After two weeks of fraught negotiations, the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow finally ended with a hard-fought agreement between some 200 countries. But is the deal enough to save the planet from the climate catastrophe that scientists keep warning us about?
Although the meeting went into overtime, it is fair to say that the results were disappointing. The awareness and ambition were raised, commitments were made but nothing was achieved on the scale of the Paris COP21. Glasgow was built up so much that it was almost impossible to meet expectations on issues such as the overall climate targets, the financing and finalising the Paris rulebook.
The biggest issue is the level of ambition. Many countries offered more and there was a strong consensus to back up the 1.5°C degree-target for global temperatures. Unfortunately, there is a mismatch between ambition and actual action.
One key failure of COP26 was the last-minute insistence that a reference to “phasing out” coal be changed to “phasing down”. UN President Antonio Guterres said the 1.5°C target remains possible but is on life support. But there is at least scope to go further, and now countries will start checking their commitments every year instead of over a five-year cycle.
Then there is financing. Richer countries failed to reach their promised $100bn annual funding level for the developing countries by 2020. The message from Glasgow was that more time is needed. During the meeting, some $130bn of private funding was announced, but this felt like a distraction from the failure of the public pledge – and there was no indication that the political hurdles to the previous engagement have been removed.
On the upside, the framework for the Paris rulebook moved forward, including the framework for Article 6, which sets rules for carbon markets. Article 6 and the carbon markets had been an open issue since 2015 so the progress is good news – although it may take a while before the carbon credits start to move.
And there was a commitment to halt deforestation by 2030. But while the new target is helpful, it may mean deforestation at the current pace for the next nine years.
This all adds up to a slim list of achievements. So, why was COP26 such a let-down?
First, the timing was bad. The Covid pandemic sucked energy out of our political systems and disrupted the usual connections that help prepare these meetings. Every country has set its focus and financial resources on keeping citizens safe. While there were some new climate pledges at COP26, there was no global momentum to push for ground-breaking commitments.
Secondly, global politics are unusually febrile. The leaders of China and Russia did not take part. The Chinese – who made it clear that the climate agenda is connected to issues like trade, technology and defence – held back from stronger commitments. But they got what they wanted: Beijing will continue conducting climate talks bilaterally with the US. If they find a common tone, COP27 in Egypt next year could see China come back to the table.
And the third reason was that it was impossible to bridge the gap between rich and poor countries. Rich countries want everyone to cut down on carbon-intensive activities, but developing countries say such measures prevent them from growing their economies in the same way that the west did for two centuries. It is not easy to see how we resolve this. The developed world is responsible for most of the greenhouse gas emissions – yet it is incapable of generating the funding needed to help developing countries commit to foregoing oil, gas or coal.
So where does all this leave us? COP26 highlighted once again the difficult nature of global negotiations. While there was progress, it is too slow: despite the talk, global emissions keep climbing.
However, the road to net-zero does not dependent just on the COP process. We can see the energy transition taking place in many parts of the world. Businesses, individuals and public authorities are moving ahead on their own. But it is a transition, and there are bumps in the road. And the disappointing COP26 may be part of this transition. Although it was overshadowed by Covid (and failed to get rid of coal), COP26 may yet prove to be a stepping stone along the way to a better deal.