Summary of COP26

The much-vaunted COP26 conference held in Glasgow achieved, according to many observers, some useful aims. The problem is that it left the main task unfinished, something that has been pushed back until the next COP conference.

After two weeks of intensive and tense negotiations, the outcome of COP26 can probably be best summed up by the words of its President, Mr Alok Sharma; “We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees alive. But its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action.” The final communique exhorting Parties to firm up on their pledges for decarbonisation by the end of 2022 was disappointing.

Following on from Mr Sharma’s admission, and in spite of the initiatives discussed, another point of view about the conference, and expressed by one Greta Thunberg, expounds the following:

“It is not a secret that COP26 is a failure. It should be obvious that we cannot solve the crisis with the same methods that got us into it in the first place. The COP has turned into a PR event, where leaders are giving beautiful speeches and announcing fancy commitments and targets, while behind the curtains governments of the Global North countries are still refusing to take any drastic climate action.”

So what, for someone who is not ‘au-fait’ with the scientific jargon or formulaic approach, have been the outcomes of this bonanza of carbon creation?

The conference created the Glasgow Climate Pact, an informally accepted agenda designed with the following objectives:

  • A reaffirmation of the Paris Agreement of 2015 that global average temperature should be held well below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels.
  • Recognition that the impact of climate change will be much lower at a temperature rise of 1.5ºC than 2ºC and resolves to pursue efforts to ensure that the temperature rise does not exceed 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels.
  • Acknowledgement that in order to limit the temperature rise to 1.5ºC will require deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, and that CO2 emissions must be reduced by 45% by 2030 relative to 2010 levels and to net zero by mid-century.
  • Emphasises that the current decade is critical to activate accelerated action for reducing GHG based on the best available scientific knowledge and taking into account responsibilities, capabilities and differing national circumstances.
  • Recalls key parts of the 2015 Paris Agreement and to request the Parties to the Agreement to revisit and strengthen their commitments to the 2030 targets, again taking into account differing national circumstances.
  • Establishes the ‘Glasgow Dialogue’ between Parties to discuss funding of activities designed to avert, minimise and address loss and damage associated with climate change.
  • Establishes global goals on adaptation and vulnerability to climate change through sustainable development.
  • Calls on Parties to accelerate the development of technology and adoption of policies that will result in a concerted move towards low-emission energy systems. This must include a rapid scaling up of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures and the phasedown of coal-driven power production as well as the phasing out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies; all of this whilst recognising the need for support in line with national circumstances.

This last point is perhaps one of the most interesting, as it was emphasised at the conference that ALL pathways towards meeting the 1.5ºC limit will mean very rapid cuts in emissions from the use of fossil fuel, especially coal.

The conference centred around 4 main themes:

Mitigation, Adaptation, Finance and Collaboration – all laudable aspirations but, in my view, ones that are laced with human frailty and, without meaningful transparency, subject to prevarication. Still, let’s look at these and check out the ‘achievements’:

Mitigation: According to the Glasgow Climate Pact, a document produced at the end of the conference, near-global net-zero emission commitments were obtained from 153 participant countries. The conference established the underpinning rules and systems to deliver on these promises. It was emphasised that to attain these goals it would encompass a move away from coal power, halting and reversing deforestation, reducing methane emissions, and speeding up a switch to electric vehicles. The down note is that these were not cast-iron commitments but a declaration of aspirations. The President of the Conference sent the Parties away to try harder and come better prepared for the next conference in 2022.

Adaptation: And a boost in efforts to confront the impacts of climate change. Commitments to double 2019 levels of adaptation finance by 2025 were obtained as well as a commitment to assist indigenous peoples. Paper is always a great place to make a promise. The difficulty comes in converting that to gold.

Finance: Billions and trillions were mobilised (according to the document). By next year, 34 countries and five public financial institutions have agreed to stop international support for the fossil fuel energy sector. Global net-zero was placed as a major item within the international finance sector. Importantly, developed countries agreed to commit significantly increased funding to vital funds such as the Least Developed Countries Fund. Again, call me an old skeptic, but promises to help always have a pleasant aroma.

Collaboration: Perhaps most importantly, the Paris Rulebook was finalised. This established the ‘enhanced transparency framework’, a new mechanism and set of standards for international carbon markets. Also importantly, timeframes for emissions reductions targets were drawn in the sand. Of course, little things like the impasse in the American Congress may hold things up slightly, but the intention is there.

Missing from the conference was a definition of measuring the damage wrought by the unbridled use of fossil fuel over the centuries since the Industrial Revolution. Those who have directly benefitted did not establish any mechanism to compensate vulnerable countries from the excesses of a revolution in which they played a very little role; this being a key demand from poorer nations.

Whilst much was discussed and many promises were made, the results of deliberations are still to be delivered. For example, we don’t have to examine the actions of the Participant Parties deeply to see that perhaps Ms. Thunberg was onto something when we learn that the UK government has approved a new deep coal mine in Cumbria, as well as providing other authorisations related to the expansion of coal mines in Wales.

In the meantime, the planet is still overheating. It has recently been reported by the European climate agency Copernicus that the last seven years were the hottest since records began with their analysis showing that, global temperature in 2021 was registering at 1.2ºC above pre-industrial levels; uncomfortably close to the 1.5ºC that many consider is still attainable.

Whatever the outcome of COP26, and whether you consider it to be a success or a failure, it is clear that great dependence is placed on the individual cogs within the machinery constructed to achieve this place of relative safety. Is it too optimistic to hope that the promises made at COP26 will be kept, or is this a case of another very expensive green-wash?

Find out more about COP26 by following these links:

https://ukcop26.org/the-conference/cop26-outcomes/

COP26 agreement explained

https://odi.org/en/insights/our-thoughts-on-cop26-rolling-insight/

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