COP 26 was a summit of watered-down compromises that delayed bold climate action and maintained the status quo. Here are some takeaways.

Three months after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its most alarming report to date, rendering human-caused climate change a “code red for humanity,” following an apocalyptic summer with unprecedented wildfires, heat records, and flooding around the world, world leaders gathered in Glasgow for the 26th Conference of the Parties — COP 26 — to effectively maintain business as usual. In a summit marked by compromise, greenwashing, and lukewarm promises, the free world revealed just how beholden to fossil fuel interests it remains, despite the increasingly uncertain future of humanity’s future on Earth.

Brief primer on climate pledges

Finally, climate science tells us that the world could achieve 1.5 degrees Celsius if it reached net zero carbon (not emitting any more carbon than is absorbed) by 2050.

Now that you’re caught up on what’s at stake, let’s delve into what came out of the conference.

The Final Agreement (“the Glasgow Climate Pact”):

  • (2) It asks countries to “make efforts to reduce usage of coal as a source of fuel, and abolish ‘inefficient’ subsidies on fossil fuels.” My take: this is watered down, loophole-laden language. The research is clear: the world needs to phase out coal by 2040 — and developed nations by 2030 — to have any hope at 1.5 degrees. The Glasgow Climate Pact mentions no such phase-out. Asking countries to “reduce usage of coal” is weak language; it doesn’t state by how much, by what year, and isn’t binding. At the very least, they could have abolished fossil fuel subsidies altogether, but that “inefficient” qualifier leaves open the possibility of subsidies for some remaining coal generation;
  • (3) It establishes a “work programme to urgently scale-up mitigation ambition and implementation during the critical decade of the 2020s,” decides to “convene an annual high-level ministerial round table on pre-2030 ambition.” and “invites the Secretary-General of the United Nations to convene world leaders in 2023 to consider ambition to 2030.” My take: to be sure, more working groups and meetings are a step in the right direction (although I was kind of hoping for some great reckoning that would lead to a rapid transformation of the global economy away from fossil fuels, but meetings and working groups are fine too, I guess.)
  • (4) It “requests the secretariat to produce an updated version of the synthesis report on nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement annually.” My take: the latest synthesis report, released this year, was alarming — it indicated that, if countries followed their current nationally determined contributions, greenhouse gas emissions would be 14 percent above 2010 levels by 2030. (Yes, you read that right: six years post-Paris, at the precipice of climate catastrophe, and we’re actually still increasing our emissions.) These synthesis reports used to be every five years, but now they’ll be annual, which is promising. To be sure, this is progress — monitoring and modeling is good — and could be meaningful if coupled with mandates and accountability measures that actually require emission reductions.
  • (5) It “creates a two-year work programme to define a global goal on adaptation.” My take: a first-of-its-kind nod to adaptation. The world has had a global goal on mitigation (Paris Agreement), but no such goal for climate adaptation. Adaptation is arguably the most important issue for developing countries — who did the least to cause climate change, are the most burdened by it, and have the least capacity to adapt to it and build resilience. Devoting a working group to addressing global environmental injustice is a good first step.
  • (6) It “asks the developed countries to at least double the money being provided for adaptation by 2025 from the 2019 levels ($15 billion).” My take: this is something, if they can make good on this promise (unlike the $100 billion promise developed countries twelve years ago that they are far from fulfilling), but not nearly enough to meet the need; many developing countries left the summit feeling unsatisfied by this.

Other takeaways from the negotiations:

Deforestation in Indonesia. Credit: the Conservation Institute.

1. Many countries reached a landmark deal on deforestation.

My take: this could be the most significant commitment made at COP 26, if taken seriously. Curbing deforestation is crucial because forests absorb about a quarter of the carbon the world emits annually. I would like to see individual countries pass concrete policies in line with this goal, though, because in 2014, a similar “landmark” global agreement on forests failed to slow deforestation in any way.

2. Some countries and financial institutions committed to stop financing overseas fossil fuel projects by 2022.

My take: Also notably absent were the top four biggest funders of international fossil fuel projects: JP Morgan Chase, Citi, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo. American banks will be key players in the just transition to renewable energy. There are also a couple caveats: this doesn’t affect existing funding for fossil fuel projects — it only prevents new funding. The wording also leaves room for loopholes: “We will end new direct public support for the international unabated fossil fuel energy sector by the end of 2022, except in limited and clearly defined circumstances that are consistent with a 1.5°C warming limit and the goals of the Paris Agreement.” That “unabated” qualifier — and the clause about circumstances — were thrown in last-minute to offer some wiggle room to still fund fossil fuel projects. Unabated refers to projects that doesn’t use carbon capture technologies, so this agreement allows funding for those that do. Carbon capture tech is largely undeveloped, and cannot currently be relied upon to offset emissions. Still, I see this as a really landmark agreement. Plus, even though China, Japan and South Korea didn’t sign on to this agreement, they’ve committed to ending overseas coal financing, which means all significant international financing for coal has effectively ended. This is pretty huge. Now, to tackle oil and gas…

Coal stacks burn at sunset. Credit: Getty Images.

