Taking Stock of the World Leaders Summit at COP26

The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) brings together governments, businesses and civil society over two weeks to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. However, the first two days of the Summit, known as the World Leaders Summit, were of particular importance – bringing the full powers of global Heads of State to the table and setting the tone for the rest of the negotiations.

With the G20 Summit, which was held just days before COP26, failing to secure the momentum and consensus that many, including the UK Prime Minister, wanted to see on climate change, expectations going into COP26 were tempered. Nonetheless, the first two days of the COP26 Summit saw a series of national commitments and multilateral pledges that have left Prime Minister Johnson feeling “cautiously optimistic” about what can be achieved over the rest of the COP26 conference, even as it is recognised that nations still “have to do more”.

Here are the key outcomes from the World Leaders’ Summit:

1. Over 100 nations committed to end and reverse deforestation by 2030.

In the first major agreement of COP26, over 100 nations signed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use, committing to end and reverse deforestation by 2030. It is accompanied by a commitment by 12 nations to $12bn in overseas development financing for forest protection. Despite the absence of their Heads of State from the Summit, both Russia and China have signed the pledge, as have nations with high levels of deforestation, including Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

While the move has been broadly welcomed, experts have warned that a similar pledge signed in 2014 – the New York Declaration on Forests – which pledged to halve deforestation by 2020 had little impact on deforestation. The notable difference between the two commitments is that the 2014 pledge did not include a number of key players including Brazil, China and Russia, although questions around enforceability and accountability remain. This is particularly the case given deforestation of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, one of the agreement’s signatories, rose to its highest levels in twelve years in 2020, raising skepticism over how committed signatories are to the pledges made, and how feasible achieving them will be.


2. The Global Methane Pledge gained over 100 signatures

First proposed by the United States and the European Union in September 2021, the Global Methane Pledge aims to limit methane emissions by 30% by 2030 compared to 2020 levels. Methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas and is thought to be responsible for 30% of global warming since the Industrial Revolution. It is hoped that achieving this target will therefore help to eliminate 0.2C of near-term warming. The pledge has now been signed by over 100 nations, which comprise nearly 70% of global GDP, covering nearly half of all methane emissions. While the commitment has been described as “game-changing” by President Biden, the absence of China, India and Russia – some of the world’s largest methane emitters – from the pledge will no doubt dampen its impact.


3. India will transition to net-zero by 2070

Speaking at the Summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged that India would reach net-zero by 2070, one of five commitments made in his speech. He also committed to ensuring 50% of India’s energy comes from renewable resources by 2030 and to reducing India’s total projected carbon emissions by one billion tonnes by 2030. This is the first time India has made any pledge towards net-zero emissions and will require a significant shift from the world’s largest carbon emitter, which still gets 50% of its electricity from coal. Nonetheless, the target is set for two decades later than the Summit’s 2050 target and is the slowest target of all major economies. As such, international reception to the announcement from Prime Minister Modi varied between relief and outrage.


4. Over 40 nations backed the ‘Breakthrough Agenda’

The ‘Breakthrough Agenda’, which is modelled on the UK’s Net Zero strategy, commits nations to five goals for 2030 that aim to accelerate the adoption of affordable clean technologies. The goals include ensuring that by 2030 clean power is the most affordable and reliable option for nations to meet their energy needs and that net-zero emission vehicles are the new normal. By reassuring investors that global markets will be created for green technology, it is hoped that the agenda will help generate trillions of dollars in private finance for cutting emissions. It has been signed by 40 nations including the United States, India, the EU and China.


5. The United States rejoined the ‘High Ambition Coalition’

The High Ambition Coalition, a group of developed and developing nations that helped ensure that limiting global warming to 1.5C was a key pillar of the Paris Climate Agreement, has called on governments to do more to ensure policies are consistent with the 1.5C limit. The Coalition emphasises the need to halt investment in new unabated coal-fired power plants, end inefficiency in fossil fuel subsidies as soon as possible, and to halve global emissions by 2030. The decision by the United States to rejoin the grouping comes as China’s Special Climate Envoy Xie Zhenhua called for talks to remain focused on the 2C target, arguing that focusing on 1.5C threatens to destroy consensus. There are therefore still significant gaps in levels of ambition between nations on climate change, although the United States’ decision to rejoin the group is a positive sign for its willingness to push for high levels of ambition at COP26.


6. The United States and European nations committed to supporting South Africa’s transition from coal

In a partnership worth $8.5 billion, the UK, United States, France, Germany and the European Union committed to the ‘International Just Transition Partnership’ to help South Africa phase out coal usage through grants, concessional loans and risk-sharing instruments. South Africa is heavily reliant on its state power company, Eksom and as a result, is the 12th largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world. It is hoped the partnership will prevent up to 1.5 gigatonnes of emissions over the next 20 years. The move was welcomed by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa who called it a “watershed moment” and if successful, it may prove a useful model for future support for the climate transition in developing nations.


7. Climate Finance continues to trickles through

In the first two days of the summit, developing nations continued to push for developed nations to fulfill their collective commitment to spend $100 billion a year on climate finance, with Malawi’s President Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera declaring that “neither Africa in general, nor Malawi in particular, will take ‘no’ for an answer”.

Ahead of Finance Day on the 3rd November, Japan pledged an additional $10 billion in climate finance over the next five years, on top of $60 billion it pledged at the G7 in June. Australia has committed a further $500 million and the UK committed to spending a further $1.36 billion. More climate finance commitments can be expected over the coming days, although it remains unlikely that the $100 billion target will be met.


Even as this series of pledges was made, a number of important voices were absent. President Xi did not attend the World Leaders Summit in person, instead submitting a written statement was uploaded to the Summit website. China used the statement to call on developed nations to “provide support to help developing countries do better” but failed to offer any new commitments themselves. President Putin of Russia, President Bolsonaro of Brazil and President Erdogan of Turkey are among a series of other notable absentees at the summit. President Biden condemned China and Russia for their absence, accusing them of walking away from discussions. China, which last month pledged $230 million to protect biodiversity in developing countries, has since hit back, arguing that “actions speak louder than words” and while this is undoubtedly true, the absence of some of the world’s largest emitters from the summit is no doubt being felt.

Evie Aspinall

Evie is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group