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Final COP26 reflections

David Reiner, Associate Professor in Technology Policy at Cambridge Judge Business School, says future climate-change investment rather than words will be the test of COP26.

Plumes of smoke rise from industrial chimneys polluting the air.
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There have been many false analogies at work over the last few weeks. We are not at ‘one minute to midnight’‘ nor are we ‘down 5-1 at half-time’. As the ’26’ in COP26 would indicate, we are deep in the midst of the hard slog of a multi-decadal effort and any single event such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement can only ever be expected to have modest impact at best on global emissions and on markets. That said, Glasgow has played a valuable role as the first real chance to assess progress since the Paris Agreement.

A useful focus event

Any COP is part international negotiation and part climate jamboree. Apart from the world leaders, government ministers, ambassadors and other dignitaries, there are also thousands of delegates with an interest in the topic. Participants include researchers, private sector representatives, and activists from around the world and, importantly, the assembled media. There are protesters against fossil fuel development in the UK and pipelines in Africa. There are supporters of nuclear power and opponents of fracking. Many come to listen but others to demonstrate or to dress up as dinosaurs or lie down as casualties of climate change.

Indeed, Glasgow as an event has been far more important than Glasgow as a negotiation. The outcome of Glasgow is, overall, positive but that is primarily because COP26 has served as a useful focusing event rather than because of the detailed negotiations themselves. To expect great progress in the final communique is to ignore the reality of a 190+ country negotiations involving countries at vastly different levels of development and divergent resource endowments. It is deeply unfair, for example, to describe India as having ‘watered down’ the language on coal given its development needs or to expect countries highly dependent on oil and gas to accept eliminating fossil fuels. 

Acccepting net-zero and promises for the upcoming decade

Instead, we should look for hope in the simple fact that a dazzling number of countries from Saudi Arabia to India to Australia have accepted the fundamental need for net-zero. They have shifted from agreeing in a general sense that the world should be on such a path to making commitments that each of their countries should be aiming for net-zero emissions, which will be enormously challenging for many. This is not a direct outcome of the Glasgow negotiations but would have been almost unimaginable even two years ago, and Glasgow has helped catalyse these commitments. 

However, it is not just about promises many decades hence but rather that many key countries have made commitments to take action in the coming decade. Moreover, too much focus has been on the Chinas and Indias of the world, and it is important that some of the more encouraging announcements have come from countries like South Africa, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, which are part of a tier of countries that have been expected to see the most rapid growth in emissions.

COP26 progress

We have also seen progress in sectors that have long been neglected such as international shipping (Clydebank Declaration), aviation (Climate Ambition Coalition), and heavy good vehicles. Although each of these agreements are imperfect and limited in the numbers of countries that have signed on, they have brought together many leading countries, private sector firms and other key actors and are an important first step in making progress on some of the hardest sectors to decarbonise.

COP26 as actual climate negotiations did see progress on a number of fronts. The so-called Paris Rulebook was adopted. Article 6 on international carbon markets finally saw some greater clarity after many years. Although it sounds incredibly basic, greater transparency and consistency in country reporting was only just agreed, which will ensure that it will be easier to assess national progress from 2024. Funding for adaptation will see a doubling of its share of climate finance, with a particularly large commitment from the EU. The bilateral US-China agreement, though light on substance, reaffirmed the pre-eminence of the two largest emitters and their willingness to cooperate on climate change if seemingly little else in international affairs.

On the other hand, so-called “loss and damage” was not provided any financing. Though related to adaptation, the subject touches on historical responsibility and, as such, it has long been a contentious subject. A provision on the subject was only included in the Paris Agreement on the basis that it “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation”. Though many observers were unhappy at the lack of progress, the continued opposition by both the EU and US and others including the UK is an indication of its difficult prospects. Only Scotland, which is not actually a party to the Paris Agreement, offered any actual funding (£2m) to support loss and damage.

What determines real climate change progress?

Any event that brings together more than 30,000 people from almost 200 countries (in the midst of a global pandemic no less!) will inevitably see many different ‘hot takes’ on what matters and where the successes and disappointments were. After a quarter century of climate conferences, one might have hoped to see greater progress in reducing the actual emissions of greenhouse gases but as a ‘wicked problem’, climate change requires reconciling science and economics, and balancing moral assertions and self-interested bargaining.

Viewed from 2021, there is no way to judge success or failure. We should not be optimistic because of the many promises and pledges at COP26 – what will ultimately determine genuine progress will be whether we see the many trillions of dollars in public and private investment, which will be needed to address every aspect of the climate problem over the 2020s and beyond.