What happened at COP26?

And what next?

By Claire James

The short answers to these questions are simple: in the face of escalating climate breakdown, COP26 did little to shift our trajectory away from catastrophe, away from business-as-usual and towards curbing fossil fuel use. Rich countries have refused to step up and meet their obligations to those who have done the least to cause the climate crisis.

In the words of Greta Thunberg, more “blah, blah, blah”.

And as for what comes next, of course we go on fighting to keep the chance of staying beneath 1.5C alive.

The long version? After two weeks with a flurry of announcements, greenwash, struggles over seemingly minor details of text, and anger from civil society massed on the streets of Glasgow, it’s worth unpacking some of the details of what was really agreed, or not. How does the jargon translate into real world outcomes, literally of life and death? In these details we can see beneath the media spin and glossy announcements the brutal realities of power, money, and neocolonialism.

1.5C on life support

As the window of opportunity is closing to stay within 1.5C heating and avoid the worst climate catastrophe, where are we left after COP26?

Under the Paris climate deal, nations had to submit updated voluntary commitments to climate action (known as nationally determined contributions or NDCs) before the talks. Unsurprisingly, these are generally lacking in substance or urgency. Many lack clear delivery plans and delay meaningful change until after 2030. Climate Action Tracker’s useful analysis finds that even with all new pledges for 2030, we will still emit roughly twice as much in 2030 as required for 1.5C.

They estimate if all current pledges for emissions cuts by 2030 are met, this gives only a 50% chance of staying below 2.4C.

The message was “All in for 1.5°C” but was that achieved at COP26? (Photo: Dean Calma / IAEA)

Of course 1.5C itself is no ‘safe level’. Many areas have already experienced devastating wildfires, floods, hurricanes and heatwaves at 1.1C. These, in combination with longer-term impacts such as drought, disproportionately affect countries who have done least to cause the problem and have fewest resources to deal with them.

One of the most important outcomes of COP26 is the wording in the ‘Glasgow climate pact’ (the final text which all countries agreed to at the end of the negotiations), which “requests” that countries “revisit and strengthen” their targets by the end of 2022 “as necessary to align with the Paris Agreement temperature goal…taking into account different national circumstances”.

This is vital given the alarming gap between where we are and where we need to be. Under the Paris deal, countries were only expected to update their pledges every five years. Holding governments to this will be a huge task for the international climate movement before COP27 in Egypt next year. Immediately after signing up to this wording, the Australian government put out a statement refusing to alter their 2030 target over the next year. Slow hand clap.

Debts to the Global South remain unpaid

Developing countries came into COP26 with a clear demand — payment of desperately needed funding. In Copenhagen in 2009, rich countries promised to transfer $100 billion a year to developing countries by 2020 to help them adapt to climate impacts and to cut emissions. 

But this promise was not met. The latest figures, from 2019 show the total sum falling $20 billion short. Even worse, Oxfam’s analysis from 2017-18 showed only a fifth of funding was given as grants, with most of the rest only provided as loans, frequently at unfavourable rates. Much so-called ‘climate finance’ is therefore geared towards generating profit, and may actually be increasing countries’ debt burdens. 

The Global South had representatives at COP26 but largely saw its needs unmet by developed countries. (Photo: Dean Calma / IAEA)

There was indeed no commitment at COP26 to deliver $100bn a year before 2023. Wealthy countries also resisted the demand that they make this up by providing more than that in 2024 and 2025. 

In a powerful speech (which you can watch in full here), Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, reminded world leaders that in comparison to the failure on climate funding, $9 trillion had been generated by governments in quantitative easing over the past 18 months of the pandemic.

Kicking the fossil fuel habit (or not)

It may seem extraordinary that before this year the role of fossil fuels in causing climate change has never been mentioned in a COP outcome text. In fact, this simply demonstrates the control exerted by the industry and its government allies over the negotiations. This year, Global Witness found 503 delegates linked to the fossil fuel industry, more than any single country’s delegation

In Glasgow, the initial draft text called upon parties “to accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels”. This was then weakened to “…accelerating efforts towards the phase-out of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, recognizing the need for support towards a just transition”.

