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6 Takeaways from COP26

To celebrate or condemn the climate summit? It’s complicated.

The Glasgow Climate Pact won’t save the world. But it is a step in the right direction. 

So COP26 finally took place in Glasgow, a year later than expected due to the pandemic, with expectations at an all-time high. The 2-week meeting brought a record-breaking number of world leaders, delegates, and protestors to the Scottish city to tackle the escalating climate crisis by redefining global goals. The UK COP Presidency had set itself the ambitious task of “keeping 1.5C alive”, referring to the Paris Agreement target. Loss and adaption funding from richer nations to poorer countries loomed large on the agenda, as did cutting down on coal and methane. And not cutting down forests.

The end deal – the Glasgow Climate Pact – is complex. It leaves us with as many questions as it answers. For example, a record number of countries pledged to end illegal deforestation. But can they be trusted to follow through? Historic rivals the US and China announced a landmark collaboration on climate issues. But what will this look like in practice? And financial institutions promised to invest more than $100 trillion in the energy transition. But who will monitor their progress?

Here are the 6 key takeaways from the COP26 mixed bag of successes and failures:

1. The 1.5C Battle Was Won

The central goal of COP26 was to limit warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Several countries fought against “reopening the Paris agreement”, the main goal of which is to keep temperature rises “well below” 2C above pre-industrial levels. This while “pursuing efforts” to limit rises to 1.5C. The UK hosts and supporters, such as US climate envoy John Kerry, repeatedly argued that “well below” 2C could not mean 1.9C or 1.8C. Plus, there were repeated references to post-Paris science that shows more definitively that 1.5C is much safer than 2C. And that every fraction of a degree counts.

Crucially, the new deal requests countries to “revisit and strengthen” their 2030 climate plans by the end of next year. Before this, countries were not expected to come back with new national climate plans until 2025. This passage matters because analysis shows that countries’ current 2030 plans would result in 2.4C of global heating by 2100. New plans can get the world back on track to meet the 1.5C goal, right? Well, note the word “request”. Firstly, there’s no guarantee that countries will submit tougher climate plans by the end of 2022. Australia, for example, has already said that it doesn’t plan to follow through with a new plan next year. Secondly, there’s no way to enforce the detailed action plans, even if they are submitted.

2. The F Word

In spite of being a key driver of climate change, fossil fuels did not get a mention in the Paris Agreement. Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel of all. According to International Energy Agency data, the world has no hope of staying within 1.5C of global heating without a rapid phase-out of coal. To hit the target, at least 40% of the world’s existing 8500 coal-fired power plants must be closed by 2030 and no new ones built. 

In a breakthrough deal, the US and more than 20 other countries agreed to stop financing most new oil and gas projects. Whilst the final text of the pact was weakened at the last minute – India insisted on “phasing down” to replace the stronger “phasing out” – it shows a real commitment to ending coal power. “The most important outcome of the conference is…the signal that fossil fuels are being phased out,” says Jennifer Morgan, the head of Greenpeace International. “This is the way the world is going quickly.”

3. Developed Countries Double Up on Adaptation Funds

A COP26 success story? Developed countries have pledged to double the amount they spend on helping poorer countries adapt to climate impacts from 2019 levels by 2025. Rich countries agreed in 2009 that poor countries would receive at least $100 billion a year from 2020, from public and private sources, to help them cut emissions and cope with the impacts of the climate crisis. But by 2019, only $80 billion had appeared. Bolstered by a pre-conference UN report that found that the cost of climate impacts are 5-10 times higher than the amount of financial aid on offer from rich nations, developing countries achieved a $500 billion offer over the next 5 years. Plus, a commitment for this money to be spent on adaptation and not emission cuts. This is significant because most current climate finance funds emissions-cutting projects, in middle-income countries. 

4. Developing Countries Disappointed Over “Loss and Damage”

Despite the progress on adaptation finance, developing countries were disappointed by the lack of concrete “loss and damage” support. The goal was the creation of a financial assistance programme to help them deal with the devastating impacts of extreme weather events such as the loss of human life, homes, and livelihoods. However, this idea was a step too far for the US and the EU.

Wealthy nations have never acknowledged legal liability for the damage already caused by their emissions. Potentially, this bill could run into trillions. However, in a landmark decision, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pledged £1million to the loss and damage fund – the first donation. Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, said Scotland’s pledge is the first time any developed nation has tacitly admitted responsibility for contributing to global warming. Speaking to the BBC, he called the financial pledge “a massive breakthrough”. 

5. Methane: 30 by 30

The US, Japan, and Canada were among the signatories of another COP26 landmark pledge to cut emissions of methane by 30% by 2030. This compared with 2020 levels. Historically, climate summits have focused on CO2, the main cause of post-industrial global warming. However, methane is responsible for approximately 30% of the 1.1C global temperature increase to date. Moreover,  atmospheric concentrations of the gas have rapidly increased since 2007. In total, 105 countries have signed up with numbers expected to grow. However, significant major polluters – China, India, Russia, and Australia – omitted to sign. These countries account for about 35% of all human-sourced methane emissions. Plus, the pledge is voluntary with no provision to enforce it.

6. Indigenous People “Recognised”

The Glasgow Pact specifically mentions the “important role” that “indigenous peoples, local communities, youth, children, local and regional governments, and other stakeholders” play in tackling the climate crisis. COP26 was unique in that vulnerable countries and communities – as the main victims of climate change – were able to force discussions with and action from richer countries. Moreover,  the 2-week conference took place against a backdrop of multiple protests, several staged by youth climate activists.

However, many Indigenous activists claim the COP26 deal to create a regulated global carbon trading market sacrifices their needs to protect the profits of polluting nations. Supported by mega-polluters such as China and the US, the Glasgow agreement allows countries to meet targets by buying credits. Critics point out this encourages offsetting rather than cutting emissions. “Cop26 leaders signed an agreement that will entrench sacrificing Indigenous people but failed to include real solutions to meet the climate chaos that many of our frontline Indigenous communities are facing,” said Thomas Joseph, from the Hoopa tribe, to the Guardian. “The leaders pushing for market-based solutions and the commodification of our Mother Earth are signing a death sentence.”

So What Now?

In the short term, countries need to submit their detailed climate roadmaps in the next year.

In the longer term, it’s clear that climate isn’t “niche” anymore. The Biden Administration brought 10 cabinet ministers as well as the Treasury Secretary and Secretary of State. Plus, the demands from poorer nations haven’t been fully addressed, nor have mechanisms been put in place to enforce pledges. Climate activists and scientists will be watching this space.

But the weeks before and during the climate summit have raised awareness and highlighted the need for urgent action from governments, businesses, and citizens. COP26 may have ended, but hopefully, it’s the beginning of a new phase of action. 

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