COP26: The good, the bad and the ugly

COP26 art

Comparing the transition to a low carbon, well-adapted world to turning a large cruise ship, slow but strategic, seems appropriate given the location of COP26 on the banks of the River Clyde with its shipbuilding heritage. SOAS had the privilege of taking a delegation of observers to the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. What was it like? Well, firstly it felt strange. It was the first time for many of us to be in large crowds post-Covid, seeing friends and colleagues in 3D and leaving our home desks to trek across a massive campus of event and negotiation rooms. Kudos to the organisers for keeping it safe and smooth and to the people of Glasgow for their warm welcome citywide, even limiting the rain during the fortnight in our honour. 

Women world leaders on stage at COP26 meeting in Glasgow. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0): Credit: Scottish Government

Beyond the success of holding the meeting under these circumstances, there are some reasons to be optimistic about the initiatives from COP26 and its final Glasgow Climate Pact. The global narrative has shifted considerably in the last few years, reinforced by the publication of the first of the new batch of IPCC Assessment reports. The text highlights alarm and concern over existing temperature rises, existing climate change impacts, and the narrowing solution space. The agreement reinforces the global target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5oC, something scarcely believable before the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, even if the solution space to achieve this goal is narrowing rapidly. 

The explicit acknowledgment of coal, oil and gas in creating the climate crisis, and the role of subsidies in supporting these industries is also an important normative shift, even if they don’t translate to concrete actions. This sends a strong signal to investors as to the risks of putting more money into these industries, even if not quite the “death knell for coal” that UK PM Boris Johnson has claimed. 

Silhouette of factories

A commitment to revisit national pledges at next year’s COP is significant. Yes, this kicks the can down the road, but this review was not previously written into the Paris agreement. The diplomatic road to COP27 now has the mandate to push for higher ambitions to tackle the causes of climate change. COP26 also boosted efforts to enhance the focus on adaptation to climate change impacts, balancing policy-related more directly to greenhouse gases to date. Work will start on defining a measurable global goal on adaptation, while richer polluting nations are urged to at least double their collective provision of climate finance for adaptation to poorer less polluting nations from 2019 levels by 2025.  

Finally, while aims to be the most inclusive COP yet were rubbished by many civil society activists, the shift to hybrid or online format in so many of the events marked a major change in access and engagement by wider publics around the world – at least where internet access is available and affordable. Plaudits also to those marching, campaigning and lobbying for climate justice throughout the year. COP negotiators work within the decision space given by their political masters and the role of civil society in expanding that political space through pressure at home and abroad remains vitally important.  

What went less well? Much press has focused on the role of India, China and the USA in a last-minute alteration of the text on phasing out (changed to phasing down) fossil fuel subsidies. But this was as much a failure of pre-COP diplomacy as India playing the bad guy. Jason Hickel’s recent analysis to divide the available carbon budget fairly, India remains some way from its fair share, unlike the richer historically polluting industrialised countries, who have overshot their fair share of emission by 90%. India claims a right to exploit its fossil fuel reserves and the global community needs to step up seriously to keep those in the ground. The multi-country package of support to help South Africa do the same is an encouraging sign that this element of climate justice is being recognised. 

Either way, this red line should have been foreseen by the Presidency and its extensive pre-COP consultations, even if it was clearly caught off-guard by the Indian announcement at COP26 of a net zero by 2070 target. More tellingly, the willingness of the COP to bend the fossil fuel subsidy text in the final hour tells us much about geopolitical power when compared to the apparent signal from the Presidency to the small island negotiators 24 hours earlier that it was too late to introduce new text on a Glasgow Facility on Loss and Damage, something to which the UK had apparently earlier been amenable. 

The UK Presidency upped the dialogue on loss and damage, hosting a Presidency event and even releasing a discussion paper. But with no financing commitment within the COP, negotiations remain are mired in a failure to focus on the ‘addressing’ component of ‘averting, minimising and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse impacts of climate chance’. External funding commitments during COP26 from the Scottish government, a group of philanthropists and a Belgian regional government exposed this failure further. This has left the small island, vulnerable and least developed country blocks particularly bruised by what started out as a COP26 determined to enhance support to prevent human suffering, loss of livelihoods, homes and cultural heritage.  

The harsh and ugly reality for many people globally is that COP26 was a lost opportunity to usher in the transformations needed to limit the impacts of the poorest and most vulnerable people and countries to the ravages of climate change. Let’s be clear, the pledges are insufficient to date and we can’t allow both new investment in fossil fuels and limit warming to 1.5oC. Activists, business, civil society and governments still need to keep the pressure up to dramatically alter the turning circle of the cruise ship earth. 

Dr Thomas Tanner is the Director of the Centre for Development, Environment and Policy (CeDEP) at SOAS.

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