Was COP26 a Success?

Nov. 17, 2021, noon • By Nisha Sarki

Talks finally concluded Saturday evening after two weeks of heated climate debate, and a new global agreement – the Glasgow Climate Pact – came forth.

If you’ve been following the news for the last few weeks, you’ll know all about COP26. Talks finally concluded Saturday evening after two weeks of the heated climate debate, and a new global agreement – the Glasgow Climate Pact – came forth. So, what was achieved in the last fortnight? Was COP26 a success, or was it a failure?

 

Objectives of Summit

Before we can evaluate the success of the summit, we need to look at the objectives first. What did they aim to achieve? According to UKCOP26.org, there were four goals they wanted to achieve at COP26:

1.      Secure global net zero by 2050 and keep 1.5 degrees within reach;

2.      Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats;

3.      Mobilise climate finance of at least $100bn a year;

4.      Finalise the Paris Rulebook, which makes the Paris Agreement operational.

 

Successes

The first success of the summit was the fact they managed to come to unanimous agreement, regardless of how weak and watered down the end result seemed to be. They still managed to agree on a global agenda that sets the tone for the next ten years. This is impressive, considering the diverse interests of the delegates who attended the event – some with vested interest in the fossil fuel industry, some with intentions to protect the more vulnerable communities, and others in between.

This leads us to the next success: the phasing down of coal. Alok Sharma, the President of COP26, made it his personal mission to ‘cosign coal to history’ and to get it in writing. He did technically achieve this. For the first time at a COP conference, the plan to reduce coal was explicitly and clearly imprinted in writing. What stops it from being a historic achievement for Sharma was the softening of the language used to address the commitment – from ‘phaseout’ to ‘phasedown’. This came after the last-minute lobbying from India and China, which Sharma had to accept as it was the only way to protect the overall deal.

There was also a pledge to significantly increase climate finance to help poorer countries adapt to the devastating effects of climate change and to make a switch to greener technology. This was an important pledge, especially after the failure of richer countries to provide $100bn a year by 2020. This could be seen as a success, as there was a mix of funding from governments, international lenders and private companies. However, the pledges still fell short, and estimates suggest that it still doesn’t come quick enough as the pledges so far are about $96bn a year by the end of 2022.

In addition, vulnerable nations were left frustrated as the majority of climate finance is dedicated to building renewable technology to reduce emissions. They argue that more cash should be spent on helping the countries cope with the impact of extreme weather rather than emission cuts. This did end up doubling the proportion of climate finance for adaptation efforts, however, the finance still was not split 50/50 like the countries initially wanted.

Another success of COP26 is the completion of the Paris Rulebook. This provides the mechanisms and the processes for countries to implement the provisions of the Paris Treaty. Sharma and his advisors also took the advice of the IPCC report, which showed that the Paris timeline was not sufficient to limit the climate catastrophe, and committed to a stronger, clearer objective to make sure the national commitments (NDCs) were in line with the broader goals stated in both the Paris Agreement and the Glasgow Climate Pact. If national commitments were deemed unsatisfactory, countries would have to return to the drawing board every year – instead of every five years – until they were up to standard. This might be the most successful aspect of COP26, as it is a clear attempt to hold the nations more accountable for their national commitments.

 

Failures

As the executive director of Greenpeace International very eloquently stated: “It’s meek, it’s weak and the 1.5C is only just alive”. The softening of language, compromises headed by delegates with vested interest and the lack of speed: are some of the reasons why this year’s COP was not as successful as it potentially could have been.

When even the successes start to resemble failure, it is hard to not be deeply frustrated by the lack of action from our world leaders. Although framed as successes, the paragraphs above clearly show that the summit fell short. It did not deliver on its goals.

So, let’s have a gander at some of the objectives COP26 failed to deliver.

Climate Action Tracker, one of the most respected sources for climate analysis, has released new data to suggest that the 2030 targets are extremely weak. If only 2030 targets were to be met, our planet is on track to heat up by 2.1C – 2.4C. This, as we all know, is going to lead to irreversible and catastrophic damage to our planet.

Even though countries have pledged to meet every year to review their commitments, there is a lack of urgency in their promises. This is epitomised by India’s last-minute intervention to water down the wording to ‘phase down’ coal rather than to ‘phase out’. As the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, this sets the wrong precedent for future summits on climate change. This, along with Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which allows the fossil fuel industry to simply ‘offset’ its carbon emissions instead of actively reducing, will mean that fossil fuel emissions will continue in the near future.

The next failure refers to a more nuanced point within the topic of climate finance. There is empirical evidence to demonstrate that poorer nations are the victims of the climate disasters that have been perpetuated by richer nations’ industrial revolution and emissions of greenhouse gases. These nations have suffered the ravages of the climate crisis - some of which is now, unfortunately, too irreversible and destructive for any climate finance to help prevent or adapt to them. The developing nations opened talks for compensation and reparations for the loss and damage. This was swiftly denied, as the developed countries were wary about the wording. They simply couldn’t offer ‘reparation’ or ‘compensation’ as it would open them up to endless legal liability. This did mean that, again, the vulnerable nations had the shorter end of the stick.

 

C Free Thoughts

To quote the disappointment of multiple industry leaders, and even the president of COP26, ‘the pulse of 1.5 is weak’. However, with all said and done, it should be noted that we are on a better path to limit the global temperature, especially in comparison to the previous COPs. 

Was there any feasible outcome that would have warranted the word "success"? Or would there be the same amount of criticism and scrutiny regardless of what was achieved?

However, this does not deter from the fact that there is much more that needs to be done, and urgently. There is a climate emergency on our hands, and it needs to be treated as such.

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