Was COP26 a success or a failure?

What’s happening? Last weekend, the gavel finally came down at COP26 and the Glasgow Climate Pact was born. Along with an extensive list of agreements made across the course of the conference, the pact calls for emissions plans to be revisited next year to keep global temperature rise limits of 1.5C within reach. 

 Last-minute drama for Sharma – You will have no doubt seen the visibly deflated and emotional COP26 President Alok Sharma apologise to climate vulnerable countries after the at-the-wire intervention from India and China to force countries to agree to “phase down”, rather than “phase out”, the use of coal. This was made at the very terminus of a two-year journey of UK diplomatic efforts and engagement to “consign coal to history”, and obviously stung. 

 But COP26 was not just about coal, there were a host of other issues on the table. How successful was the conference overall? As with anything as complex as climate change, it depends on which way you look at it. 

 COP26 was a success – Let’s look at the outcome from the perspective of the start of the conference and the history of all agreed COP outcomes. The language change on coal was a disappointment, but it’s important to note it still marks the first time a specific fossil fuel is mentioned in a COP decision. This is a successful step forward, one that many would have taken at the start of the event, and one that paves the ground for future strengthening of this statement. 

 Often the elephant in the room, fossil fuel subsides were also mentioned in the climate pact. Again, this is the first time this has happened. There is a large qualifier here: parties agreed to phase out “inefficient” subsidies for fossil fuels. But, from an economics perspective, in a world where we are supporting a harmful activity without properly accounting for its negative environmental impact, all fossil fuel subsidies are technically inefficient. 

 The Paris Agreement “rulebook” was finalised. This was one of the main aims going into COP26, following a delay from COP25. An agreement was made on the Agreement’s Article 6 on carbon markets – a previously contentious area – and, while not perfect, it avoids the use of very old carbon credits, which some countries were pushing for. Carbon markets responded positively 

 There was a long list of other positive initiatives announced, but most importantly countries have agreed to come back to the table next year with upwardly revised climate pledges, or nationally determined contributions (NDCs). This means a 1.5C scenario is “kept alive” – one of the UK’s other main aims for the summit – and is critical as, currently, collective pledges are falling short. 

 COP26 was a failure – Imagine you were a representative from a climate vulnerable island state, and you had conceded on compensation for climate change impacts in order to reach a stronger deal on mitigating future climate change. Then, at the very last second, a backroom deal to water down the language meant you didn’t really get that either.  

 This demonstrates that COP participants are involved in a process where they can be held to ransom from those with fossil fuel interests who can threaten to collapse the talks. That those who will feel the most significant effects of climate change are underrepresented and have to abide by this system marks a failure of the COP process itself. 

 Developed countries agreed at COP26 to deliver $100bn of climate finance to emerging economies annually by 2025, but the fact this isn’t being treated with more urgency – given the goal should have been reached by 2020 – is another COP26 failure. Particularly in the context of how much was spent on the Covid-19 response. 

 Where do we go from here? To Egypt, for COP27. For next year’s conference to have more successes than failures, it’s key countries come to the table with more ambitious, and properly thought-out, plans on reducing emissions. 

 It’s also crucial there is a greater amount of unification, so that climate vulnerable nations’ voices are properly heard. So far, it looks like adequate support and recognition for such countries is something the Egypt presidency will indeed be pushing for. 

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