|Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (second from right) made one of the most crucial pledges at COP26|
Keeping COP26 pandemic-free has been a major undertaking. Attendees have been asked to wear masks and take coronavirus tests, and while the venue is huge – at approximately 1km from one end to the other – the vast number of people on site has made social distancing complex.
Among attendees addressing concerns about COP26 organisation, Alexandria Villasenor, founder of youth-led climate education group Earth Uprising International, listed the logistical problems plaguing the event on Twitter.
"There's one entrance for 20,000 attendees, a single file line for everyone to get in and get through security," she said. "Eventually they stopped allowing people in altogether. The organisers have accredited more people than they'll allow into the venue and if you can't get in for your event or meeting after coming all this way, that's too bad – you just have to dial in from your hotel room."
But despite the complex conditions and restrictions, leaders were able to thrash out and announce new agreements before leaving negotiating teams to do the rest.
In a key development, hundreds of the world's biggest banks and pension funds with assets worth $130 trillion have committed to goals in limiting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The pledge, by more than 450 financial institutions in 45 countries, is intended to be one of the top achievements by the UK hosts of the summit, and comes as some of the other aims of the event are looking hard to reach.
Finance is vital to the massive economic transformation required to move away from fossil fuels and reach net zero. But experts and campaigners displayed doubt, pointing out that the banks making the pledge are still free to fund fossil fuels, and need only place a small portion of their funding towards low-carbon ends over the next decade.
Revealed at the start of the summit, the first deal of substance to be agreed at COP26 aims to reverse deforestation over the next 10 years as part of a multibillion-dollar package to tackle GHG emissions.
The declaration commits to protecting vast areas, ranging from Siberia to the Congo, home to the world's second-largest rainforest. Land-clearing by humans accounts for almost a quarter of all GHG emissions, largely coming from destruction of the world's forests for agricultural products such as palm oil, soy, and beef.
The package includes nearly $7.24 billion of new private finance and $11.95 billion of public funding for restoring degraded land, supporting indigenous communities, and preventing wildfire damage.
While the agreement has been cautiously welcomed by ecologists and other experts, they point to previous deals to save forests that have so far failed to stop their destruction. But this time the EU, China, and the US alongside major forested countries like Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Papua New Guinea will all sign the commitment.
Many details need to be clarified, according to Carlos Rittl, who works in Brazil for the Rainforest Foundation Norway. "Big cheques won't save the forests if the money doesn't go into the right hands," he said, emphasising that it should go to indigenous groups and others who are committed to protecting the forest. It was confirmed at the event that at least $1.7 billion of funding will be given directly to indigenous peoples and local communities.
Elsewhere on the first day, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally announced a net zero emissions target, pledging India will become carbon neutral by 2070. While a major advancement in India's policy, the target is a decade later than China's and two decades after the world as a whole needs to achieve net zero emissions in order to avoid temperatures from rising beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius.
This was, however, a step in the right direction according to Ulka Kelkar, climate programme director at environmental research organisation WRI India. "It was much more than we were hoping for," said Kelkar. "Net-zero became a topic of public discourse only six months ago. And just having this concept understood in India is going to give a strong signal to all sectors."
In his opening remarks at the conference, US President Joe Biden said that there was an opportunity to build an "equitable, clean energy future that could create millions of good paying jobs" around the world. Biden added that creating an environment that raised living standards was a "moral and economic imperative."
Last week before leaving the conference, Biden unveiled a multinational plan to control methane, regarded as the single most impressive method to combat the climate crisis in the short term.
Leading a group of 90 countries, including for the first time Brazil, Biden set out new regulatory measures to limit global methane emissions by 30 per cent from 2020 levels by the end of the decade. The alliance includes two-thirds of the global economy and half of the top 30 major methane emitter countries.
China, India, and Russia have not joined the pact, known as the Global Methane Pledge. The oil and gas industry is deemed to be responsible for nearly one-third of methane emissions in the US.
Elsewhere, a plan to coordinate the global introduction of clean technologies in order to rapidly drive down their cost was agreed at COP26 by world leaders representing two-thirds of the world's economy.
More than 40 nations said they would use similar standards and mobilise funding to speed up production and bring forward the tipping point at which green technologies are more affordable and accessible than fossil-fuelled alternatives. Among the markets signed up to the Breakthrough Agenda are the UK, US, China, India, the EU, and Australia.
The first five breakthroughs will be clean electricity, electric vehicles, green steel, hydrogen, and sustainable farming, with the aim to make these affordable and available to all nations by 2030 and create 20 million new jobs.
"By making clean technology the most affordable, accessible, and attractive choice, the default go-to in what are currently the most polluting sectors, we can cut emissions right around the world," said UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
New plans include a global electricity initiative launched by the UK and India and endorsed by 80 nations. The Green Grids Initiative aims to speed up political will and finance to create international supergrids around the world and link up warm deserts and breezy coasts with population hubs. By connecting many locations, supergrids could be key to providing reliable electricity from renewable energy.
Another new initiative is the Global Energy Alliance for People & Planet, which is focused on producing clean electricity across the global south. It has an initial $10 billion from the World Bank, Rockefeller Foundation, Bezos Earth Fund, and others, while British and Scandinavian pension funds also announced $130 billion of clean energy funding by 2030.
The authors of a report published to support the Breakthrough Agenda concluded, "International collaboration can create faster innovations, larger economies of scale, and stronger incentives for investment to accelerate progress towards tipping points where clean solutions become the most affordable, accessible, and attractive options worldwide."
In Africa, The Guardian reported that countries are preparing to spend at least $6 billion a year from tax revenues on adapting to the effects of the climate crisis. They are calling on the rich world to provide $2.5 billion a year for the next five years to enable them to meet their goals.
Meanwhile, the UK, EU, and the US also signed off on a new $8.5 billion Just Energy Transition Partnership with South Africa to help reduce the country's reliance on coal.
By Quang Bao
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