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Experts: UN climate talks a ‘turning point’ — but pledges must become progress

© TommL/istockphoto

This article was updated on November 18, 2021.

The UN climate talks (COP26) in Glasgow hammered out key climate commitments — wrapping with what summit president Alok Sharma called “a fragile win” for limiting global warming.  

But what set this summit apart from past climate convenings? For the first time, “nature took center stage,” according to Shyla Raghav, Conservation International’s vice president of climate strategy.

“Years from now, the 2021 UN climate talks in Glasgow may well be remembered as a turning point — the point at which the Paris Agreement’s aspirations finally began to turn into action,” she says. 

“The concept that nature is essential to solving the global climate crisis, once advocated by a few forest-rich countries, has become mainstream.”

Here are a few of the summit’s main takeaways.

Deforestation-free future 

In a major announcement on day two of the summit, more than 130 countries — accounting for about 86 percent of the world’s forests — committed to stop deforestation by the end of this decade.  

Joining the effort to reverse the destruction of tropical forests, over 30 financial institutions, with support from Conservation International and partners, pledged to eliminate deforestation driven by agriculture from their portfolios and increase investments in nature-based solutions by 2025. 

With more US$ 8.7 trillion in assets under management, these financial institutions made “a powerful market signal that will help drive the global shift toward sustainable production and nature-based solutions,” Raghav says. 

Ending deforestation could also be a crucial step for countries to meet their climate goals. In fact, protecting, sustainably managing and restoring forests and other natural lands can provide at least 30 percent of the mitigation and emissions reductions necessary to limit average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), research shows

But protecting forests, says Raghav, cannot be done without the help of the people who have helped conserve them for generations: Indigenous peoples and local communities. 

The good news: Several governments and foundations at the climate summit pledged to invest US$ 1.7 billion to support Indigenous and local efforts to fight climate change and protect biodiversity.

“This was the first COP to truly recognize and elevate the roles of Indigenous peoples and local communities as guardians of forests and nature — and to follow that up with financing. There is still more that needs to be done to support these communities, but it signals encouraging progress,” Raghav says.

International carbon markets 

Six years after the landmark Paris Agreement was adopted, all of its guidelines — which aim to help countries reach their climate targets — have finally been approved. 

In Glasgow, countries finally ratified a plan to implement international carbon markets, known as “Article 6” of the Paris Agreement. The market will allow countries to “buy” emissions reductions (with some exceptions and regulations) from other countries that have already made a surplus of cuts to their own carbon emissions. It will only permit countries to buy a certain number of credits — registered in or after 2013 — that will contribute to their climate goals.

“Countries now have all the tools they need to ensure high-quality, consistent and transparent climate action through carbon markets,” says Lina Barrera, Conservation International’s vice president of international policy. “This level of certainty will drive new investments to scale the climate actions we desperately need across all sectors.”

Notably, the new international carbon markets will allow the sale of carbon credits from natural climate solutions — activities that conserve, restore or improve the use or management of tropical forests, mangroves and other ecosystems — that have made proven emissions reductions.

“The real winners of this outcome are the communities and organizations working to protect and restore forests,” Barrera says. 

“Through increased financial investment, nature-based carbon credits will benefit countries and communities, which reap both the financial and the environmental gains that forests and other high-carbon ecosystems provide.”

Looking ahead: pitfalls and progress

Many of the commitments made at the UN climate talks were considered “a step in the right direction” by many experts, but there were still some notable gaps in progress. 

Countries failed to reach an agreement on the establishment of a new fund to help vulnerable nations recover from “loss and damages” caused by climate impacts. Developing countries contribute only a tiny fraction of emissions, but often bear the brunt of the worst damage from climate breakdown, posing a climate justice issue, Raghav says. 

“The countries that face the worst and most immediate climate impacts have done the least to cause them, and it is critical for developed countries to acknowledge this and help to shoulder the potentially devastating burdens that developing countries face,” she says. 

“What’s more, an initial US$ 100 billion pledge from rich countries for climate finance is just a beginning; the fact that promise couldn’t be fulfilled is a woeful result.”

Also missing from the summit were detailed plans for how countries would meet the target of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). While countries have agreed to return in 2022 with more ambitious plans, in the coming years, governments must provide clearer plans backed up with policies and financing, with greater investments in protecting nature and supporting frontline and Indigenous communities, according to Raghav.  

“Glasgow has set a clear direction — the question is, how fast can we move?” Raghav says. “Where we go from here is just as important as anything that happened in the past two weeks. Pledges and commitments are important but they’re not enough — they need to translate to impact. We have much work to do.”

Kiley Price is the staff writer and news editor at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.

Cover image: Flags from around the world (© TommL/istockphoto)