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COP26 Is Over – What’s Next for Forests, Coal, and Fossil Fuel Finance?

12 November 2021, United Kingdom, Glasgow: A poster calling for better climate protection is held aloft during a protest outside the grounds of the UN Climate Change Conference COP26. Photo by: Christoph Soeder/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images ©

The Glasgow climate summit (COP26) produced a new global pact—as well as a bilateral agreement between the United States and China and a host of multilateral declarations—committing governments to take increasingly ambitious steps to address the climate crisis. But, while pointing in the right direction, the commitments fall well short of what is needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees and avert the most catastrophic outcomes of climate change.

States have a human rights obligation to protect people from the foreseeable harms of climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are driving it. To do so, governments need to take urgent, concrete steps not just to fulfill—but to go substantially beyond —the pledges they made in Glasgow.

Among the areas where new commitments were made—and more ambitious actions is urgently needed—are three that have been the focus of research and advocacy by Human Rights Watch: preserving forests, phasing out coal, and ending public financing and subsidies for fossil fuels.

Preserving Forests

Deforestation is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, after the combustion of fossil fuels. Industrial agriculture is the leading driver of tropical deforestation, and most of this environmental destruction is illegal. It is often associated with serious rights violations, including violence against Indigenous communities and other local populations that play a crucial role in protecting the forests.

While the final COP26 agreement didn’t include new commitments regarding deforestation, more than 100 countries signed a declaration to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. The “Glasgow Declaration” echoes previous initiatives—such as the New York Declaration on Forests and the Amsterdam Declarations Partnership—but it is unprecedented in the number of countries that have joined. Also important is that, in addition to the environmental goals it sets out, the declaration acknowledges the “key role” Indigenous peoples and local communities have in the stewardship of forests and calls for recognizing their rights.

On November 2, the same day the governments issued the Glasgow declaration, 12 corporate giants with major global market shares in key agricultural commodities that drive global illegal deforestation—including Bungee, Cargill, Louis Dreyfuss, JBS and Marfrig—pledged to “accelerate sector-wide action and to identify opportunities for public-private collaboration to catalyze further progress on eliminating commodity driven deforestation.” However, these companies only intend to share a “roadmap” for implementation at next year’s COP. And several of these companies already have commitments to curb or eliminate deforestation in their supply chains, for which they have repeatedly missed deadlines.

Rather than good news, the corporations’ announcement seems like a delaying tactic—and further evidence these companies are unlikely to clean up their supply chains without legally binding regulations in place to that will force them to do so. Yet, as it stands now, none of the world’s major economies currently have adequate laws in place. 

In their joint statement on November 11, China and the United States said they would contribute to eliminating global illegal deforestation by enforcing their respective laws that ban illegal imports of timber. If it follows through, this would be a major step for China, which has yet to act on a restriction on illegal timber imports it adopted in 2019. The United States already enforces the Lacey Act that bans illegal timber.

Restricting illegal timber addresses only a part of the problem, however. Equally or more important is the need to regulate other commodities—such as soy and beef—that drive deforestation. On this front, the United Kingdom took a positive step on November 9 when it adopted a regulation that would restrict the import of agricultural commodities that are linked to illegal deforestation or that infringe laws on land tenure in the country of origin of the commodity. However, crucial details of its implementation—including which commodities it covers—are yet to be decided by the UK Secretary of State. Similar legislative proposals are also advancing in the United States and the European Union. 

Ultimately whether global efforts to reduce deforestation succeed depends primarily on the steps countries that are home to the major forests take to conserve them. But given the poor record of many of them—including countries like Brazil that signed the Glasgow declaration but has yet to provide a credible plan for fighting deforestation—it is crucially important that the United States, the European Union, and other countries move quickly to join the United Kingdom in enacting supply chain regulations, and that all of them ensure these laws are vigorously enforced. 

Phasing Out Coal

COP26 largely missed the opportunity to “consign coal to history” as COP president Alok Sharma proclaimed it would in July. The dirtiest of fossil fuels, coal is responsible for 30 percent of global emissions and a major contributor to the air pollution that takes a devastating toll on the health of local populations.

On November 3, the United Kingdom announced that 190 countries and organizations committed to phasing out coal power in the 2030s (for OECD countries) and in the 2040s (for non-OECD). The coalition included 23 countries that were making this commitment for the first time—among them Poland, Ukraine and Vietnam who previously had shown few signs of moving away from coal. Notably absent from the agreement, however, were the world’s top four coal users—China, Japan, India, and the United States—who together account of over 75 percent of global coal use.

The China-US joint agreement announced on November 11 reiterated a previous pledge to move away from international support for unabated coal power and committed China to “phase down” coal consumption between 2021 and 2026. However, the agreement did not include tangible, time-bound commitments to actually end coal use.

The final Glasgow climate pact called for “accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power.”  It is the first time coal has been explicitly addressed in a COP agreement. Yet an eleventh-hour intervention by India that resulted in the substitution of the phrase “phasedown” in place of “phase out,” diminished the significance of its inclusion.

In addition to these broad commitments, the United Kingdom, the European Union, the United States, Germany, and France also announced $8.5 billion in financing over the next five years to assist South Africa with a just transition away from coal. South Africa is one of the world’s most coal dependent counties with 87 percent of its power generated from burning of coal. While details are vague, this is one of the first concrete commitments from countries in the Global North to help a country in the global south undertake a just transition away from coal towards clean energy.

Going forward, governments, and in particular major coal power nations, need to take immediate and concrete steps to end coal power use, including phasing out all power plants, whether they are abated or not. Governments should halt financial support to any infrastructure for thermal coal not yet fully built and remove subsidies and other support to industry entities whose revenues come from coal. The development or expansion of thermal coal mines should be ended altogether.

Ending State Support for Fossil Fuels

Governments give billions in financial support to fossil fuel industries each year, incentivizing fossil fuel production, locking in polluting infrastructure, and delaying climate action. Ending government support for fossil fuels is critical to reducing emissions and ensuring governments can tap into their full resources to support and protect the rights of populations bearing the brunt of climate impacts.

While COP26 saw significant progress in securing broad consensus among governments to end international public finance for fossil fuels, governments failed to deliver similar progress on fossil fuel subsidies and other forms of domestic support for fossil fuels.

On November 4, more than 20 countries and institutions joined the United Kingdom in committing to end direct international public finance for unabated coal, oil, and gas by the end of 2022 and to prioritize clean energy finance. Canada—the top public financer of fossil fuels—was among those who signed on. Since the alliance launched, most of the EU’s top fossil fuel financers—France, Germany, Italy, and Spain—have also signed on.

The new commitment to end direct international public finance of fossil fuels, if followed by effective implementation, will be an important step toward governments meeting their human rights obligations to address the climate crisis. More is needed, however. Governments should also end the billions more they provide in domestic subsidies and broader government support for fossil fuels, while protecting low-income households from associated price increases.

While the agreement of the parties included, for the first time, mention of fossil fuel subsidies, it was only to encourage countries to “accelerat[e] efforts towards the … phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” No time commitment was made. Past such commitments, including by the G20, have thus far yielded little change.    

Moving forward, governments should deliver time-bound, transparent plans for eliminating fossil fuel subsidies. Likewise, governments need to deliver on the promise of their COP26 pact to end public finance for unabated fossil fuels through robust and timely implementation, and not exploit vague terms in the agreement like “inefficient” to continue supporting fossil fuels.

Ultimately, the value of the COP26 pledges regarding fossil fuel public finance and subsidies—as with those regarding forests and coal—will depend on whether they spur the urgent and long-overdue actions governments need to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avert the most catastrophic outcomes of climate change.

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