Catherine Stone discusses COP26 and the Glasgow Climate Pact, and what effects it may have on climate change.
Two weeks of unceasing negotiations by one of the largest gatherings of national delegates and organisation representatives in history, accompanied by mass protests, in the most high-profile Climate Summit ever staged, and do we have anything to show for it?
The resulting Glasgow Climate Pact is certainly a big step of progress towards international action on climate change, containing several unprecedented commitments and signed by all 197 countries attending. The goals of COP26 set by the UK government of greenhouse gas emission reduction, protection of communities and natural habitats, increased climate finance and strengthened international collaboration, were somewhat met.
The feverish media coverage of COP26 in contrast to previous conferences (they’ve been happening every year since 1995) shows the move of global warming from a fringe issue to a global priority. The high stakes of the summit were emphasised as a ‘make-or-break opportunity to put us back on track’. Despite intense diplomatic and policy development by host nation UK and other countries for COP26, the build-up was also marked by strong pessimism about the efforts of high emissions countries such as India and China. The lukewarm attitude of the UK to action on climate commitments has also been criticised, with Caroline Lucas (UK Greens and Exeter alumna) stating that Alok Sharma, the President of the COP26 Summit, is being undermined by his own government.
The difference that COP26 will make is tempered by the fact that most commitments are voluntary and not legally binding
Two polar narratives have emerged from the conclusion of the summit, with the UK government emphasising the successes of the summit and activist groups deploring the absence of drastic new progress commitments. Boris Johnson has called the conference ‘truly historic’ and ‘game-changing’ due to achieved agreements on coal, cars, cash, and trees; while Greta Thunberg described it as a ‘greenwash festival’ in a speech at a Glasgow protest.
Since the 2015 Paris Agreement, it has become increasingly clear that remaining within 1.5C of warming will require extreme action, shown by the 2018 IPCC report that was described as a ‘code red for humanity’. Ambitions to ‘keep 1.5C alive’ in the lead up to Glasgow raised expectations of momentous commitments. Nationally Determined Contributions for emissions cuts (NDCs) before COP put the world on track for a 16% increase, falling woefully short of the estimated crucial minimum cut to 45% of 2010 levels by 2030 and net-zero by 2050 to prevent more than 1.5C of warming. Progress is clear on this front – at least 120 countries, including China, submitted new or updated to the UN in the days before Cop26; and swifter revisions of NDCs were renegotiated in Glasgow, increasing the pressure to produce more ambitious plans by the end of 2022.
The Glasgow Climate Pact included concrete commitments such as the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero to align $130 trillion towards climate goals set in Paris agreement, and the signing of the Declaration of Zero Car Emissions by 100 national governments and businesses. The headlines from the conclusion of the summit emphasised the disappointing weakening of commitments on reduction of coal – changed at the last minute from ‘phase-out’ to ‘phase-down’ on the insistence of India. However, this is the first commitment to a reduction in fossil fuels since the 1997 Kyoto protocol due to fierce opposition from fuel producing countries. This change is an example of the problems with COP bureaucracy as talks rely on a consensus for decisions to be taken.
The talks were soured by the fact that the agreed annual $100 billion in aid from 2020 for developing countries to invest in sustainable futures and cope with the impacts of the climate crisis, has not been met. In response, Glasgow doubled the proportion of climate finance intended for adaption between 2019 and 2025, and a two year dialogue on funding for loss and damage was agreed. However, the slashing of aid budgets announced by the UK government last year again undermines the perception of their commitment to support developing countries.
The difference that COP26 will make is tempered by the fact that most commitments are voluntary and not legally binding. It took place in a climate of unprecedented public pressure and awareness, but it certainly doesn’t feel like lessons from Glasgow will be translated into comprehensive structural policy change in the countries which delegations return to. However, COP26 was never intended to be the end goal of international climate policy, only to set up future progress – most work happens continuously and behind the scenes.