Is COP26 living up to expectations?

26th November 2021


Tom Pashby reports from Glasgow

Expectations for COP26 were varied – would it build on the Paris Agreement and lead to a global pathway to limit global heating to 1.5°C, or would it be a repeat of COP15 in Copenhagen, which was so disastrous that it set back climate action by years? I’m writing in the middle of the second and final week of the conference and it’s still unclear which road the international community will take.

COP26 should have taken place in 2020, but was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2018, the world’s leading climate scientists said in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C that we have 12 years to take “rapid, unprecedented and far-reaching changes in all aspects of society” to hit 1.5°C rather than 2°C of global heating. The report painted a dystopian picture of a 2°C-heated world that would include the forced migration of hundreds of millions of people whose homes are becoming uninhabitable – mainly from the Global South.

The report helped kick off a wave of international activism that included the emergence of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, as well as countless institutional climate and ecological emergency declarations. Popular protests found themselves blocked by coronavirus – which, ironically, brought down emissions due to global lockdowns and economic slowdowns. However, this dip in emissions appears to have been a blip, and emissions have since continued to rise at roughly the same rate as before.

A lack of ambition?

It’s impossible to know whether we would be in a better position if we were coming out of COP27 rather than COP26, and if Extinction Rebellion’s roadblocks had been continuous during the past 24 months, but these could have helped maintain ambition. And there is plenty of ambition at COP26 – it’s just not necessarily translating into the international agreements and policy decisions that are needed to transform the global economy towards net zero.

If you listen to any of the dozens of podcasts covering COP26, or read some of the thousands of media articles on the summit, you will receive mixed messages, to say the least. By the time this has been published, the final text of COP26 may have committed the international community to climate action commensurate with a 1.5°C-heated world, but even my short experience of climate politics suggests that the final product will be more nuanced (read: not good enough).

COP26 has been derided as one of the least inclusive and transparent climate summits since the UN began holding them nearly three decades ago. Civil society has consistently raised concerns that the most polluting countries and the fossil fuel industry are over-represented, while the communities most affected by the climate emergency are largely blocked from the talks through administrative or financial barriers.

“There is plenty of ambition at COP26 – it’s just not necessarily translating into the decisions needed”


Reasons for hope

However, 25,000 delegates from 200 countries still came to the conference – 25,000 people who had to navigate the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change registration system, book travel and accommodation, and find their way to the conference centre. These people are some of the most committed in the world – although plenty more are similarly, if not more, committed to averting climate catastrophe. Based on the number of delegates alone, one would hope that the volume of grassroots activists, sustainability professionals and private and public sector representatives are enough to steer the planet towards net zero in time for 1.5°C of warming, rather than 2°C.

I went to the march through Glasgow on Saturday 6 November, which reportedly drew 100,000 people to the streets; across the globe, hundreds of thousands more marched in their own cities, towns and villages, calling on decision makers to set us on a path to a safe planet. The outpouring of emotion from speakers and attendees contrasted greatly with the suited delegates going through the heavily guarded ring of steel that surrounds the COP negotiations space. We must hope that they are more aligned than they seem.

As I write, the headlines concern how the main agreement involves ‘urging’ countries to commit to limiting global heating to 1.5°C and ending the use of coal. Plenty in the climate action space would say we should have phased out coal decades ago, and be well on our way to a 100% renewables-powered world. Instead, we’re already at 1.2°C of global heating, and activists are saying that the conference is ‘just rhetoric and vibes’.

Tom Pashby : IEMA digital journalist

Image credit | Paddy-Mills_Synergy


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