Would you consider the twenty-sixth Conference of the Parties (COP26) a success?
Yes, but barely. The UN climate summit delivered on its primary goal of keeping alive the Paris Agreement’s aim to limit global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F) above preindustrial levels. Nations agreed on the Glasgow Climate Pact, which states that carbon emissions will have to fall by 45 percent by 2030 to keep alive the 1.5°C goal.
But the ultimate success of COP26 depends on the details. The fact that success relies on pledges for future action poses risk of failure. And beyond the concern that pledges might not translate into action, agreements in crucial areas fell short.
What did countries agree to?
Notable provisions in the Glasgow Climate Pact include:
- language supporting a “phase-down of unabated coal power,” which is the single biggest source of global temperature rise, a first for a UN climate agreement;
- new rules for trading carbon credits across borders, an issue that had evaded resolution since 2015;
- a call for nations to return in 2022 with new, more ambitious targets to curb emissions; and,
- a request for a yearly report summarizing nations’ annual commitments to reduce emissions.
Nations shared other important pledges during COP26, including:
- The United States and China, the two largest emitters, agreed to work together on climate despite recent rifts in diplomatic relations.
- Over one hundred nations pledged to cut 30 percent of their emissions of methane—a greenhouse gas that dissipates more quickly than carbon but fuels up to eighty times more heating over a twenty-year period—by 2030.
- More than 130 nations, together possessing 90 percent of the world’s forests, agreed to halt and then reverse deforestation by 2030.
- Over 450 financial institutions overseeing $130 trillion in assets promised to align their portfolios with the goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
What were the failures?
COP26 President Alok Sharma had urged negotiators to “consign coal power to history,” but that didn’t happen. Despite the historic call in the Glasgow Climate Pact for a “phase-down” in coal power, some coal-reliant countries have indicated that they will not completely stop using coal until the 2040s or later.
Countries also failed to make significant progress on climate finance. The UN Environment Program estimates that developing countries need $70 billion per year for adaptation, and this figure is expected to double by 2030. Going into COP26, poorer nations renewed their calls for financial help from richer nations to adapt to the effects of climate change. They also sought to establish a loss-and-damage fund for developed countries to compensate developing countries for areas irreparably harmed by climate impacts.
But the Glasgow Climate Pact did not resolve the funding challenge. Although the Adaptation Fund, which was established in 2001 to finance adaptation efforts in developing countries, received $356 million in new support at COP26, funding levels remain woefully inadequate. And though the pact presses rich nations to at least double finance for adaptation by 2025, this remains billions of dollars below the projected costs. Wealthier nations also blocked the move to create the loss-and-damage fund. Instead, the pact includes a promise for future dialogue about increased financial support and technical assistance to mitigate climate-related damage.
Is there a way to ensure that countries follow through on their pledges?
Accountability remains a central challenge bedeviling global efforts to combat the climate crisis.
The Glasgow Climate Pact includes provisions to increase transparency with the aim of boosting accountability. The pact also urges nations to come back in 2022 with greater ambitions. If implemented properly, the enhanced transparency framework will be an effective tool. And, in 2023, nations are set to meet in the United Arab Emirates to assess progress as part of the Paris Agreement’s global stocktake. A well-executed stocktake will evaluate whether nations are fulfilling their commitments and could guide decision-making on new emissions-reduction targets.
What is the prospect of future progress through the COP process?
Despite the shortfalls, progress was made, but ensuring that it is sufficient remains a challenge. There are no global courts or mechanisms empowered to enforce these pledges. Progress rests on the weak pillars of goodwill, though peer pressure among world leaders could help.
A lack of women and young people in decision-making on the earth’s future has also fueled skepticism about the COP process. But protests led by women, indigenous, and youth activists at the Glasgow conference could provide the push that leaders need.
In closing remarks at the summit, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recognized what he called the “climate action army.” Guterres acknowledged the power of activists to propel governments and companies beyond words and into action. He urged them: “Never give up. Never retreat. Keep pushing forward.”