COP26: Too Little, But Not Too Late

First, the good news: When it comes to fighting climate change, we’ve made more progress than ever. Now the stark reality: It’s nowhere near enough.

Author Christian Nathler, 11.24.21

As it stands, Earth’s habitability is under threat, and our conduct in the face of this reality can be observed on a spectrum. On one end are a small but growing class of billionaires exploring ways to colonise faraway planets in favour of this one – which is burning. On the other end are those who bide the waning days by sharing existential memes. Between dissociation and literally leaving, neither of these escapist tendencies is practical if there is to be any hope of solving humanity’s predicament. 

Which brings us to COP26: a summit of those ‘Sticking It Out’. More than that, the conference, which took place in Glasgow in the first two weeks of November, gathered heads of state, scientists, CEOs, Leonardo DiCaprio, and other such VIPs to ‘Do Something’. 

What was COP26 looking to achieve?

World leaders attending the conference sought consensus on two key issues. The first is how to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Scientists say any increase above this threshold would be catastrophic; some have already admitted defeat. The second action item concerned how to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, though preferably as soon as possible. This target is essentially our last, best hope to “keep 1.5 alive.”

For two weeks, climate experts presented specific actions required to avoid environmental calamity. Then, delegates from nearly 200 countries bargained over what to do and how quickly. On November 13th, they signed the Glasgow Climate Pact, agreeing in good faith to act on the proposals. Without a legally binding enforcement mechanism – alas, there is no ‘Global Authority on Climate’ – compliance will hinge on tried and true tactics like peer pressure and shame. Indeed, no one wants to show up at COP27 with a dozen new coal plants under their belt.

What was actually achieved at COP26?

The pact’s signatories agreed to 74 affirmations. Some are promising while others are the type of ‘blah, blah, blah’ that make for critical Tweets. Here are a few of the outcomes to be encouraged about. 

1. “Phase down” of coal

Most of us would have preferred coal to be phased out instead of down but, semantics aside, the message is clear: there is no future for dirty energy. 

2. An end to deforestation by 2030

In the summit’s first major deal, countries representing 85 percent of the world’s tree canopy promised to end and reverse deforestation, which accounts for 10 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

3. Extracurricular effort by the U.S. and China

In a separate deal, American and Chinese diplomats agreed to do more to cut carbon emissions over the next decade. More details would be nice but it’s an encouraging sign from the world’s two top polluters. 

4. Methane emissions reduction

Countries producing half of the world’s methane pledged to cut emissions of this potent gas by 30 percent by 2030.

5. Accelerating green tech

More than 40 world leaders signed a commitment to the so-called “Glasgow breakthroughs,” which include five shifts to clean energy: 

  • Power: Clean power is the most affordable and reliable option for all countries to meet their power needs efficiently by 2030.  
  • Road Transport: Zero emission vehicles are the new normal and accessible, affordable, and sustainable in all regions by 2030.
  • Steel: Near-zero emission steel is the preferred choice in global markets, with efficient use and near-zero emission steel production established and growing in every region by 2030.
  • Hydrogen: Affordable renewable and low carbon hydrogen is globally available by 2030.
  • Agriculture: Climate-resilient, sustainable agriculture is the most attractive and widely adopted option for farmers everywhere by 2030.

How does COP26 compare with other climate conferences?

The United Nations Climate Change conference is the world’s foremost meeting of minds when it comes to pulling our planet back from the brink of anthropogenic annihilation. The first summit was held in 1995, in Berlin; this year was the 26th such meeting. The Kyoto Protocol, in 1997, was the first major agreement made at a COP. This happens every four to five years. COP26 sought actions on the recommendations of the Paris Agreement (2015), which sought recommendations based on the warnings of the Durban platform (2011). When world leaders meet again next year, in Egypt, they’ll need to prove their progress on reducing emissions. 

How do experts grade COP26?

Probably somewhere around B-, with room for improvement. There’s a general consensus that the commitments are not ambitious enough, urgent enough, or equitable enough. But they are at least something, which is more than we had before. For the first time, we have a global plan of action, the unanimous denouncement of fossil fuels, and some semblance of progress in slowing rising temperatures. Senior researcher Dr. Joeri Rogelj explains:

“The temperature increase is set to be much lower than scientists estimated a year ago – at best, just under two degrees above pre-industrial levels. This is a huge achievement, but still not enough to meet the 1.5-degree target. The progress made at COP26 was the best the world was prepared to do at the time, but it is nowhere near enough.” 

Anke Herold, who was a member of the German delegation to the climate negotiations and serves as the Managing Director of the Öko-Institut e.V., shares Dr. Rogelj’s cautious optimism. She said:

“COP26 is a success because it has now fully adopted the rulebook needed to implement the Paris Climate Agreement. Now begins the implementation phase, in which states must show that they actually meet their announced targets and that the announcements were not just empty promises.”

RESET’s role in holding COP26 accountable

Our role is to bridge the gap between promises and action; to put pressure on corporations and politicians, raise awareness for effective solutions, and push for paradigm shifts. It has taken 26 years for world leaders to demonstrate their will to fight climate change. By the time they reach a consensus on how to impose it, it might be too late. “The people in power don’t need conferences, treaties or agreements to start taking real climate action. They can start today,” Greta Thunberg wrote shortly after the pact was signed. Presumably, she was talking about us, as a whole. Indeed, real progress happens on the ground, every day, where everyone has a seat at the table.

collage_climate_justice
© RESET.org
Voices of Climate Justice: The Full Interview Series

While we are all affected by climate change, not all climate impacts are created, or distributed, equally. In the interview series "Voices of Climate Justice", we talk to environmental activists from the Global South about their experiences, activism, opinions and hopes for the future. Read on to discover all of the interviews in the series.

Torge Peters/ Studio Nørden
RESET Special Feature: Civic Tech – Ways out of the Climate Crisis with Digital Civic Engagement

With the help of digital tools, citizens can uncover environmental problems, collect important data and support protective measures. In our new upcoming Special Feature, we explore the question: How can civic tech solutions advance climate protection?

Europe Targets 100 Climate-Neutral Cities by 2030

Europe is launching an ambitious mission to decarbonise many of its urban areas within a decade. But is it realistic?

ForTomorrow – How Stockpiling CO2 Emissions Could Help the Climate

We have to drastically reduce global CO2 emissions in the next few years if we are to achieve the Paris climate targets. A young startup from Germany believes that buying up those emissions could help us achieve that goal.

COP24 – Lack of Urgency Doesn’t Have to Mean a Lack of Action!

At the COP24 climate conference in Katowice, Poland this month, decision-makers from around the world came together to draw up concrete guidelines for achieving the Paris Agreement. And while there was success on that front, for now at least, the spirit of the Paris Agreement seems to have run out of steam.

Cop4SDGs: Using Satellites to Monitor the Progress of the Sustainable Development Goals

Five years ago, the United Nations adopted The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Could satellites help ensure that those good intentions actually become reality?

Interview: Climate Neutrality in Industry 4.0 – How Do We Get There?

In Germany, industry is responsible for around a quarter of all CO2 emissions. We talked to Grischa Beier (IASS Potsdam) about how industry can reduce its massive CO2 emissions with the help of digitalisation.

Can Synthetic Trees Help Solve Global Water Scarcity?

Many innovative designs have experimented with producing clean water from contaminated or salt water. A new approach takes inspiration from mangrove trees.