Global fossil fuel subsidies are at least $600 billion every year. Since no one seemed to have a definition of what ‘inefficient’ fossil fuel subsidies might be, you don’t need to be a cynic to predict that governments are likely to judge all their own fossil fuel subsidies to be ‘efficient’ and therefore outside the scope of the agreement.

However the media attention was not on these gaping loopholes, but on India’s dramatic last minute intervention to change the wording from ‘phase out’  to ‘phase down’. This followed a push from China and India to weaken the text in a last minute meeting between representatives of the four biggest polluters — the US, China, India, and the EU, and Alok Sharma from the UK government.  

Rejecting this amendment would have meant reopening the entire text for renegotiation, so the change was accepted, with much anger from countries that felt they had been sidelined. Fiji’s Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum said, “What we would like to express is not just our astonishment but our immense disappointment at the manner in which this has been introduced.”

High stakes negotiations were also taking place in Glasgow over ‘Article 6’, the last part of the ‘Paris rulebook’ to be finalised. It deals with carbon trading. The important thing to remember about carbon trading / offsetting is that it does not in itself cut emissions, it simply moves them around, as polluters pay for emissions cuts elsewhere. It is possible to set rules that cause some reduction in emissions by getting polluters to buy more ‘carbon credits’ than they use, cancelling some of them. But there are many examples of carbon offsetting failing. The claimed emissions reductions from projects turn out to be non-existent, exaggerated or delayed. So Article 6 has the potential to significantly undermine the entire Paris agreement. To make it even worse, offsetting projects can lead to land grabs and human rights abuses.

Agreement was finally reached in Paris, and while some of the worst proposed loopholes were closed, the overall outcome is worrying. The risk of widespread double counting of emissions cuts (by the purchaser and the country where they happen) was avoided. This, as well as the use of highly dodgy ‘avoided deforestation’ credits were both ruled out. Indigenous people also won a commitment to an independent grievance process for disputes around carbon offsetting projects.

However, the system will allow old Kyoto Protocol credits from 2013 onwards to be carried over into the new system. As this system lacked proper scrutiny of credits, this risks flooding the market with 300 million cheap ‘zombie’ credits which provide no climate benefit. There are also question marks about whether attempts by developing countries to set a high rate of cancellation of credits (essential if the system were to actually drive emissions reductions) were blocked. Just  2% of credits will be automatically cancelled and another 5% paid into a fund to help developing countries adapt to climate change. For credits sold directly between two countries there will be no obligation to cancel any at all (more explanation on how this works here). 

Indigenous voices and civil society struggled to be heard — or event to gain access — inside the halls of COP26. (Photo: Dean Calma / IAEA)

Protecting forests

The Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use was signed by 100 countries representing 85% of the globe’s forested land. It pledges to end or reduce deforestation by 2030, and has attracted $14 billion in public and private pledges of funding. 

It would have been a surprise to many to see Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, on the list of signatories, given his disastrous push to open up the Amazon to increased deforestation. But Greenpeace Brazil executive director, Carolina Pasquali, pointed out, “There’s a very good reason Bolsonaro felt comfortable signing on to this new deal. It allows another decade of forest destruction and isn’t binding.” 

Those who were unimpressed reminded us that this is not the first declaration on forests. The 2014 New York Declaration for Forests promised to reduce deforestation by 50% by 2020 and end it by 2030. Since then, deforestation has only risen, contributing what the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates as 23% of total carbon emissions.

Methane alliance

An alliance was launched to attempt to cut emissions of the greenhouse gas methane by 30 percent by 2030, with over 100 countries signing up. 

Methane, which is 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, is leaking from gas pipelines, oil wells, fossil fuel processing plants and landfills all over the world, as well as being produced by livestock. Around 60% of methane emissions are produced by human activities, and human-caused methane is estimated to be responsible for at least 25% of today’s global warming.

There are no individual targets for members of the new alliance, so there is little transparency or detail on how this reduction is meant to be achieved.

Attempts to cut fossil fuel use (Part 2)

Coal initiatives: A UK government press release announced the “end of coal was in sight” with “190 countries and organisations” agreeing to end coal. 

