Success, or disaster? What was, and was not, achieved at COP26, and the prospects now for meeting the 1.5 degree climate change target

COP26 has been and gone.

Now that the dust has settled on the Glasgow Climate Pact, it is worth reflecting on what was achieved (and what was not) during the negotiations.

I am sure for climate campaigners the tone may have been set by the agreement not to name the decision the “Glasgow Climate Emergency Pact”, as called for by the more vulnerable nations in attendance. The deletion of the word “emergency” will be, for some, symbolic of the criticism of the decision in its entirety: where is the action and urgency?

1.5 degrees: alive… but on life support

In the closing session of the conference, Alok Sharma, COP President, described the Paris Agreement goal of “keeping alive 1.5 degrees” as having a weak pulse. This goal entailed reaching an agreement that meant global heating would be kept to less than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. Sharma went on to state that the only way for this goal to survive would be if the promises made at the conference were translated into “rapid action”.

A lot of debate since the conference ended has centred on whether this goal is still alive. While the warming outlook has indeed improved since the Paris Agreement, the targets and pledges agreed during the conference are still not sufficient to cut the emissions gap enough to align with the 1.5 degree limit. It simply will not be achieved if policy implementation remains at its current pace.

According to the Climate Action Tracker: “Targets for 2030 remain totally inadequate: the current 2030 targets (without long-term pledges) put us on track for a 2.4°C temperature increase by the end of the century.”

The concept of “rapid action”, however, was grasped by the parties during the final negotiations. Major emitters are required to reconvene in one year’s time to detail to the UN how their policies and plans will help achieve the temperature goals set out in the Paris Agreement. It was also agreed that emissions must be reduced by 45% in order to align with the 1.5 degree goal.

The Paris Rulebook

The Paris Rulebook, the guidelines for how the Paris Agreement is delivered, was formalised at COP26 following six years of discussions. This is significant as the Rulebook sets a single transparency process for the reporting of emissions reductions which will hold countries accountable for the delivery of their climate pledges.

More accurate, transparent and consistent emissions data will allow the progress of countries to be demonstrated and also compared to others. This scrutiny will, hopefully, lead to progress in relation to reduction commitments made under the Paris Agreement (or in nationally determined contributions prepared in terms of the Paris Agreement).

Carbon credits and carbon markets

The hotly disputed article 6 was finally implemented – the final article of the 29 separate articles that make up the Paris Agreement. This relates to carbon credits and markets. The Glasgow Climate Pact creates unified and controlled standards in order to ensure that credits are not double-counted under national emissions targets.

There are issues with these internationally controlled standards, however. For example, some of the credits from the flawed carbon credit market established under the Kyoto Protocol can be used in the markets established under article 6. Unverified credits (“zombie credits”) from previous markets may end up in these new markets. Further, it remains to be seen whether and how the monitoring of the reliability of the market can be carried out at an international level.

Financial aid

The goal on adaptation remains unchanged: “enhance adaptive capacity, strengthen resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate change”.

Adaptation finance was a huge topic, particularly for vulnerable nations, throughout COP26. The Glasgow Climate Pact references developed countries’ “deep regret” at not hitting the $100 billion Paris Agreement target for finance to be provided to developing countries by 2020. That goal should be urgently reached and, in accordance with the Glasgow Climate Pact, developed countries are urged to do so by 2025.

As well as adaptation, the Glasgow Climate Pact also provides for those countries suffering loss and damage as a result of impacts of climate change to be supported. What was missing, however, was a commitment to any specific funding of activities in order to prevent or mitigate the impact of loss and damage. Discussions will continue on this.

Fossil fuels

One of the most contentious parts of the proceedings dampened the closing moments of negotiations. In the final plenary, India sought amendment to proposed commitments from countries to “accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels”.

The change requested by their lead negotiator was a commitment not to “phase out”, but to “accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”.

The disappointment from Alok Sharma was a very poignant moment that will be etched long in the memory. He apologised at the way in which the process allowed the text to fall short of the ambition shown in the draft. But ultimately, he concluded that it was vital that the package was protected.

Although difficult for him, the COP President was correct. The text should still be seen as a step forward. The Glasgow Climate Pact is the first international climate agreement to mention fossil fuels at all.

So what now?

It is difficult to assess the outcomes of COP26. Depending on your viewpoint, the conference will either have been a successful international summit or a disaster for climate action. Applying international diplomacy to an emergency situation of this type meant it would always be thus.

The difficulty in climate decision-making will not stop with the conference. Tension from the UK’s decision not to join the alliance of nations setting a deadline on an oil and gas phase-out crept up immediately in relation to the proposed Cambo oilfield project.

There is a gap between the action taken and the action that is required to meet the temperature goals set out in the Paris Agreement. Failure here remains an impending prospect.

The Glasgow Climate Pact achieved much, but more work is undoubtedly required between now and COP27 in Egypt next year.

The Author

Steven Stewart is head of ESG (Environmental, Social & Governance) with Burness Paull

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