On my journey home after COP26, I got a one-line message from an old friend. He’s not involved in the climate negotiations. A father with a young family, he asked: “Are you optimistic?”.
“Yes” I replied.
With more time and distance from Glasgow, and less adrenaline, I have questioned that conviction.
From the perspective of an experienced negotiator, who has spent his career in or around national and international civil service and lives comfortably in the global North, the overall outcomes from COP26, including the overarching cover decision, were definitely toward the top end of my expectations for what was possible to achieve in Glasgow, and included:
- completion of the Paris Agreement implementing guidelines, including in relation to international carbon markets and the enhanced transparency framework, which will be critical to hold countries accountable against the promises they have made
- a requirement for countries to revisit their climate targets sooner than they would otherwise have done, together with the launch of a process to look at the ambition of 2030 targets – critical in this decisive decade where global emissions must be reduced by 45%
- a linking of long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies (LTSs) to net zero emissions by mid-century, and an invitation to regularly update the strategies
- the first explicit references in the UNFCCC to dealing with coal and fossil fuel subsidies. This is a significant achievement that I would have said was extremely unlikely to be possible
- the launching of a process to define the global goal on adaptation, which has the potential to build momentum toward enhanced and effective adaptation on the ground
- a collective commitment to double adaptation finance – another significant outcome that was not predicted at the start of COP26
- a process to define the post 2025 goal, important including how to operationalize Article 2.1(c) of the Paris Agreement – the so called ‘shifting of the trillions’ in relation to both mitigation and resilient development
- operationalization of the Santiago Network on loss & damage, and finally a shift towards taking loss & damage more seriously within the contact of the UNFCCC.
They are all the more remarkable when judged against the backdrop of preparing for and running a COP during a global pandemic, no in-person negotiations since December 2019 with the huge backlog of work that generated, and significant and increasing geopolitical tensions.
And aside from the negotiations agenda—which nowadays accounts for only a fraction of what happens at a COP—there were multiple significant announcements from world leaders and from sub-national stakeholders.
However, in the light of increasingly frequent and severe climate impacts around the world, and the unequivocal and stark messages of the IPCC, the COP26 outcome represents an inadequate response. From the perspective of the most vulnerable people around the world and younger generations, COP26 fell far short of what they were hoping for.
If the aim of Glasgow was to ‘keep 1.5 alive’, then COP26 barely crawled over that low bar. Seen through that lens, COP26 has merely delayed the action that really needs to be taken. To keep within the the 1.5-degree C limit of the Paris Agreement, emissions need to halve in what is being called the ‘decisive decade’. That’s less than 100 months. Instead, emissions are continuing to rise.
Given this, am I still optimistic? Yes, I am. But why?
Slowly and almost imperceptibly, things have changed in the international climate negotiations. Despite all the logistical challenges and agenda backlog due to COVID, delegates got down to work from day one in Glasgow, in what was the smoothest start to a COP that I can remember. There were no agenda fights – a perennial feature of COPs and procedural issues that have plagued and hampered past UNFCCC meetings did not materialize. Experienced negotiators pinched themselves and quietly asked each other when things would start to go ‘wrong’ in Glasgow – but they didn’t go wrong. This change in approach is hopefully permanent, reflecting the urgency of the task at hand and an understanding that anything other than acting accordingly will no longer be tolerated by those outside the negotiating rooms.
The science of climate change, and particularly the IPCC, was uncontested among the countries that participated in Glasgow. And it was notable that the final plenary clearly established 1.5°C as the temperature limit that we must work toward. Unless I missed it, not a single country spoke against this, explicitly or implicitly.
The Paris Agreement is working—in relation to mitigation at least. In 2014, before the agreement was adopted, the world was heading toward close to 4 C of global heating. Coming out of COP26, new commitments made mean that we are heading toward closer to around 2 C. Countries in Glasgow acknowledged that ambition will need to be revisited more frequently than the five-year cycle anticipated. So, while the Glasgow outcome clearly falls short of fully closing the ambition gap to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, it was a significant step forward and puts in place a strong foundation to do that—including the Glasgow requirement to revisit nationally determined contributions (NDCs) next year and the strengthened emphasis on the role of LTSs toward achieving net-zero emissions. To keep open the possibility of limiting global heating to 1.5 C, setting mitigation targets that halve global emissions this decade and reach net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest will be vital.
The finalization of the guidance needed to fully operationalize the Paris Agreement, including in relation to transparency and international carbon markets, represents a significant achievement that did not get the recognition it deserved in the aftermath of Glasgow. Furthermore, it means that the big era of negotiations that has dominated the UNFCCC for decades is over. The way is now clear for a greater focus on implementation – and it is essential that attention increasingly shifts to implementation as the true measure of ambition, rather than promises on paper.
A focus on implementation also has the potential to bring countries together to solve shared problems by cooperating around identified solutions. In that context the excellent work of the high-level climate champions needs to be seized upon, further bringing climate action to the center of what the international process is about. Key to the this will be to embed climate action in the heart of the UNFCCC global stocktake (GST)- the process to raise ambition as part of the Paris Agreement ambition cycle. In the context of more and more countries setting mid-century net-zero targets, to be effective the GST needs to focus on highlighting opportunities for enhanced action and implementation as much, if not more, than target setting. G20 countries don’t need the GST to help define their targets – and it is vital that the G20 find value in the GST process if it is to be more that a procedural box-ticking exercise.