Understanding who had signed up to what required some untangling, since it included different initiatives with varying levels of ambition. Some countries signing up don’t burn coal anyway but had signed up in ‘solidarity’. Poland did not help the confusion by pledging to phase out coal in the 2030s, then immediately backtracking and saying it still intended to be burning coal until 2049. 

Absent from the list are some of the world’s biggest coal-dependent countries, including Australia, India, China and the US. But there were some steps forward. Vietnam committed to ending coal in the 2040s and Indonesia trailed the possibility of bringing its coal phaseout forward from the 2050s to 2040 with international financial assistance. Ukraine announced a 2035 coal exit, putting pressure on Poland and Germany. To find out more about countries’ coal commitments there is a useful analysis by Ember.

Private finance claims fail to impress

Of all the announcements, the quickest to fall apart was economist Mark Carney’s grand statement that investors worth $130 trillion would put climate at the heart of their investing to help the net zero transition. It sounded too good to be true and it was. These funders would only need to allocate a small percentage of their investments to actual net-zero activity, had no hard commitment to net zero and members would be free to continue investing in fossil fuels.

The quickest announcement to fall apart was economist Mark Carney’s (pictured) that investors worth $130 trillion would put climate at the heart of their investing to help the net zero transition. (Photo: Bank of England/CreativeCommons)

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres had clearly had enough of this kind of thing. He announced he would be launching a group of experts to propose clear standards to measure and analyse net-zero commitments from the private sector.

The most exclusionary COP ever — but civil society made their voices heard

In the run up to COP26, Global South delegates and activist faced huge barriers which prevented many from being able to come. 

In the first week, civil society observers found not just long queues to get in but that they were barred from the actual negotiating rooms for the opening plenaries and leaders summit.

Youth climate activist Alexandria Villesenor spoke of her frustration on Twitter, “At COP25 in Madrid, I entered negotiating spaces and observed, which is what being a “NGO Observer” is all about. Here, at #COP26 I haven’t been able to observe at all. I feel lost, like I’m here as an ornament or to tell reporters what gives me hope over and over and over…”

Outside, protests were widespread, in particular for the Climate Strike on Friday 5th November and the Global Day of Action on Saturday 6th, when an estimated 25,000 and 100,000 people, respectively, took to the streets of Glasgow, demanding action (photos and video from Saturday’s march). 

There were also around a hundred other protests around the UK and many more worldwide, calling for climate justice and highlighting specific struggles, for example protests against aviation greenwash. There was a strong theme of worker solidarity with climate activists, with youth climate strikers joining with striking cleansing workers in Glasgow and a significant trade union presence on demonstrations in other major cities.

What now?

Climate scientist Peter Kalmus summed it up:

“Unless COP26’s failure is recognized as failure, there is no way to learn from it. Allowing global leaders to feel that what happened in Glasgow was acceptable — and spinning it as some sort of success — would be a disastrous mistake. It would give them further license to pander to the fossil fuel industry and fail again next year.”

Here in the UK we need to target our own government, most immediately about the proposed Cambo oil field and Cumbria coal mine — we cannot go straight from hosting COP26 to opening up major fossil fuel projects, the quickest way to put 1.5C out of reach. And these are not the only proposed fossil fuel sites in the UK (see for example this important test case for Horse Hill in Surrey).

Local campaigning, both negative, against immediate threats like this, and positive, making the case for climate jobs, for better public transport and clean air, will continue to be vital, fighting from the ground up and connecting to everyday concerns to engage more people.

But if COP26 taught us anything it is that this is a global movement and we need to connect in solidarity with those across the world who are on the front line of climate change, exploitative fossil fuel extraction, and, with increasing likelihood, land grabs for carbon offsetting.

To keep your spirits and determination up, Rebecca Solnit suggests ways to confront the climate crisis without losing hope.

Together, let’s keep fighting for real climate justice.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Campaign Against Climate Change. It is republished in shortened form with kind permission of the author. Claire James is Secretary of the Campaign Against Climate Change.

Headline photo: A giant puppet of a sea goddess made entirely of recycled materials walked through Glasgow during the COP26 climate change summit. Photo by Sottish Government/WikimediaCommons.

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