The COP26 circus is now out of Glasgow. Was it all just a load of ‘blah, blah, blah’, or were there genuine signs of progress? Martin Wright unpicks events
So, now the circus has departed, was it a good COP or a bad COP – or somewhere in between?
To state the obvious first: it hasn’t fixed climate change – not by a long chalk. Add up all the commitments made by governments as part of the Glasgow Pact, and we’re still on track for 2.4C of global temperature rise – way beyond the comfort zone.
The world as a whole hasn’t even committed to phasing out coal – essential for any real progress. Instead, under pressure from heavy coal users India and China, we’ve just agreed to “phase [it] down” – a neologism so vague as to be virtually meaningless.
Meanwhile, rich country governments are still reluctant to own up to their responsibility for the lion’s share of carbon emissions, and put appropriately serious amounts of money on the table to compensate poorer states for the ‘loss and damage’ they suffer as a result.
But look a little closer at what, at times, was a stormy COP26, and you’ll discern some real points of light among the clouds.
First, real progress is evident in the fact that the official goal now is to limit temperature rise to 1.5C. Under the Paris agreement of 2015, which was the previous legally binding deal, the official aspiration was just “well below 2C”. Half a degree may sound like small beer, but for many of the world’s poorer communities, not to mention its coastal cities, it could mean the difference between destruction and survival.
That was backed up by a renewed – and badly needed – sense of urgency, with countries agreeing to return next year (at COP27 in Egypt) with revised national plans for more ambitious climate goals – rather than submit these only every five years.
As to coal (and fossil fuels more generally): the language may be weak, but it is, absurdly, the first time there’s ever been a COP reference to the need to move beyond them. With banks, lending agencies, and governments increasingly committed to ending financing for new coal plants, the elephant in the room is now officially identified and shamed.
Beyond the Glasgow Pact itself, both the first and second weeks of COP26 witnessed a host of parallel announcements and alliances which, while aspirational rather than legally binding, can’t just be written off as hype and greenwash.
COP26 saw a host of announcements and alliances that can’t just be written off as greenwash
They included, for example, a coal-based a pilot scheme to help South Africa make a decisive ‘just transition’ away from its coal dependency. This could serve as a model for similar schemes in India and other countries. (India, incidentally, may be one of the world’s biggest coal users, but it’s also pioneering an impressively rapid roll-out of solar power, including for its rural poor, which enabled it to announce its ‘net zero by 2070’ target at Glasgow.) The Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, which was launched by Costa Rica and Denmark and addresses fossil fuels in general, has helped to set a standard for larger nations to follow.
Then there was the commitment to end deforestation by 2030 – signed up to by 100 countries, including (to considerable surprise) some of the main drivers of deforestation, such as Brazil and Indonesia. The recent spiralling rate of loss in Amazon, as well as an apparently rapid reverse ferret by the Indonesian government, cynics could be forgiven for responding, “Yeah, right…”. This commitment has established a very public standard that nations will increasingly look up to. And it was backed by some hefty funding pledges from both governments and private donors, including (ironically) $2bn (£1.49bn) from Jeff Bezos of Amazon.
Unexpected was also the deal on curbing methane emissions – a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, previously unaddressed at COPs past. Then there was the agreement between the US and China(locked in superpower competition over trade, Taiwan, and human right in the lead-up to COP26), to collaborate closely in pursuit of a 1.5C limit. Although there is not much substance, it is a good example of how rivals can come together to improve the climate.
Put all that together, along with other commitments, and the respected International Energy Agency concluded we could just be on track to hit a 1.8C rise – if (and it’s an ‘if’ the size of the planet) everyone does what they say they will.
There’s one other reason to feel hopeful, and it’s a controversial one: money. Money speaks, and big money shouts. And when it’s $130tr (£96.6tr), it makes a lot of noise indeed. That’s the total amount of assets that is – in theory, at least – now managed in accordance with the goal to transition to a low-carbon economy, by the 450 members of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net ZeroFormer Bank of England Governor Mark Carney launched the initiative.
It’s far from perfect – some of its members still have a lot of exposure to fossil fuels, for example. And activists who understandably see capitalism as a major part of the problem will shudder at the idea that it could lead us out of the mess it’s created. But like it or loathe it, money can move very fast when it spots an opportunity – and right now, all the signals are pointing to clean energy and green technology as being the place to earn a decent return on investment. This could drive progress faster than the slow wheels global diplomacy can ever hope.
There’s a lot of work to do. But we’re still in this
In summary, then, COP26 and its associated circus didn’t fix climate change. There’s still a mountain to climb, and it’s scarily steep. But to dismiss it as all “blah blah blah” is to dismiss a lot of hard work by a lot of basically decent people, pushing for the best possible progress in an imperfect world.
There are still some light points amongst the storm cloud. Although they may seem dim and fluttering right now, these lights will grow brighter and larger if they can keep their eyes on the track. Whether that happens, and whether it happens fast enough, is down to governments, business, civil society – and each and every one of us.
There’s a lot of work to do. But we’re still in this.
Main image: Extinction Rebellion’s red-robed protesters in Glasgow. Protesters Mark Richards/Extinction Rebellion