3. Forty countries agreed to phase out coal by 2030 for bigger economies and 2040 for smaller economies.

My take: the 2030/2040 targets technically align with Paris, but we need to get the world’s biggest coal producers to commit to them.

Graph of the world’s largest coal producers. Credit: www.eniscuola.net.

4. Many countries commit to moderate methane reduction by 2030.

My take: Good. Also promising is Biden’s U.S. Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan, which commits to curbing methane pollution, cutting consumer costs, and boosting well-paying energy sector jobs and “American competitiveness,” (because everything still has to be about the economy, for some reason…) The international agreement makes me optimistic, although I hope this doesn’t take too much attention away from the greenhouse gas we should be focusing on: carbon dioxide. Also, according to the U.N. Global Methane Assessment, we’d need to cut methane emissions 45 percent by 2030 to stay in line with Paris, so this target is a little off.

5. Despite some new climate pledges, climate pledges still fall short of meeting Paris benchmarks, and there’s a disparity between pledges and actual policies to reduce emissions.

My take: Still, even with the new climate pledges made in Glasgow, assuming that all countries perfectly meet their climate commitments, our best case scenario: we’re still forecasted to see at least 2.1 degrees warming, overshooting Paris by more than 0.6 degrees and pushing us past that dangerous, 2 degree point after which many life-sustaining natural processes on Earth go South. Plus, we shouldn’t assume that countries’ climate targets will be met, as there’s currently a large gap between climate pledges and national policies in place to ensure we achieve these targets. A recent study suggests that countries are slated to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than what would be in line with Paris. This is probably an understatement, as there’s evidence to suggest that most of the world is underreporting its emissions.

Tuvalu’s foreign minister gives a speech at COP 26 knee-deep in seawater. Credit: the Guardian.

6. Tensions between developing and developed nations escalated, and developing nations left feeling unsatisfied with minimal funding for climate adaptation.

Twelve years ago, developing nations agreed to provide $100 billion in annual funding to vulnerable nations by 2020, which would include mitigation efforts, and, importantly, adaptation projects to help protect communities against climate impacts. Developed nations are still far from meeting this commitment, and despite new pledges by the U.S., Japan, Norway and Sweden this year, the $100 billion goal is still elusive and likely won’t be met until at least 2022 or 2023. In 2019, countries reached $80 billion in climate finance, but much of that funding came in the form of loans, instead of grants, which developing countries say is burdensome as they struggle to repay them.

In the final agreement, countries agreed to a two-year work plan to settle on how to ramp up climate finance to meet the needs of vulnerable nations. and developed countries agreed to collectively double funding for climate adaptation projects by 2025 (although it deserves mentioning that this isn’t any more binding than the $100 billion 2020 target that they failed to meet.)

“There’s been a systematic attempt by developed countries to remove all discussion about responsibility, compensation and direct climate finance from the negotiations, it’s shameful,” Bolivia’s chief negotiator, Diego Pacheco Balanza, said. “Instead, they want us to focus on carbon markets and their 2050 net zero narrative which is completely meaningless. The net zero narrative is a big lie. We need to eliminate greenhouse gasses now, not in 30 years.”

My take: It’s also worth mentioning that the majority of the funding is for mitigation (emissions reductions), rather than adaptation projects, which make communities resilient to the impacts of climate change. When most of these vulnerable nations emit very little per capita to begin with, mitigation funding from the largest emitters is kind of a slap in the face, and not where funds should be directed when these countries are on the frontlines of the climate crisis.

The $100 billion amount is also far below the need. A U.N. report estimates that funding for climate adaptation should be five to 10 times greater than what’s currently being spent.

7. Fossil fuel representation was immense.

My take: the absurdity of this is self-explanatory. It’s like if wolves were the largest delegation to a conference on the survival of sheep.

Thousands of activists march outside COP26 in Glasgow. Credit: the Herald.

8. COP 26 was the most exclusive Conference of the Parties to date, which — coupled with widespread corporate greenwashing — called its legitimacy into question.

To make matters worse, COP 26 was sponsored by large corporations that are some of the world’s worst polluters. Accordingly, many activists criticized the summit as a dramatic display of corporate greenwashing with unbridled corporate influence. A group of activist pranksters were even able to get a fake company accepted as an official member of the conference, which raises serious concerns about corporate greenwashing inside negotiation doors while members of the Global South were largely left on the sidelines.

To close, I leave you with a quote from Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg: “It should be obvious that we cannot solve a crisis with the same methods that got us into it in the first place…We need immediate drastic annual emission cuts unlike anything the world has ever seen. The people in power can continue to live in their bubble filled with their fantasies, like eternal growth on a finite planet and technological solutions that will suddenly appear seemingly out of nowhere and will erase all of these crises just like that. All this while the world is literally burning, on fire, and while the people living on the front lines are still bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.”

Aspiring human.