What did COP26 actually achieve?

John Kerry meets with Alok Sharma for COP26

On the opening day of COP26, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg condemned the conference as a “two-week celebration of business as usual and blah, blah, blah”. Two weeks later the Glascow Climate Pact was signed by 197 countries under the Paris Agreement framework. Ambitious to some, watered-down to others, headline commitments included: strengthening of emissions targets to ‘keep 1.5C alive’, a commitment to scale down coal use, and $500bn of investment into developing countries to support a transition to clean energy by 2025.

Conference President Alok Sharma apologized to delegates for the last-minute language amendment from “phase out” to “phase down” in relation to coal usage in energy production. Pushed by India, Sharma emphasised the need to maintain the agreement and avoid further concessions. While leading polluters India and China spoke of their own right to determine emissions targets from inside the conference, notable absences from Brazilian Prime Minister Jair Bolsonaro and Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear the divisions between developed states in their commitment to climate action. 

State power dynamics continue to be the elephant-in-the-room. Resource-rich petro-economies, particularly those with little diversification, have justifiably raised issue with wealthy industrialised nations who call for developing nations to undertake climate action and risk a decline in their growth. President Biden was critical of Chinese leader Xi Jinping for his failure to attend the conference in person, saying: “It is a gigantic issue, and they have walked away.” However, Chinese delegates charged western nations with hypocrisy for their continued use of coal despite high-minded rhetoric about its elimination. Division between powerful nations has greatly highlighted global power imbalances relating to climate. The developed world has the resources and time, at least for now, to manoeuvre away from the threat, the developing world faces an existential threat now and has little time for great-power politics.  

“Loss and Damage” proved another sticking point in the negotiations with little being done to address concerns voiced by nations already being impacted by the affects of climate change. In 1991, the Alliance of Small Island States proposed a mechanism that would compensate countries affected by sea level rise. A “Loss and Damage” mechanism was principally agreed during COP19 in 2013, but western nations remain hesitant to agree to a permanent system to assist these nations, particularly under language relating to compensation and the implication of guilt. Simon Kofe, the Foreign Minister of Tuvalu, addressed COP while standing knee-deep in seawater to demonstrate the affects of rising sea-levels on the small pacific island nation. It is estimated that a sea level rise of 20–40 centimetres in the next 100 years could make Tuvalu uninhabitable. While funding for green technologies and climate defences are being provided, this is unlikely to be enough to save Tuvalu and numerous other island nations.

A positive aspect to the conference was the willingness of nations to pledge real climate solutions. Commitments on coal power, ending deforestation, cutting methane emissions, and eventually phasing out fossil fuel powered cars, were signed by numerous countries, albeit with caveats. Noble, but previous COP’s have proven willing in words although weak in action. A persistent concern raised by many developing nations was the failure to deliver on a 2009 pledge to provide $100bn a year by 2021 to adapt to the impacts of climate change. This funding has proven unreliable, and the deadline was pushed back to 2023. Leaders voiced their concerns that this initial pledge would be insufficient anyway. Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama requested $750bn a year by 2025 in a recent speech to the UN General Assembly. Even Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been vocal in calling for greater consistency in the level of funding provided by rich countries. The pledges made during this COP must begin to come to fruition, although the countries who need them most have plenty of reasons to be sceptical. 

The Glascow Agreement will “keep 1.5C alive”, the level of temperature rise that will cause major environmental catastrophe if breached. Current emission trends are leading to a 2C temperature rise but the recognition in the agreement that this issue “requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions”, is a positive step. More nations than ever committed to reduce emissions and their use of fossil fuels. Historically major coal and oil producers have rejected any language that mentions fossil fuels. This agreement marks a turning point towards the recognition of a basic tenet of climate action, however long overdue. Much like the vague language relating to coal elimination, the “1.5C alive” sentiment is only a preliminary mission statement. Difficult decisions and hard truths must be recognised to truly achieve this vital goal.  

This conference wasn’t ever likely to do enough to make major alterations in current climate trends, however, its fair to say some initial commitments were made that lays the groundwork for future action. A dedication to incrementalism still plagues global decision making in relation to climate matters, a sentiment that doesn’t match the totalising problem.