From 31 October to 12 November 2021, the UK and Italy jointly hosted the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26), which is the international summit on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

At the summit, leaders from 196 countries committed to revisiting and strengthening their climate plans in 2022, with the intention of reducing carbon emissions by 2030 to limit a predicted rise in global warming to 1.5°C. This was initially set out in the Paris Agreement of 2015. As part of the summit’s final decision text (known as the Glasgow Climate Pact), countries committed to “accelerating efforts” to “phasing-down” unabated coal (which is produced without using carbon capture and storage).

Was COP26 successful?

In an article for The Conversation, Robert Hales and Brendan Mackey look back at COP26 and discuss whether the summit should be considered a success or failure.

The authors state that if they were to evaluate the summit based on its original goals, which included securing global net zero by mid-century and keeping the target of global warming to 1.5°C, then it “fell short” and should be considered a failure. They attributed this to “two big ticket items” not being realised: renewing targets for 2030 that align with limiting warming to 1.5°C; and an agreement on accelerating the phasing-out of coal.

Firstly, they argue that the pledges made at COP26 were “weak”, such as the commitment by countries to re-evaluate plans to further curb carbon emissions by 2030. They note that new projections from the Climate Action Tracker—an independent scientific analysis that tracks government climate action and measures it against the Paris Agreement—showed that, even if all the COP26 pledges are met, the planet is expected to warm by 2.1°C or by 2.4°C if only the 2030 targets are met. The authors warn that these temperatures would be above the 1.5°C target and would lead to “catastrophic impacts” worldwide, including rising sea levels and “more intense and frequent natural disasters”.

Secondly, the authors believe the intervention by India at the summit to change the final wording of the Glasgow Climate Pact to ‘phase-down’ rather than ‘phase-out’ coal had “dampen[ed] the urgency” for countries to shift away from using coal. They note that India is the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (behind China and the US), with coal-powered generation expected to grow in the country by 4.6% each year to 2024.

The authors were also critical of the solutions proposed at the summit regarding capturing carbon emissions from coal. This includes the proposal raised by the climate envoy for the United States, John Kerry, which was to further develop carbon capture and storage technology to trap emissions at the source and store them underground. They describe this as a “controversial proposition” for climate action, arguing that it was “not proven at scale” and that scientists “don’t yet know” if captured emissions stored underground will eventually return to the atmosphere. They also believe it is “hard to see” such “expensive” technology ever being cost-competitive with cheap renewable energy.

Despite the summit’s shortcomings, Hales and Mackey note that it also led to several positive outcomes. This included:

  • an agreement being struck between 124 countries to end deforestation by 2030;
  • the Glasgow Climate Pact urging countries to “fully deliver” on an outstanding promise to provide US$1 billion per year for the next five years to developing countries that are vulnerable to climate damage; and
  • an agreement between China and the United States at the summit to cooperate on tackling climate change, which the authors describe as “cause for cautious optimism”.

Ultimately, the authors conclude that although the world is not on track to reach the 1.5°C target, the momentum is “headed in the right direction”. However, they say it “remains to be seen” whether such change comes in the “small window we have left to stop catastrophic climate change”.

Evaluating the outcomes of the summit

In a blog post for the Council on Foreign Relations, entitled ‘What COP26 did and didn’t accomplish’, Madeline Babin and Alice C Hill provide their assessment on the summit. The authors consider the conference a success, but only “barely”. They state that the climate summit delivered on its primary goal of “keeping alive” the aim of the Paris Agreement. However, they suggest that the “ultimate success” of COP26 is dependent on its pledges for future action, which poses a risk of failure.

The authors highlight what they consider to be the notable provisions of the Glasgow Climate Pact. This included:

  • the language detailed in the agreement proposing a “phasing-down” of unabated coal power, which the authors describe as “a first for a United Nations climate agreement”;
  • new rules for trading carbon credits across borders, which they note is an issue that had “evaded resolution” since 2015;
  • a call for nations to return in 2022 with new, more ambitious targets to curb emissions; and
  • a request for a yearly report summarising nations’ annual commitments to reduce emissions.

Babin and Hill also detail what they consider to be the failures of COP26. They note that despite countries agreeing to “phase-down” the use of coal, some coal-reliant countries (such as Indonesia) have indicated that they will not completely stop using the fuel until the 2040s or later. In addition, the authors argue that countries failed to make “significant progress” on climate finance, despite pledging an additional US$356 million towards adaptation efforts in developing countries. The authors state that regardless of the additional funding, current levels remain “woefully inadequate”.

Concluding, the authors believe that, “despite the shortfalls”, progress was made at the summit. However, ensuring that the progress is sufficient “remains a challenge”, as they note there are no global courts or mechanisms empowered to enforce the pledges made at COP26.

China and the US

During the climate summit, an agreement was made between China and the US to boost climate cooperation between both countries. This included a commitment to work together to achieve the goal of limiting warming to 1.5ºC and to take “enhanced climate actions that raise ambition in the 2020s”.

In an article for New Scientist, published during COP26, Rowan Hooper et al examine the basis of the agreement. They state that although there was “little of real substance” within this agreement, with no specific new targets or funding included, the symbolism of it was “potent”. They also note that although the relationship between the two countries had been “pretty bad”, the two governments were able to come together and find an agreement. The authors argue that this “underscores the seriousness of the climate crisis” and “sends an implicit message” to other governments to resolve their issues. However, the authors admit that it is still uncertain whether the China-US agreement prompts a better outcome for the summit.

The authors also state that uncertainty appeared to be a “common thread” at the summit. They attribute this to several factors. These include: the large number of issues being discussed simultaneously, varying from carbon emissions to climate finance; and that some countries at the summit had experienced domestic problems, which meant that they were “struggling to commit to dramatic action” on climate change. For example, Canada and Japan had relatively new governments in place and France is holding presidential elections in 2022.

Cover image by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash.