In the first two weeks of November, world leaders converged on Glasgow for a twelve day climate conference hailed as the last decisive opportunity to prevent environmental collapse. COP 26 (shorthand for the catchily named ‘26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’) brought together around 25,000 delegates, including heads of state, policymakers, scientific experts, and prominent spokespeople (famous faces like Barack Obama, David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg). It was the most important COP since the landmark 2015 meeting in Paris, which saw an agreement, ratified by almost every country on earth, to reduce emissions and halt the rise in global temperatures.
These UN meetings are held every year, but once every five years countries are obliged to ‘update and enhance’ their commitments. In the wake of increasingly frequent extreme weather events and accelerating temperatures, hopes were high that COP 26 would deliver policies capable of reducing carbon emissions and other key drivers of climate breakdown. The most urgent question that haunted the conference was whether it could limit global heating to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels. According to some projections by UN scientists, breaking this threshold could lead to runaway warming, mass extinction of species, desertification, and catastrophic sea level rises.
These hopes suffered a setback when presidents Xi Jingping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia announced that they would not be attending the conference. China and Russia are amongst the five most most polluting nations on earth, and their absence was viewed as undermining the scope and potency of negotiations. Despite this, a number of key announcements were made in the first week: India set its first ever net zero pledge (although 2070 falls short for many experts); 100 countries signed a deal to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030; and forty countries agreed to phase out coal-fired power, which is viewed by scientists as the ‘dirtiest fuel source’. Moreover, on November 10th, China and the US issued a joint declaration which detailed how they would work together to curb emissions in the 2020s, thereby raising hopes that the two rival powers could work together on climate.
Despite these achievements, thousands of activists and spokespeople criticised the conference. Greta Thunberg and others railed against ‘greenwashing’, in response to members of fossil fuel companies and banks being invited into climate talks and initiatives. Reports also emerged that representatives from countries in the Global South, which often experience the most acute effects of global warming, have struggled to access the conference. This news came alongside a report from Global Witness that revealed there were more fossil fuel lobbyists in attendance than delegates from the eight countries most affected by climate change. Finally, videos of young activists confronting the CEO of Shell and COP 26 President Alok Sharma went viral throughout the summit, as plans to open the Cambo oil field brought Britain’s credibility as host nation into question. These concerns were demonstrated palpably on Saturday, when around the world, millions of people marched to demand more substantive action.
In the days leading up to the final agreement, the conference saw individual countries release their plans for curbing emissions. While targets are summarised in a multilateral agreement, they are agreed at state level through ‘nationally determined contributions’ (NDCs).
This is to account for the different means and needs of the attending countries, but it risks a disconnect between the targets and the pledges.
After the majority of NDCs had been announced, with just days left to reach an overall agreement, The Climate Action Tracker reported that even with new measures in place, we would still see a rise in temperatures to 2.4℃ by the end of the century. This was well above the stated aim of the COP Presidency to ‘keep 1.5℃ alive’, and suprasses even the upper limit of 2℃.
In the shadow of these projections, an agreement was reached in the conference’s final hours but with a major caveat that disappointed many: China and India pushed through a change in the wording around coal power, from ‘phasing out’ to ‘phasing down’.
This was seen as a blow to get an international transition away from fossil fuels off the ground. Even so, the agreement included major commitments. Leaders agreed to reconvene next year to improve on their NDCs and to avoid the current 2.4℃ projection.
Rich countries agreed to ‘at least double’ funds to help developing countries adapt to climate change. Regulations on carbon markets were tightened, providing some extra protections for indigenous communities. And for the first time, the agreement mentioned a movement away from fossil fuels, alongside the idea of a ‘just transition’ to protect workers from job losses.
But at the same time, many key demands, particularly around compensation or reparations from the historically polluting Global North to the worst affected communities in the Global South, were not met.
Sinking island nations such as Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands were infuriated by the middling agreement in the face of an existential threat to their homelands, and may now resort to lawsuits, and indigenous have described the results as an ‘embarrassment’ and a ‘death threat’.
Now that the dust is settled, it seems that COP has held open the window to change, rather than ushering it in, or as climate economist Michael Jacobs put it, ‘1.5 is still alive, but it’s on life support’.
The COP 26 People’s Advocate, Sir David Attenborough, opened the conference by telling world leaders, ‘the world is looking to you’.
He insisted that ‘our motivation should not be fear, but hope’. Whilst hope remains, the world is still looking to its leaders for decisive action.
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