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Has there been progress in Week 1 at COP26?

8 November 2021

The article at a glance

David Reiner, Associate Professor in Technology Policy at Cambridge Judge Business School, looks back at the first week of COP26.

David Reiner, Associate Professor in Technology Policy at Cambridge Judge Business School, looks back at the first week of COP26.

“Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1834)

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David Reiner

Unlike past major COPs (conference of the parties) at Kyoto (1997), Copenhagen (2009) and Paris (2015), which at their core focused on actual negotiations among countries, COP26 has primarily seen a steady stream of scripted announcements organised into specific themed days:

  • 4 Nov was Energy Day
  • 5 Nov was Youth and Public Empowerment Day
  • 6 Nov was Nature Day 

First week pledges

To provide a flavour of the pledges from the first week, there have been commitments to:

A raft of countries including India, Nigeria, Thailand and Vietnam established net-zero targets at COP26, building on pre-COP announcements from Russia, Saudi Arabia and Australia, which in turn follows on net-zero pledges from most leading economies, especially since 2019.  

Mark Carney, the UN Special Envoy on Climate Action and Finance, claimed that the new Glasgow Financial Alliance of Net Zero, which includes more than 450 banks, insurers and asset managers in 45 countries, “has up to $130tn funding committed to hitting net zero“.

The International Energy Agency suggested on Thursday that the sum total impact of these pledges if implemented could put the globe on a path to 1.8°C, which is arguably compliant with (or at least within spitting distance of) the Paris Agreement objective of keeping global average temperatures “well below 2°C”.

Taken at face value, this would seem to be remarkably good news given the slow progress of emissions reductions since the climate negotiations began a quarter century ago. 

For each pledge, one might ask, however, if 110, 45 or 20 countries is a large number or a small number? The fact that many key countries are missing from each of these pledges is, in one sense, disappointing (for example, less than half of the largest methane emitters have signed the pledge and none of the largest coal producers are quitting coal). But the fact that many countries are not even willing to sign up to some of these pledges is a sign that they surely must have some meaning.

Perhaps most deserving of skepticism is the forest pledge – after all, the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests set literally the same 2030 target but has failed miserably. Past efforts, such as the REDD+ initiative, have been shown to have had little effect on reducing forest loss. The sheer shamelessness of a Brazilian government which has actively encouraged deforestation over the past few years glibly signing on to ‘end deforestation’ should give pause to anyone taking at least some of these commitments seriously. 

As for the alleged $130tn in capital, the Financial Times article with that number in the headline then points out that the figure is simply the sum total of total assets of the financial companies that have signed on to the pledge, and only a small fraction of that figure is actually aligned with net zero targets. Of course, having trillions beginning to be aligned with net zero in itself is a major improvement over just a few years ago. 

Credibility and commitment

In other cases, we are left with major question marks over credibility and commitment. For example, how to judge India’s 2070 net-zero pledge? is it ’20 years too late’ or, given India’s level of development, is it actually more impressive than the 2050 targets established in the UK, France, US and many other developed countries? The more important commitment however is what a country like India will do by 2030 and whether, as pledged, renewables will genuinely meet all of the projected growth in energy demand, which is projected to double over the next decade.

Back in 2006, Lord Stern led a major Review showing that the costs of inaction far exceed the costs of action and that point has become more and more widely accepted by the leading economies

Transition costs

But it is equally true that there are the costs of the transition needed will hit certain countries and interests and individuals particularly hard. From the Gilets Jaunes in France who opposed President Macron’s efforts to raise energy prices to the confluence of electricity and natural gas crises we have seen in Europe and beyond this autumn, the road to decarbonise major economies will be bumpy.  Opposition to climate action, whether in the US, in Australia, even here in the UK remains stubbornly persistent. Pledges for 2050 or even 2030, though laudable, will need to thread the needle of the challenging politics and economics of 2022, 2023 and onward. It is still far too early to know whether this time the pledges will indeed herald a genuine and profound transition even if it is one that will be far messier than the announcements from Glasgow.