The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) ended on November 13 in Glasgow with mixed results. The 197 Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reached agreement on a broad range of topics, including finalizing the “rulebook” for implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement. But many, including scientists and representatives of climate-threatened communities, criticized the outcome as insufficient. Ultimately, the legacy of COP26 will depend on whether the international community can operationalize and build on the promises made in Glasgow in a way that meets the urgency of the climate crisis.
The Disappointments of COP26 . . .
From a scientific perspective, COP26 fell short. Even if COP26’s goals are met—a big “if”—the world is on track to be 1.8-2.4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures by the end of the century. Anything greater than 1.5 degrees will have devastating ecological and social impacts, particularly for the most vulnerable communities, with each fraction of a degree increasing the global risk of catastrophic ecological tipping points.
Even 1.5 degrees will still have massive implications for how and where people live. Tina Stege, Climate Envoy for the Marshall Islands, stressed that a 1.8 degree world is unfathomable for many communities, including her own, already experiencing flooded homes during high tides and even greater destruction during major storms: “That’s happening now at 1.1. So I don’t want to talk about 1.8.”
From a justice perspective, COP26 also failed. Twelve years ago, wealthy, industrialized countries—the primary contributors to climate change—pledged $100 billion per year by 2020 to help less wealthy countries—which suffer the greatest impact from climate change—mitigate and adapt. Wealthy countries and multilateral development banks failed to meet this target for 2020 and 2021, with only an estimated $80 million so far provided. Financial support also remains skewed towards mitigation, rather than balanced with adaptation, as climate-vulnerable countries have long demanded.
Another disappointment was the failure to agree on a new “loss and damage” funding mechanism, which would compensate communities for significant climate costs that cannot be adapted to, such as the irreversible loss of land or ecosystems. COP26 operationalized the Santiago Network on Loss and Damage technical support facility but denied the primary ask of the most-affected communities: new financial compensation for loss and damage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the biggest emitters—led by the United States and European Union members—are concerned about opening the doors to potentially unlimited liability for climate change and vetoed the creation of a “Glasgow Loss and Damage Facility.”
. . . and the Successes
COP26 might have succeeded in delivering near the most that was possible, given the politics of the day. The Glasgow negotiations, which required balancing the interests of 197 Parties, were never going to suddenly put the world on a clear track to meet 1.5 degrees.
COP26 delivered agreement on a number of challenging issues. Perhaps most significantly, the Parties finalized the “rulebook,” the technical mechanisms through which much of the Paris Agreement will be implemented. These details have been so complex and divisive that their negotiation has been ongoing since 2015. At COP26, the Parties reached agreement on thorny issues including the Enhanced Transparency Framework (the mechanism for emissions reporting) and common timeframes for Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to emission reductions.
Another sticky issue concerned Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, governing carbon markets and cooperative agreements. Delegates agreed to a framework for countries to exchange carbon credits through the UNFCCC. Many feared that the rules would allow “double-counting” of emission reductions that would hinder overall global progress. The worst of these worries seems to have been avoided, but lobbying by the fossil fuel industry and petrostates like Saudi Arabia significantly weakened the mechanisms, and faux carbon offsetting schemes will persist.
COP26 also produced the Glasgow–Sharm el-Sheikh Work Programme on the Global Goal on Adaptation, a formal mechanism to channel resources toward adaption, and at least doubled financing commitments for adaptation. And it resulted in a raft of specific agreements on issues ranging from ending overseas funding for fossil fuels to ending deforestation and transitioning to zero emissions vehicles.
COP26 also showed that the “ratchet mechanism” at the heart of the Paris Agreement could work. Under that proviso, countries agree to “ratchet up” their intended NDCs each year, gradually reducing emissions with the ultimate goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. More than 140 countries enhanced their NDCs before COP26, keeping the possibility of the 1.5 degree goal alive, with Parties committed to revisiting their NDCs again in light of the target before COP27.
