Image showing the COP26 logo and a view of the Glasgow skyline

Emerging from COP26 – the ‘fight of our lives’

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It’s six years since the Paris Agreement was signed, committing the world to global temperatures rises of less than 2 degrees Celsius, and aiming to limit to 1.5 degrees Celsius if possible. Of course 1.5 degrees Celsius delivers life changing and life threatening conditions in weather patterns all over the world, and some parts of the world are warming faster than others – for example the Arctic. Since Paris the scientific assessment has only become more bleak – on climate change, and on the ecological crisis too.

The Glasgow Climate Pact was finally agreed, together with a slew of other decisions taken in Glasgow – the United Nations has published all of them online. Significant related commitments include to end and reverse deforestation, and to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030. It is no mean feat for nearly 200 countries to come together in a forum like this and make progress on such systemic and complex issues. Nonetheless, how the process works will continue to come under scrutiny.

As the Glasgow climate summit drew to a close on 13 November, after going into extra time, António Guterres, the UN Secretary General, said:

“The outcome is a compromise, reflecting the interests, contradictions and state of political will in the world today. It’s am important step, but it’s not enough. It’s time to go into emergency mode”

In the plenary hall, COP26 President Alok Sharma described the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius as still alive – but with a weak pulse.

Sharma too, apologised for how wording on coal in the final Glasgow Climate Pact was watered down at the last minute (from ‘phase out’ to ‘phase down’) – but that the integrity of the overall deal had to be protected. That reflected that there is much in the deal which moves things on, and for those elements to be lost at the last would have been disastrous.

What was Glasgow about?

So it is worth remembering what COP26 in Glasgow – already delayed a year – was all about. This was the place where countries were to bring their updated plans to the table, setting out how the ambitions in Paris were to be agreed – including the critical associated plans on financing on both mitigation and adaptation. Going into the summit there was already scepticism that these plans would be enough. Coming out of the summit it is clear that Glasgow has delivered some steps forward. The goal of limiting to 1.5 degrees Celsius remains achievable but only if everyone delivers what they have already promised – and ambitions are ratcheted up again before COP27 in Egypt next year.

Small island response

There’s plenty analysis out there on the Glasgow Climate Pact – but it is worth reflecting on how small island nations have responded. Some feel let down as the text changed on coal as a result of last-minute interventions from China and India. On the floor of the plenary the Marshall Islands described their deep disappointment at these moves, but that they were willing to accept the overall deal as it contained elements critical to the lives of many of their islanders. Since then, the Marshall Islands Climate Envoy Tina Stege has developed this theme with observations that:

“This Package is not perfect. The coal change and a weak outcome on loss and damage are blows. But it is real progress and elements of the Glasgow Package are a lifeline for my country. We must not discount the crucial wins covered in this package.”

Alongside, many activists and scientists feel that the Glasgow Climate Pact simply does not go far enough (even in name, no ‘emergency’ in the title). An example might be from a lead scientist from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Diana Urge-Vorsatz, who pointed out that coal gets a mention in the text, but oil and gas are not explicitly mentioned.

If there is agreement on science, why not on way forward?

The question remains though, if everyone seems to agree that Glasgow is a step forward, but not the great leap needed – then why is that the case?  

Was there a fair balance between fossil fuel company lobbyists accredited to the talks (said to be more than any single country) and the civil society voices normally present at COPs? Was this dynamic unduly affected by both access through individual country delegations, and the impact of Covid-19 on travel and accessibility? Were there aspects of the organisation of this COP which meant the balance of voices in the talks was different than hoped for, or anticipated?

A key theme from the floor of the plenary, from those elsewhere across COP26, and in the voices of those heard in events and marches all across Glasgow and beyond – was that the voices of women, girls and indigenous populations needed amplified at COP26 – not just in side events, but in the negotiating rooms, and in the plenary sessions. It is perhaps subjective as to whether those voices were heard enough, and in the right places, but António Guterres has said:

“My message to young people, indigenous communities, women leaders, all those leading on #ClimateAction: I know you might be disappointed. But we’re in the fight of our lives and this fight must be won. Never give up. Never retreat. Keep pushing forward, I am with you”.

How COP26 panned out has been, and will remain, the subject of speculation – and analysis in the weeks and months to come, but there is generally agreement that the end of COP26 in Glasgow is really only the beginning of the hard work. The UK retain the presidency of the process until COP27 in Egypt, and there is much to be done.

The Glasgow Climate Pact does contain a requirement for countries to come back with more ambitious plans to get things back on track. SPICe will blog further on the specific outcomes from Glasgow, including in advance of sessions on COP26 to be carried out by the Scottish Parliament Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee in the weeks to come.  

Graeme Cook, Head of Research and Sustainable Development Scrutiny