• Key announcements for climate action were made at last week's United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York City, one of the last times many global leaders will convene to discuss such issues before the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) this November.
  • Urgent action must still take place to tackle critical climate goals.
  • Decisions related to four areas - finance, energy, mobility, and heavy industry - will be vital to a substantive climate agreement at COP26 in just six weeks.

Many have referred to the current decade as the ‘decisive decade’ on climate action. As the world begins to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the clock continues to tick on climate action. Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that temperatures are rising more quickly than expected, and a report released earlier this month demonstrated that countries are still not doing enough to tackle climate change. Last week, world leaders convened for the 76th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, one of the last times before the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow in November.

But what do the announcements made this year and during UNGA mean? What key steps need to be taken by COP26 to ensure we are entering this decisive decade in a way that protects our people, planet, and prosperity? Here are four key areas addressed last week at UNGA that are vital for a substantive climate agreement at COP26 in just six weeks.

1. Finance

During UNGA last week, US President Biden committed to doubling the US financial contribution to developing countries to $11.4 billion per year. The OECD recently reported that climate finance equalled $79.6 billion in 2019. A successful outcome at COP26 on finance requires countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan, Italy and the UK committing to an additional $2 billion to $4 billion a year to fulfill their fair share of climate finance. This would help instill confidence to agree on key issues such as carbon markets and transparency. The US commitment last week has renewed hope for climate finance going into COP26.

What’s needed next: The climate crisis is a global issue and requires a response from all countries across the globe. However, the poorest countries are both least equipped to tackle climate change and most vulnerable to its effects. This is why at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, and again at COP21 in Paris in 2015, wealthier nations committed to providing poorer countries with $100 billion in climate finance per year by 2020. An agreement at COP26 will necessitate the trust of groups of countries like the Africa Group, the Climate Vulnerable Forum, Least Developed Countries, and the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). For these negotiating blocks, fulfilling these currently unfulfilled promises made in Copenhagen and Paris is a prerequisite for a negotiated agreement in Glasgow.

2. Energy

During UNGA last week, China announced that it would end coal fired power plants abroad. This follows similar moves by Japan and South Korea earlier this year, and represents a substantial shift in China’s investment in energy infrastructure abroad.

Energy accounts for approximately 65% of total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Globally, we have taken important steps towards cleaner energy: earlier this year, solar and wind power became cheaper than coal and fossil fuels in most parts of the world. At the UN High Level Dialogue on Energy earlier this month, the largest gathering of world leaders focussed solely on energy issues in over 40 years, France, Germany, UK, Chile, and others all committed to stop building new coal plants. However, two-thirds of the world’s electricity production still comes from burning fossil fuels. Burning coal remains the world’s most carbon-intensive energy source.

What’s needed next: There is undeniably growing momentum towards cleaner energy. One example, for instance, comes in the form of the COP26 Presidency Energy Transitions Council’s recently launched technical assistance package to help consign coal to history in key developing countries. However, the key question remains for rich countries to provide the financial and technical support required for key regions still reliant on coal such as India, South Africa, and South East Asia to transition to clean energy.

This graph shows current government carbon emission reductions targets [or 'Nationally Determined Contributions' (NDCs)] compared to the goals of the Paris Agreement. Targets aim to  limit global average temperature rise to well below 2°C above preindustrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
This graph shows current government carbon emission reductions targets [or 'Nationally Determined Contributions' (NDCs)] compared to the goals of the Paris Agreement. Targets aim to limit global average temperature rise to well below 2°C above preindustrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
Image: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

3. Mobility

Transportation accounts for 24% of emissions from fuel combustion and road vehicles account for almost three-quarters of transport CO2 emissions. A transition to zero emission vehicles is therefore essential for countries to deliver the Paris Agreement. Earlier this year, key car markets including the UK and EU committed to all new cars being zero emission by 2035. Similarly, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, GM, and JLR have all committed to manufacturing only zero emission vehicles before 2036. However, some of the largest car markets including the US, China, and India have not made such commitments.

What’s needed next: A successful outcome for mobility at COP26 would be for the key car markets such as US, China, and India as well as key automotive manufacturers, to set a phase-out date for all non-zero emission vehicles around 2035, and for this to to complemented by a clear plan on how to achieve it. However, key questions on EV charging infrastructure remain to scale the zero-emission vehicle required to achieve these goals.

4. Heavy Industry and Heavy-Duty Transport

Heavy industries like cement, steel, and chemicals, combined with heavy-duty transport such as shipping, aviation, and trucking, together account for 30% of global emissions. In addition, recent estimates have shown that, on current trends, these sectors could account for 16 gigatonnes of emissions by 2050.

Decarbonising these sectors requires driving down the so-called green premium -- the additional cost of choosing a clean technology over one that emits a greater amount of greenhouse gases.The Mission Possible Partnership, launched in 2019, has already taken vital steps to decarbonise heavy industry and heavy-duty transport. However, we know that the green premium for clean practices remains too high for these practices to be adopted globally.

What’s needed next: Essential for further progress in these sectors are regulatory and economic incentives to drive innovation to help bring down the green premium. A successful outcome by COP26 would demonstrate that future-proof technologies are within reach. This could be achieved by key demand-side companies such as retail, automotive, and construction companies whose supply chains span heavy industry and heavy-duty transport to invest in net zero technologies. Governments can help drive these investments by making carbon emissions cost through reaching an agreement on Article 6 Paris Agreement, which is a key outcome for COP26 negotiators.

Looking ahead

We know what needs to happen to prevent the worst effects of climate change: achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the very latest, with a robust reduction of emissions this decade. Progress made this year and during UNGA across the key issues of finance, energy, mobility, and heavy industry and heavy-duty transport, have helped set the scene for governments and companies to use COP26 as a crucial inflection point on our collective effort to tackle the climate crisis. Still, leaders of all stripes must act and act urgently to ensure these critical goals can be achieved by the end of this decade of climate action.