliberations on a new post-2025 quantified climate finance goal be concluded by 2024. Developed countries are urged to fully deliver on the USD 100 billion goal urgently and through to 2025, and to at least double their collective provision of climate finance for adaptation to developing country parties from 2019 levels by 2025. The pact also makes a series of arrangements, such as on the Financial Mechanism, to enhance financial transparency and predictability to a certain extent.
On adaptation, the pact decides to launch the comprehensive two-year Glasgow-Sharm el-Sheikh work program on the global goal on adaptation and bolster mitigation actions and support.
On loss and damage, the pact decides that the Santiago network will be provided as soon as possible to support technical assistance for averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage in developing countries and agreement is made on its functions. The pact decides to establish the Glasgow Dialogue on the funding of activities to avert, minimize and address loss and damage.
In addition, COP26 concluded negotiations on the remaining details of the implementation guidelines of the Paris Agreement and formed packaged solutions to issues under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, including market mechanisms, transparency, and common time frames for nationally determined contributions. COP26 adopted more than 50 decisions on such topics as adaptation, finance, technology, capacity-building and loss and damage, laying the foundation for the full and effective implementation of the Paris Agreement.
3. The World Leaders Summit
The World Leaders Summit was held on November 1-2 by the United Kingdom, COP26 Presidency, to provide political impetus for the success of COP26. More than 100 heads of state and government and leaders attended and addressed the summit, including Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson, President of the United States Joe Biden, President of France Emmanuel Macron, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Council Charles Michel and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. President Xi Jinping delivered a written statement at the summit. The leaders elaborated on how to enhance climate ambition, carry out practical actions and pursue green recovery and announced their respective domestic measures.
The Glasgow Breakthrough Agenda, an outcome document of the summit, covers key areas of green and low-carbon development such as power, road transport, steel and hydrogen, and calls for accelerated actions of all parties in this decade. Efforts should be made in joint research and development as well as the application of technologies, such as clean power, zero emission vehicles, near-zero emission steel and hydrogen, to boost the global transition to a clean economy, sustainable development and the realization of the Paris Agreement goals. The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use was concluded at the summit and signed by 141 countries which account for 90% of global forest coverage. Countries concerned made the commitment to halting and reversing forest loss and land degradation by 2030.
II. China’s contribution to COP26
China has all along made consistent efforts to contribute to climate governance. It attached great importance to COP26 and worked hard for the positive outcomes of the conference. What China has done via head-of-state diplomacy, bilateral cooperation, multilateral negotiation and domestic actions has added a unique dimension to COP26.
1. High-level guidance—President Xi Jinping delivered a written statement to the summit
China keeps global climate governance high on its agenda. Since 2020, President Xi Jinping has attended a series of summits on climate, including the Climate Ambition Summit and the Leaders Summit on Climate. At two sessions of the United Nations General Assembly, President Xi Jinping made major declarations on China’s climate policies and measures, lending constant political impetus to global climate governance.
On November 1, President Xi Jinping delivered a written statement to the World Leaders Summit of COP26. In the statement, President Xi Jinping once again put forward China’s proposals on addressing major challenges of our times: how to respond to climate change and revive the world economy. He made three important propositions on upholding multilateral consensus, focusing on concrete actions, and accelerating the green transition. He pointed out that guided by the vision of a community of life for man and Nature, China will continue to prioritize ecological conservation and pursue a green and low-carbon path to development. The “1+N” policy framework sets forth a clearly-defined timetable, roadmap and blueprint for China to deliver carbon peak and carbon neutrality. By citing an ancient Chinese saying, “successful governance relies on solid action”, President Xi Jinping stressed in conclusion that China hopes all parties will take stronger actions to jointly tackle the climate challenge and protect the planet, the shared home for us all.
President Xi Jinping’s statement fully showed that China has acted as a responsible major country by proactively addressing climate change and spearheading the efforts in global climate governance. It gained high acclaim from the international community. Many leaders echoed President Xi Jinping’s important propositions in their respective speeches. The international media gave extensive and positive coverage of the statement. The Guardian, a UK newspaper, pointed out in particular that President Xi Jinping in his statement spoke up for developing countries and called for more support from developed countries to help developing countries better tackle climate crisis. The international community paid great attention to the propositions made by the Chinese leader on climate and spoke highly of China’s sincerity and sense of responsibility as a major country. The world hopes to see China play an even bigger role in global climate governance.
2. Working together—China and the United States reached another joint declaration on climate
Both China and the US are major players in global climate governance. The importance for the two countries working together in global climate action is self-evident. After a China-US joint statement addressing the climate crisis released on April 17, another joint declaration was released in Glasgow on November 11, injecting positive energy into climate governance and shedding light through the dark clouds hanging over COP26 when little progress was made at the conference. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres commended the joint declaration as “an important step in the right direction”.