Also significant: for the first time (amazingly), a COP outcome specifically mentioned fossil fuels, with the Glasgow Pact calling for coal power and fossil fuel subsidies to be “phased down.” China and India made a successful last-minute push to change the language from the stronger phase “phase out,” frustrating COP26 President Alok Sharma and drawing harsh criticism from the High Ambition Coalition and climate activists. Still, it marked an important step forward, and one that few expected at the start of the summit.
Overall, the Glasgow Pact reflected much more urgency in the text than previous COPs, “expressing alarm and utmost concern” about climate change—which is about as strong as UN-speak gets.
Looking Forward: New Currents from COP26
COP26 breathed new or renewed life into a number of political currents worth watching in the years ahead.
First, fossil fuels: The Glasgow Pact’s mention of fossil fuel subsidies—estimated at $6 trillion globally in 2020—could give wind to necessary efforts to rapidly reduce their use. COP26 also saw the launch of Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA), a coalition committed to ending oil and gas production led by Denmark and Costa Rica. Ten countries, plus Quebec and California, joined BOGA in some capacity at COP26. While no major fossil fuel-producing states are yet members, this marks one of the first significant attempts to address the supply (rather than just use) of fossil fuels.
A second key current was increased attention to loss and damage financing, which has been on the UNFCCC agenda for years but received unprecedented consideration at COP26. Developing countries came close to securing the creation of a separate loss and damage financing facility, and with climate impacts worsening every year, the pressure for new financing will only grow.
Third, U.S.-China cooperation resurfaced. The US-China Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s, announced during the second week of negotiations, gave a much-needed boost to the process. It also surprised many observers, as the U.S. and China appeared to make little progress on climate engagement leading up to COP26. Any climate solution will require shared commitment from the two largest emitters, and the Declaration highlights many areas of shared focus, including clean energy, methane, and accelerating the phase-down of coal.
A fourth current is increased agency and contributions of non-state and subnational actors. A coalition of investors, banks, and insurers representing $130 trillion in assets announced commitments to align their portfolios with net zero emissions by 2050, under the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (although enforcement is elusive). And, in the absence of government action, private actors—from individual philanthropists to foundations—are increasingly financing loss and damage measures on their own. Additionally, the Glasgow Pact recognizes the importance of integrating adaptation into planning at local, national, and regional levels—reflecting that cities are already at the forefront of efforts to reduce emissions, build resilience, and share best practices.
What Now? Closing the Ambition and Implementation Gaps
While the ink is still setting on the Glasgow Pact, eyes are already casting forward to COP27 in Sharm-el-Sheik, Egypt. Parties will face significant pressure to show that they are meeting the urgency of the climate crisis. To do this, they must close gaps in both ambition and implementation.
First, governments must close the gap between current targets and those that would put the world on track for 1.5 degrees. COP26 called on all Parties to revisit their NDCs and increase 2030 ambition to bring targets in line with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. Pressure will be on all developed countries, but particularly those who did not update their NDCs for COP26, such as Australia.
Beyond 2030, one of the achievements of COP26 was the increase in long-term net-zero targets to cover 90% of global GDP. But targets are not enough: the 2050 net-zero goals seen as leadership a few years ago are now increasingly seen as “blah blah blah” unless accompanied by plans, funding, and interim targets to ensure delivery. And platforms such as the Net Zero Tracker and Race to Zero track and compare net-zero targets and refine robust minimum criteria for commitments, further pushing Parties to raise their ambitions.
Second, Parties must address the gap between current levels of ambition and implementation. Existing policies have the world on track for 2.7 degrees of warming, which would be truly catastrophic. All Parties must now bring the promises made at COP26 back home and drive domestic implementation. This will require dealing with constituent interests in 197 nations and territories and working closely with subnational and non-state actors to deliver on the ground.
As the implementation and ambition gaps grow, the climate crisis becomes more urgent. Increasingly, the question of both countries and non-state actors needs to be not: “What is your 2030/2050 target?” but: “What is your plan to reduce emissions by 7% per year?”. Every year that emissions do not decline, the trajectory of necessary reductions becomes steeper and more costly. After the mixed results of COP26, the fundamental question facing the international community is whether it can muster the ambition and political will to meet the urgency of the moment.