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COP26: Cop Out?

It is now over three months since the conclusion of COP26 in Glasgow. Enough time to develop some perspective on what was achieved, and, how successful it was. While the outcomes didn’t live up to the media (and government) hype that surrounded it, neither was it just “blah blah” as Greta Thunberg declared at the time.

COP 26

To Cop Out: "Avoid doing something that one ought to do".

Of course, measuring success can become subjective, but a reasonable starting point from which to evaluate the conference outcomes would be to ask the following questions:

  • What were the conference aims?
  • Were those aims met?
  • Was it enough?

The Aims

1. Secure global net zero carbon emissions by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach by:

  • Accelerating the phase-out of coal.
  • Curtailing deforestation.
  • Speeding up the switch to electric vehicles.
  • Encouraging investment in renewable energy resources.

2. Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats; and specifically, the countries affected by climate change to:

  • Protect and restore ecosystems.
  • Build defences, warning systems.
  • Develop resilient infrastructure and agriculture to avoid loss of homes, livelihoods and even lives.

3. To make good on the promise to mobilise at least $100bn in climate finance per year by 2020. For developed countries to "urgently scale up" financial support for developing countries, and to respond to their need to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Were those aims met? There were certainly positive outcomes.

On a general level advocates can point to the following.

  • Originally the Paris agreement of 2015 set global temperature targets at “well below” +2 degrees centigrade. This has now been firmed up to a more rigid +1.5 degrees centigrade.
  • The next major conference is now scheduled for this year 2022, instead of 4 years down the line, which will, it is hoped, maintain the focus of governments globally on the 1.5 degree target.
  • More than 130 countries pledged to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030.

More specifically:

  • There was a major agreement, led by the USA and China, and signed by over 100 countries to cut methane emissions by 30% by the end of the decade. This could reduce projected temperature rise by 0.5 degrees by 2100.
  • India announced it would target net zero carbon emissions by 2070 (not 2050).
  • More than 40 governments committed to investing in clean technology and the phasing out of fossil fuels.

But there were also major disappointments.

The main concern was the abandonment of the aim to phase out coal by 2030. Instead, at the behest of a number of fossil fuel exporting countries this was watered down to the phrase phase down which means very little. Given that fossil fuels are the major contributor to global warming the fact that countries like India, Australia and Saudi Arabia were able to put their short term political and economic interests first was disappointing.

Secondly, governments from the richer nations have reneged on their promises (made at the Paris conference in 2015) to provide an annual budget of $100 billion to help vulnerable low income countries cope with the impacts of climate change: including sea level rise, extreme climatic events, and impacts on agriculture. Disappointingly, there were no commitments, no plans, or deadlines to provide the money owed to help developing countries and no promise of action, just vague rhetoric.

Instead of providing much needed funding to vulnerable countries, the richer countries are focussing investment on the development of electric vehicles which may well excite the consumer in the UK or Germany but do little for the poorer countries around the Indian and Pacific basin, many low lying and under imminent threat from inundation in the next 30 years.

There were criticisms that the language used in the initial drafts was watered down for the final report. Aubrey Webson, the chair of the Alliance of Small Island States cited the use of words like ‘Urging’, ‘calling’, ‘encouraging’ and ‘inviting’ as “not the decisive language that this moment calls for.” Others interpret such language along the lines of “do it if you want to”.

Success or Failure?

So, did COP26 meet its aims? The answer to that is, yes, in part.

  • It has focussed the minds of government leaders on the 1.5 degree temperature rise target.
  • It has put “science” at the forefront of the debate.
  • Crucially it has put in place the first steps towards the protection of the world’s major forest ecosystems.

But hard commitments to remove completely reliance on fossil fuels are conspicuously absent as is any roadmap to achieve net zero by 2050. In that sense Greta Thunberg was right: all talk little action!

Focussing on green technologies such as the development of electric cars will, of course, help to reduce the output of greenhouse gases in wealthier countries. No doubt it will also help to stimulate economic growth and employment for those countries involved in the new technologies. However, it is of little relevance to those vulnerable countries in the poorer “south” who need urgent financial assistance now.

Pay Back Time?

Global temperature rise, at least in part, is a legacy of the rapid industrialisation that occurred across the northern hemisphere during the 19th and 20th centuries. The issue is that those countries reaped huge rewards from industrialisation yet it is the rest of the world that continues to pay the price. In terms of global warming, rising sea levels and extreme weather events.

The argument that the wealthier countries should be compensating the poorer countries for the damage they have caused to global climate is undeniable but continues to go unheard.

Ultimately the problem is that the solutions lie with politicians not scientists. And politicians rarely seem to take the long view or even a global view. Short term national considerations nearly always outweigh the broader needs of the planet.

So, was it enough? Again, the answer would seem to be no, not enough to avert a climate crisis and not even a start in terms of meeting obligations to those countries at greatest risk from the impact of global warming.

So, did COP26 effectively Cop Out? On balance, for many, the answer is yes.

The final word is with Christiana Figueras writing in the Guardian, “the success of COP 26 lies in the eyes of the beholder. Many will say that we continue to irresponsibly spin the political wheels, and from some vantage points that is true.

Christiana Figueres was head of the UN climate change convention that achieved the Paris agreement in 2015, and is the author of The Future We Choose.

  • Footnote 1: Check out this BBC News report: Major banks continue to fund large investments into the development of new fossil fuel developments despite net zero pledges
  • Footnote 2: COP27 is due to take place in the Egypt in November 2022. In advance of that The UN Climate Chief Patricia Espinosa has called governments to take immediate action by submitting more ambitious national climate action plans including emission reductions, adapting to the impacts of climate change and climate finance, with a focus on finance for adaptation.

Points for Discussion

  1. Should governments of prosperous countries in the Northern Hemisphere be investing so much in the development of electric vehicles or should they be doing more to help the vulnerable countries of the “South” to adapt to and protect themselves from the impact of climate change?
  2. Do you agree that global inequality and lack of social injustice are the reasons why of climate change is becoming a climate emergency?
  3. Climate change is really only a problem for the poorer countries of the South; do you agree?
  4. Greta Thunberg labelled COP26 A Greenwash Festival. Was she right?


By Phil Brighty

Former Geography Teacher

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