The declaration focuses on practical actions. On the basis of the joint statement in April, consensus was reached in four important aspects. First, China and the US are committed to taking enhanced climate actions with the aim of keeping the temperature limit under the Paris Agreement within reach in the coming decade. Second, the two countries demonstrated their willingness to work together with other parties for the success of COP26. They reached consensus on key issues, including temperature limit goals, nationally determined contributions, the global goal on adaptation and finance. Third, the two countries are committed to the effective implementation of the joint statement of April. Concrete measures will be taken in such areas as clean energy, coal, power and forests, and methane management and control cooperation will be carried out. Fourth, the two sides decided to establish a “Working Group on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s”, in a bid to put in place a mechanism to make China-US climate cooperation more specific and practical. By reaching such a substantive joint declaration, both countries have shown great sincerity as well as their leadership and contribution, playing an exemplary role for parties concerned to reach consensus in Glasgow.
As the largest developing country and the largest developed country, China and the United States enjoy a sound foundation for cooperation, but not without differences and disagreements. Progress in China-US climate cooperation despite difficulties and challenges speaks to the sincerity, flexibility and constructive approach of both countries. It also proves once again that cooperation is the only right option for China and the US on tackling global challenges. China and the United States need to follow the right way to get along, namely, mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation, and shoulder responsibilities as a major country. This will enable the two countries to bring the world together in tackling climate change and other challenges, and deliver benefits to both countries and beyond.
3. Close communication—Positive outcomes were achieved at COP26
From group consultations before the conference to the convening of the summit and to negotiations on specific topics, COP26 events lasted for nearly three weeks with packed daily programs. During the conference, the Chinese delegation worked for the most broad-based consensus through close consultations with representatives from the UN, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat, the UK as the presidency, and other countries.
Towards the end of the conference, it was dragged into “overtime” due to major disagreements on issues of market mechanisms and phase-down of coal. Delegates from different countries were heatedly arguing for their own concerns. For a moment, things appeared to slide towards chaos. At such a crucial juncture, the Chinese delegation again played a constructive role. Acting on principles and with flexibility, it worked to coordinate the positions of the United States, European countries, the BASIC Countries, Like-Minded Developing Countries (LMDCs) and other developing countries, and pushed for the adoption of expressions consistent with the Paris Agreement and acceptable to all parties on relevant issues. This paved the way for the smooth conclusion of the conference. The Chinese delegation has once again contributed Chinese wisdom in fostering consensus on multilateral cooperation and upheld the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and the common interests of developing countries. China lived up to its responsibility as a major country.
4. Actions count—New climate measures were introduced at the conference
China has always taken real and concrete actions against climate change. Following the completion of climate action targets for 2020 ahead of schedule and the announcement of the goals of carbon peak and carbon neutrality, China has taken solid steps forward by rolling out new policy measures. In the run-up to COP26, China released several policy documents, including the Working Guidance for Carbon Dioxide Peaking and Carbon Neutrality in Full and Faithful Implementation of the New Development Philosophy (Working Guidance), the Action Plan for Carbon Dioxide Peaking Before 2030 (Action Plan), and the white paper titled Responding to Climate Change: China’s Policies and Actions. China submitted to the UNFCCC Secretariat documents titled “China’s Achievements, New Goals and New Measures for Nationally Determined Contributions” and “China’s Mid-Century Long-Term Low Greenhouse Gas Emission Development Strategy”. The Working Guidance, the overarching document in the “1+N” framework for carbon peak and carbon neutrality, together with the Action Plan, forms the top-level design for the two stages of carbon peak and carbon neutrality. China’s vision for carbon peak and carbon neutrality is being turned into a reality.
The roll-out of new policies and measures reflects the constant progress made by China in tackling climate change, and once again demonstrates China’s role as a responsible major country that honors its words with concrete actions. As an important party to climate governance and a major developing country, China sent out intensive political messages of taking strong actions for targeted implementation prior to the conference. This has undoubtedly contributed to creating an enabling atmosphere and favorable conditions for the convocation and success of COP26.
III. Where is the “post-Glasgow era” heading?
Against the backdrop of raging COVID-19, a fragile global economic recovery, and the Paris Agreement being implemented, a package of outcomes were secured at COP26 despite a multitude of difficulties and challenges. Going forward, it will bring a positive impact on global climate governance and green, low-carbon, and sustainable development. First, it has consolidated multilateralism. Outcomes of the conference have reaffirmed important principles of the Paris Agreement, including common but differentiated responsibilities, and upheld the temperature goal and the bottom-up arrangement of the Paris Agreement. Second, it has improved international law and rules. The conference completed the negotiations on unresolved issues such as the carbon market mechanism in the implementation guidelines of the Paris Agreement and addressed inadequacies in the rules of the Paris Agreement while preparing the ground for full and effective implementation of the agreement. Third, it has raised ambition. By the end of the conference, 150-plus countries had updated their nationally determined contributions and announced new climate policies and measures. By so doing, they have further demonstrated their will to jointly intensify climate actions to the best of their ability and cemented international consensus on advancing low-carbon transition and green recovery, injecting new political impetus to the global climate governance process.
