A ‘Glasgow half-full’ view of COP26

After a remarkably productive and successful two weeks at COP26 in Glasgow, we’ve all had a few days to catch our breath. It’s a good time to take stock of what was achieved, what we learned—and where we need to go next.

My topline assessment is that the conference was a significant step forward. I never expected that we would solve climate change in a fortnight, so I’m not disappointed that we didn’t come away having done so; that’s not how the world works, and never will be. Addressing the climate crisis is urgent, but it’s also the slow boring of hard boards.

Coming into the conference, we had three metrics for success—and the conference delivered on all three.

The first was greater ambition in countries’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. While China, Russia, and Australia were notable laggards, most countries—not just the United States and European Union early in the year, but more recently India and South Africa—announced revised and updated NDCs. The Paris Agreement “rachet mechanism” is working.

Opening with a bang

A second metric for success was a stepped-up emphasis on delivery and implementation – that is, concrete pathways and policies for countries to meet the pledges they’ve made.

The tone in Glasgow was set right away with a wave of more than 100 commitments and announcements over two days of leader-level meetings. For example, over 100 countries joined the U.S.-led Global Methane Pledge, which aims to reduce methane emissions 30% by 2030. Methane is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it’s released, and accounts for more than a quarter of the warming we are currently facing; reducing methane emissions is thus one of the few levers the world has to slow warming in the critical next decade or two, while we accelerate the transition to a net-zero economy. The opening days also saw important announcements on tropical forest protection, finance, ending coal-fired power generation, hard-to-abate sectors, and more.

These new commitments still need to be backed up by policies. But by bringing together a range of public and private stakeholders, outlining concrete steps that countries can take in key sectors, and backing up the commitments with new sources of finance to help meet them, they represent a welcome shift in focus toward delivering on the pledges countries have made.

The conference also got a welcome boost midway through its second week, when the United States and China released a joint announcement outlining continued cooperation on climate change. While the announcement is well short of what is ultimately needed between the world’s two largest climate polluters, it was more than many people (including me) expected, and a welcome reset after the acrimony of recent months. It builds on the two countries’ April statement in key ways, including pledges by China to develop a National Methane Plan and to phase out coal starting later this decade. And it outlines several concrete areas for collaboration in the coming months, which could presage continued steady—if slow—progress.

What went on in the negotiating rooms

The third metric for success was completion of the “rulebook” governing the implementation of the Paris climate agreement. This included guidance on transparency, which will determine how countries report their progress toward meeting their pledges, critical to hold them to account; and the guidance on Article 6, often known as the “markets provision” but really about how countries work together.

Article 6 is the Paris Agreement’s engine of international cooperation. It is what enables countries to work together to achieve faster, deeper cuts in emissions than they could on their own, while channeling finance to promote truly sustainable green growth in developing countries. But markets are only a force for good when there are guardrails in place to ensure environmental and social integrity.

Agreement on Article 6 was particularly hard-won: it eluded negotiators in both of the previous COPs, in part because the issues involved in Article 6 are simultaneously highly technical (determining the precise details of how countries account for transfers of emissions reductions) and highly political (governing how countries account for their emissions reductions and how they can benefit from international transfers). The guidance agreed at the COP, although not perfect, provides the clarity that countries need to move forward, along with strong provisions to prevent double-counting—the most important safeguard of environmental integrity.

  • Most importantly, the guidance requires countries to account for internationally transferred emission credits via what’s known as “corresponding adjustments” to their national emissions figures used to measure progress toward their NDCs—essentially, double-entry bookkeeping.
  • Crucially, those corresponding adjustments are required for all credits that are authorized for use toward countries’ NDCs as well as for “other international mitigation purposes,” including the market-based mechanism for the international aviation sector, known as CORSIA. As a result, each ton of emissions reductions can only be counted toward a single climate commitment. Under the guidance, corresponding adjustments must also be applied to credits regardless of whether they were generated from sectors inside or outside of the host country’s NDC, and must be applied starting right away.
  • The most disappointing aspect of the Article 6 guidance was a provision allowing the use of pre-2021 credits generated under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism. Because these credits represent emissions reductions that have already been achieved under the previous climate regime, they don’t represent additional reductions that can help raise ambition. The saving grace is that such pre-2021 credits will be labeled as such—meaning that countries looking to buy credits can, and should, refuse to accept them.

What it all means

In many ways, the COP26 “cover” decision showcased the virtues and limits of the UNFCCC process. It highlights concern, calls for greater ambition, and praises collaboration. But while exhortation is useful, execution is even more vital—and that will depend much more on the policies countries put into place, and the multilateral commitments (like those announced in the first days of the conference) they undertake, than on the wording of a COP decision. In the final flurry of negotiations, much was made of word choices, as observers sought to divine the difference between, say, “Requests” and “Urges.” Such minutiae take up inordinate amounts of attention and energy in the negotiations, but ultimately make little difference. We aren’t going to solve the climate crisis with a thesaurus: We are going to solve it by setting, and delivering on, ambitious targets for reducing emissions, financing low-carbon development, and boosting resilience, especially in the world’s most vulnerable regions.

Even the much-noted replacement of a “phaseout” of coal with a “phasedown” will not matter much for actions on the ground. If anything, the fact that China and India—both with rapidly growing economies that are still heavily dependent on coal, and in India’s case with hundreds of millions of people who lack reliable access to electricity—agreed to any language at all on phasing down coal represents remarkable progress toward a global consensus on the need to end coal use, and a testament to the hard work of the folks who mobilized support for the statement.

Going forward, we urgently need countries to deliver on their NDCs, in addition to setting more ambitious targets. The UN negotiations can support that with a Global Stocktake in 2023 that promotes shared understanding among governments, business and civil society about what policies and actions are most effective at cutting emissions, channeling finance and bolstering resilience. C2ES is actively engaged in shaping that effort. Watch this space!