Why COP 26 Can Still Be the Start of Something Big
There are (at least) two ways to see the final days of the UN’s COP 26 climate conference and the Glasgow Climate Pact it produced.
Was it yet another example of the developed world turning a blind eye to the very real suffering of developing nations and failing to rise to the moment?
Or was it a shining example of how grassroots and youth activists have fundamentally transformed the global conversation on climate and – potentially – the beginning of a new chapter?
The answer, of course, is yes.
The opening days saw a lot of bold statements and a lot of less bold commitments from nations to reach net zero, mostly by 2050. Then, amazingly, 40 nations – sadly, not including the US, China, or India – pledged to begin phasing out coal, leading COP President Alok Sharma to declare, “the end of coal is in sight.”
The US was, however, part of a group of 20 countries and major financial institutions that promised to end financing for coal plants abroad. Other promising developments included over 100 nations promising to cut methane emissions and a similar number pledging to end deforestation by 2030.
The final agreement wasn’t so clear cut. Because no, the summit did not deliver the hoped-for breakthrough agreement we need to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. And no, rich nations did not come through with the full $100 billion they promised to help developing nations adapt and build the kind of resilient economies necessary to thrive in a warming world. Much less pay for the damage these nations are already suffering as rising seas gobble up homes and droughts turn farms into dust (more on that later).
But at the same time, the summit did see a few critical wins that make a more ambitious agreement a possibility as soon as the next COP (or the one after that). Meaning, if you squint – and activists keep up the same unrelenting pressure – we could see the kind of agreement that can actually stop rising temperatures. The kind of agreement that can actually begin to address the fundamental injustice of a world where the wealthy pollute and poor countries suffer.
With our international team on the ground watching and reporting on negotiations, here are the top takeaways from two weeks that began to change the world.
The Big Win: Fossil Fuels Targets Are Officially in the Text
Creating a global agreement to tackle the climate crisis without once mentioning the fossil fuels creating it makes about as much sense as Australia’s exercise-in-magical-thinking NDC.
But thanks to a setup where any single country has the power to tank negotiations – including major fossil fuel producers like Saudi Arabia and Russia – that’s exactly where we’ve been.
COP 26 changed that. The final decision – the aforementioned Glasgow Climate Pact – that aims to set the course of global climate action for the next year calls for countries to accelerate their efforts on the “phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” The wording could – and should – be a whole lot stronger (more on that below) and cover all fossil fuels and related subsidies. But it’s a critical first step that you better believe activists will be working to strengthen at the next COP.
The Big Miss #1: “Phasedown” Instead of “Phase-Out”
Exhausted, red-eyed negotiators thought they were there on a deal. An agreement from nearly 200 nations to work toward the “phase-out of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” Then, with some late-breaking drama from big polluters including India and China, “phase-out of unabated coal power” became “phasedown.”
You don’t need a dictionary to tell you there’s a world of difference between the two, especially when the future of the world depends on effectively ending fossil fuel emissions. And when the agreement doesn’t include any formal timetable for phasing down or details on the degree necessary.
But according to US Special Climate Envoy John Kerry, it was either the more limited term – or no agreement and a potential rerun of the disastrous COP 15 summit in Copenhagen at a time when we are out of time for next times:
“Did I appreciate that we had to adjust one thing tonight in a very unusual way? No,” Kerry told reporters, “But if we hadn’t done that we wouldn’t have an agreement,” he said.
The Big Miss #2: Justice Was Not Done
Loss and damage – the UN term for financial payments to cover the irreparable harms already caused by climate change – was one of the major themes of the negotiations. The bottom line was that island nations like Tuvalu already being swallowed by rising seas and other developing countries like Bangladesh seeing climate change deepen poverty want the rich nations responsible for the overwhelming majority of global emissions to pay financial support for the damage they’ve done.
Wealthy countries balked and even blocked the creation of a formal mechanism in the agreement to cover loss and damage. This was a chance to begin addressing the core injustice of the climate crisis and begin building trust and a sense of solidarity between nations on the crisis. And the Global North simply failed.
The final agreement also urges developed nations to increase and ultimately double their share of support from 2019 levels for adaptation in climate-impacted nations by 2025. But as any parent with a teenager knows, “urging” only goes so far and without a formal mechanism for rich nations to double this sum, there’s a still long way to go.
The Big Takeaway: There’s Work to Do
There is some kind of silver lining in the disappointments of Glasgow in that there’s a genie out of the bottle. Multiple, actually. Because with the formal inclusion of fossil fuels in the Glasgow Climate Pact, albeit with much softer language, there’s a platform activists can build on to push hard for an agreement that aims to cut them altogether at next year’s COP 27 in Egypt.
Just as critically, the loss and damage issues that took over talks in Glasgow aren’t going anywhere. And if there’s one theme that now dominates climate activism across continents, it’s the demand for real justice. The challenge for activists in Global North nations and bodies like the US, UK, and EU will be to push their governments to listen to the demands of the countries and their own communities living with drought, cyclones, and more.
There is a window open here. COP 26 created a vague process of ministerial dialogues to address loss and damage, starting in 2022. These can either be a bureaucratic non-exercise or a creative move to find new paths to support the millions hit hard by climate impacts and do the work of loss and damage by some other name or mechanism. Our challenge is to ensure it’s the latter.
The final decision also calls on nations to come back next year with the kind of ambitious 2030 targets that actually put us on the path to 1.5 degrees, a clear challenge to major economies like Australia, Brazil, Russia, and New Zealand whose current commitments fall way short of that goal. So far, Australia for one is digging its heels in and refusing to increase its commitments further, and it will be up to activists in these nations to force their governments to change course.
If there’s one single in-a-nutshell takeaway from Glasgow it’s this: There’s reason for anger, but there’s also reason for hope. If we keep fighting. There was a whole lot of talk at the summit with a lot of leaders looking at net zero by 2050 as the goal on the horizon that might actually prevent the worst. What there wasn’t a lot of was real, concrete plans to get there and for governments to make good on their promises. The political will to do so depends largely on the political pressure from grassroots activists continuing all the way to COP 27 next year and beyond. And that depends on us.
It’s not the final victory we’d hoped for. But in this fight for our future, we’ll take it for the moment.
To stay up on the latest in the fight for climate solutions and learn how you can help work for a stronger global agreement to stop rising temperatures, sign up for our email activist list today.