The continued obsession with the “drama” of the final plenary and focus on largely irrelevant semantics arguments or the contents of non-binding political declarations in the form of COP decisions, is depressing, misleading and unhelpful. But this, too, is changing, with a growing understanding that while having COPs on the annual calendar acts as an important political milestone and action forcing mechanism, the negotiations side of COPs do not of themselves generate ambition. If done well, at best they can uncover and reflect the limits of what is currently politically possible. Once the leaders left on the second day of Glasgow – and arguably even before they arrived – the parameters for what was possible in the negotiations was already set. Building on the work of past presidencies, the UK and the high-level climate champions succeeded in putting the action right at the center of the work of COPs and ensuring that the action agenda is no longer comprises side events – but is the main event. That this evolution continues will be crucial in the transition from negotiations to implementation.
Glasgow has put in place all the building blocks needed for this transition to implementation. A whole section of the Glasgow outcome is devoted to it. Particularly important in this regard is the reference to Article 4.2 of the Paris Agreement, which contains a legally binding requirement on all countries to pursue domestic mitigation measures with the aim of achieving their NDCs. Not enough has been made of this provision. Also noteworthy in the Glasgow outcome is the recognition of the importance of the role of non-Party stakeholders in climate action, as well as a mandate to the high-level climate champions to support the effective participation of non-Party stakeholders in the GST. The full operationalization of the enhanced transparency framework will also increase pressure on Parties to implement the promises they have made.
As the major economies shift further toward trajectories that are consistent with a 1.5 C /mid-century net-zero pathway, the space for them to demonstrate ambition through increasing mitigation targets will diminish. An increasing number of major economies are already indicating that they will not raise their headline NDC targets next year. And given the lack of sufficient solid implementing policies in place, would enhanced targets be credible even if they were forthcoming? It seems more likely that in future enhanced ambition by major economies will need to increasingly articulate policies to implement their mitigation targets – as required by Article 4.2 of the Paris Agreement. While this might not make the front pages, it is at least as transformational and important as setting targets on paper.
There will also be increasing pressure on major economies to demonstrate ambition through increased solidarity with poorer and more vulnerable countries. The program on the global goal for adaptation will be an important avenue for this. Years of neglect means that adaptation is lagging far behind mitigation in terms of technical understanding, information, solutions, and policy options. This means that discussions on adaptation almost inevitably, and understandably, become another forum for a finance discussion rather than to make progress on the equality important quality of the demand side. While the majority of NDCs include an adaptation component, the paucity of submitted National Adaptation Plans and Adaptation Communications, and the lack of specificity on adaptation action and implementation as compared to mitigation, cannot be attributed to solely a lack of financial support. A lack of political commitments as well as a more complicated landscape of solutions and implementation are also contributory factors. The major economies need to step up and provide thought leadership and political leadership on adaptation.
The discussions on the post 2025 finance goal will also be vital to show solidarity, including not only an update to the 100bn goal, but also operationalizing Article 2.1(c) of the Paris Agreement – the so called ‘shifting of the trillions’ in the global economy towards alignment with the Paris Agreement goals. Much of this was made at the time of adoption of the Paris Agreement. But what is largely forgotten is that 2.1(c) is not just about mitigation but also climate resilient development. Given that the vast majority of global finance flows are within the G20, and that finance and investment flows much more naturally towards mitigation options, to get global financial flows to flow outside of the G20 or towards climate resilient development will require policies that are far more interventionist and far reaching than is currently the case. The private sector will not solve this problem organically – there is a clear market failure that needs to be addressed. While there is important work being done in this area, efforts need to be much more concerted, coordinated, and strategic, including thorough the G7 and G20. Relying on piecemeal and disconnected initiatives will not yield sustainable results at the scale needed or demonstrate a clear political response to a demand that is only going to grow as climate impacts worsen.
Fully and effectively addressing and implementing 2.1(c) is likely to be much more politically palatable than dealing with increasing demands for compensation for loss & damage arising from climate impacts. It is disappointing that more was not done to think outside the box to address the financial concerns underlying increasing demands on loss & damage in the run up to COP26, particularly given the host country’s expertise in the financial sector, including the city of London. But the Presidency still has the potential to shape the agenda during its remaining months. Pressure on this issue will only increase over time.
There also needs to be more humility in the discourse between countries on climate action – and a focus on implementation could help to bring this about. From one perspective, it is not 1821, but 2021 and the technologies and opportunities exist to leapfrog the development pathway taken by developed countries—and if the emerging economies do not seize that opportunity staying within the 1.5 C limit of the Paris Agreement will be impossible. This is true. At the same time it is also true that the per capita emissions of China are half that of the United States. China does not even appear in the top 20 of countries per capita cumulative historic emissions of GHGs. India, the focus of much attention in the final plenary of COP26, has tens of millions of people without access to electricity. From this perspective, it is unfair to say that all major economies are at the same starting point and can be expected to have the same targets or achieve net-zero emissions over the same timescales as developed countries – and that is without taking into account a history of exploitation and geopolitical manipulation by developed countries to secure fossil fuel resources of countries that are now being told they cannot now use them for their own development.
Both these perspectives need to be reconciled. Issues equity and climate justice will become more acute, and there are emerging signs that they are starting to be addressed. We are already seeing this through the differentiated net zero dates among the major economies – 2050 for the US, EU and rest of the G7, 2060 for China and 2070 for India. An increased focus on implementation and solidarity for the poorest and most vulnerable countries provides the best way to effectively operationalize issues of equity and fairness, while cognizant of what the science says we must do.
So while COP26 did not produce an outcome that is adequate to address the climate crisis, it did take a significant step towards doing that. It completed the guidance needed to fully operationalize the Paris Agreement and it put in place a strong foundation and vision for the way forward. This, together with a genuine belief that countries are acting in faith towards addressing the climate emergency, and that the transition from confrontational negotiations towards collaborative implementation is under way, is cause for optimism.