So COP26 has been and gone. I’ve worked on climate change since before COP1, but this was my first experience of a COP; I was there for there for more than half of it, which was exhilarating and overwhelming, inspiring and challenging. The result was complex and needs some unpacking.
COP means ‘Conference of the Parties’, in this case the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which comprises almost all of the countries of the world. It is therefore a meeting of governments and its core is the negotiation between the governments on how to meet the objectives of the UNFCCC and the international agreements under its auspices, such as the Paris Agreement. Many of the discussions around this are deeply technical and even the language is obscure if you don’t understand the context. My status at the COP was that of an ‘observer’ so I wasn’t involved directly in the negotiations, but I have the utmost respect for the negotiators – you need stamina, a clear head, an eye for detail and creativity in the use of language.
There was progress at COP26 and much of it was around the details of how previous agreements, particularly the Paris Agreement, work. This really matters and should not be under-estimated. Positive headline messages in an agreement are no use if they don’t lead to progress on the ground. At the heart of the Paris Agreement is the concept of NDCs – Nationally Determined Contributions – every country has agreed to produce its own commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and critically to increasing its ambition at every iteration. At the time of the Paris agreement this was envisioned to be every five years. COP26 was important because it was five years since Paris (and then delayed by a year because of Covid). However, not every country increased their commitments in advance of COP26. It was therefore significant that additional new NDCs have requested for 2022 and a series of annual ministerial meetings established to review commitments in the years leading up to 2030. Another major problem that was resolved was the rules around carbon trading between nations (Article 6 of the Paris Agreement) which can unlock funding for less developed countries. This has been unfinished business since Paris.
On the downside, there was a failure to deliver 100 billion USD per annum of funding for adaptation to developing countries, to help them cope with the impacts of climate change that are happening now and those that cannot be prevented. This had been a firm commitment by 2020 and is a major breach of trust between those nations most responsible for climate change and those most vulnerable to it. There has also been a failure to agree arrangements to compensate for the ‘Loss and Damage’ these countries have suffered.
Much attention focused on the over-arching text about ‘phasing out’ or ‘phasing down’ use of coal and the way the text was weakened at the last minute. It was a cynical move which ended the meeting on a sour note, but it does nevertheless signal a direction of travel. The key issue is how quickly countries move in that direction.
This is a long journey in which we’ve taken a few steps forward. It is a marathon not a sprint. However, it is also a race against time. To keep within 1.50C of global warming (or thereabouts – these things cannot be predicted with 0.10C accuracy in practice) we need a rapid decline in emissions by 2030. The cumulative amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is what matters, so even if we do manage to reach net zero by 2050, that will be too late if emissions remain at their current levels or higher for the next decade. We don’t have a clear pathway to achieve this decline yet.
Is there any cause for hope? Change can often take a long time to start but then happen quickly. 20 years ago, people confidently asserted how wind power could never make a big contribution to the UK’s power supply and few people thought we would be on the cusp of (literally) phasing out coal. And there were certainly signs of hope at the COP. In addition to the formal negotiations there was a large programme of talks and discussions, which I was involved in. There was a real emphasis on the importance of protecting and restoring nature as part of climate change adaptation and mitigation (see the video “Nature-Based Solutions for a Net Zero and Resilient Future: From Science to Action.” for a discussion that Mike was involved in). This can also help to tackle the crisis of biodiversity loss and when done well bring multiple benefits for people: if we are to be good stewards of the Earth, we have to make those connections. There was also plenty of examples of creativity in developing technological solutions and better stewardship of resources like water. A series of multilateral agreements in parallel to the main UNFCCC process, including on methane and deforestation, have the potential to make a difference, so long as implementation is effective.
Finally, it was inspiring seeing people from all around the world working together. Yes, representation and influence is uneven but how many other places do you see people from nearly 200 countries talking together in a common cause? And the vast majority of people in the room were going the extra mile to make progress. It was also inspiring to see people from indigenous communities and young people from around the world giving insightful and challenging talks. Outside of the UN controlled, ‘Blue Zone’, where I spent most of my time, Glasgow was full of events and thousands of people on the streets showing that climate change matters to them. And climate change filled the news media. Ultimately perhaps this is the biggest source of hope: politicians won’t act if people don’t care about an issue, but also we all need to play a part in delivering the change we want to see.
Dr Mike Morecroft is President of JRI