Admittedly, the conference did leave some aspirations unfulfilled.
First, core concerns of developing countries over finance remain unresolved. Finance is a persistently thorny issue in climate governance that bears on the political mutual trust between developed and developing countries. Developed countries have not only failed to honor their commitments for climate financing by 2020, but also attempted to dilute their obligation to mobilize public climate finance through private sector financing. Outcomes of COP26 are mainly procedural and principled. In such a context, it is an arduous task to truly make up for the shortfall in financing by developed countries and is therefore hard to ensure predictable and accessible climate finance.
Second, aspirations of developing countries for strengthening adaptation have not been fully responded to. Despite calls for specifying the global goal on adaptation, the conference only decided on launching a work program, while substantive issues will be handled in subsequent processes. There is still a long way to go to truly change the pattern of focusing more on emissions reduction than adaptation, and to provide real support to adaptation.
Third, developed countries failed to play an exemplary role in closing the gap in the intensity of climate action. There is a wide gap between the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement and the aggregate actions of countries concerned. This has become a core issue that the international community must face up to in coming years. Parties concerned have kept building consensus on striving to attain the goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5℃, realizing global carbon neutrality by or around mid-century, intensifying actions in the coming decade, restricting use of fossil fuels, and promoting green recovery. However, the path of transitioning from a “high-carbon reality” to a “low-carbon future” is elusive, and the issue of insufficient funds and technologies for climate ambition remains unresolved. The international community still needs to make tireless efforts to truly reinforce global climate governance while advancing socio-economic development.
It is an urgent, long-term and complex battle to address climate change. The international community needs to keep fostering consensus, taking concrete actions and forging ahead in the right direction. First, it is important to stay committed to multilateralism. The UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement, which are the basic legal framework for cooperation against climate change, must be firmly upheld and fully observed. Second, it is important to focus on effective actions. Following the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, all countries need to maximize actions in light of their respective national circumstances and capabilities. Efforts must be made towards the full and effective implementation of the Paris Agreement, and to bring global climate cooperation to new heights. Developed countries should honor and deliver on their commitments to supporting developing countries. Third, it is important to come up with new ideas for development. Green development has set out arduous tasks for economic, social and energy transformations. The international community will find it hard to accomplish these tasks overnight or by following old methods. Consistent efforts must be made to identify new opportunities and drivers in green development, robustly advance scientific and technological innovations, and champion a green and low-carbon approach to living and production, so that humanity will have clear waters and green mountains while enjoying prosperity.
The global climate governance process has been going on for nearly three decades since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro, 1992. From submitting a full draft of the UNFCCC, to promoting the conclusion of the Paris Agreement as scheduled, then to setting forth the goals of carbon peak and carbon neutrality and the “1+N” policy framework, China has all along participated in and spearheaded the global climate governance process in an active and constructive manner, and contributed the Chinese wisdom and positive energy to international endeavor in tackling climate change. China has never stopped in its efforts in this regard. In his virtual meeting with US President Biden not long after the conclusion of COP26, President Xi Jinping stressed that climate change can well become a new highlight of cooperation between China and the United States. At the Special Summit to Commemorate the 30th Anniversary of China-ASEAN Dialogue Relations, President Xi Jinping stated that China is ready to open a dialogue with ASEAN on climate response and increase policy communication and experience sharing, to build a beautiful home together. At the opening ceremony of the Eighth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, President Xi Jinping emphasized that in the face of climate change, which is a major challenge to all humanity, we need to advocate green and low-carbon development, work for effective implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change and keep strengthening our capacity for sustainable development. The Declaration on China-Africa Cooperation on Combating Climate Change was adopted after the conference. With the statements made by President Xi Jinping on multiple occasions, the joint declarations and statements between China and the United States, and those between China and the European Union, as well as South-South cooperation projects on climate change spanning Asia, Africa and Latin America, China’s sincerity in and contributions to international climate cooperation are widely recognized.
Moving forward, China will play a more salient role in climate governance and engage in climate diplomacy at a broader stage. Next year, the 27th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP27) to the UNFCCC will take place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and the process towards Sharm el-Sheikh has already started. Facing unseen difficulties in global climate and environmental governance, China will continue to follow Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy and Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization, and champion the vision for a community of life for man and Nature. China is ready to work with the rest of the international community to explore ways to counter climate change, jointly build a fair and rational global climate governance system for win-win results, and usher in a brighter future where man and Nature can both prosper and live in harmony!
Sun Jin is Special Representative for Climate Change Affairs and Deputy Director-General of the Department of Treaty and Law of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.