COP26 has been labelled as humanity’s last chance to address the climate crisis, and this language of urgency has inspired both hope and doom in the lead up to the conference. Now halfway through, we’re sharing our summary and reflections on what has happened so far, from the commitments and the controversies to our own take on whether this year’s COP will truly deliver.
The story so far
The first two days of the conference saw world leaders gather to discuss their individual and collective responsibilities and how they can tackle climate change together. Although the deals they struck seem impressive on paper, there is widespread doubt as to whether promises will be fulfilled. The transport chosen by these leaders didn’t inspire confidence either – the Times reported that a total of 400 private jets flew into Glasgow for the climate talks, most carrying high profile delegates.
The last three days of week one consisted of themed days for non-state actors. Wednesday focused on finance, and Thursday on energy. Agreements were made, but criticism continued from the media and from the protestors gathering in Glasgow, representing groups including Global Justice Now, Extinction Rebellion, Green New Deal Rising and Fridays For Future.
The discontent on the streets came to a crescendo on Friday. Week one closed with a day that focused on youth and public engagement, but rather than those speaking in the conference centre, it was activists on the streets of Glasgow whose voices were loudest. Tired of the empty promises made by politicians and policy makers – what Greta Thunberg called the ‘blah, blah, blah’ – protestors gathered in their thousands and marched through the city. 17-year-old Scarlett Westbrook wrote in the Independent: ‘Although [politicians] will spend the day praising us, they’ve chosen to lock us out of the negotiating rooms (for the first time in over 10 years), which is why we’re taking to the streets.’
Despite a COP spokesperson insisting that the UK is committed to hosting an inclusive conference where all relevant voices are heard, the event has so far been heavily criticised for its alignment with this pledge. Referencing the lack of affordable accommodation and an inability to access the conference, Asad Rehman, a spokesperson for the COP26 coalition, said: “it will go down as the worst planned, worst organized and least effective COP that I have ever known. It is just unbelievable.” Not exactly a vote of confidence as we head into week two.
While the beginning of the week saw world leaders take the stage to address and debate the most pressing climate issues, the latter half of the week was time for the experts to negotiate and hash out the technical details. Here is a sample of the commitments and pledges we saw last week:
- Brazil increased its pledge to cut carbon emissions from 43% to 50% by 2030, although the baseline year is unclear. Amazon rainforest defenders were quick to label this move as “greenwashing”, urging COP delegates to look back to Brazil’s destructive policies in the recent past when considering its vague promises on the future.
- India pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2070. Although the announcement was criticised as not being ambitious enough, President Modi defended the decision saying that India was sticking to its pledges “in spirit and letter”.
- The US rejoined the High Ambition Coalition, a group of global nations committed to limiting global warming to 1.5C.
- The EU and US launched the Global Methane pledge, followed by over 100 countries representing 70% of the global economy. The ultimate aim is to keep warming to below 1.5C by collectively reducing methane emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. Delivering on the Global Methane Pledge would reduce warming by at least 0.2C by 2050.
- 40 world leaders, including the US, India, EU, and China, signed up to the new Breakthrough Agenda. The plan was launched by the UK government with the objective of enabling countries and businesses to coordinate, scale, and speed up the development of clean technologies to drive down costs over the next decade. This would also help to support developing or transition economies to access the innovation and technology needed to move forward on the path to net zero.
- Over 100 countries containing 85 percent of the world’s forests have promised to put an end to deforestation by 2030, described by Boris Johnson as “a landmark agreement to protect and restore the earth’s forests.” Among them: China and Brazil. But reversing the trend by 2030 might be too late for the world’s largest forests. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned, “parts of the Amazon now emit more carbon than they absorb.” Indonesia came into the spotlight just days after signing on the pledge when country’s environment minister said that “forcing Indonesia to zero deforestation in 2030 is clearly inappropriate and unfair” and that Indonesia will not “promise what we can’t do”.
- The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (Gfanz) – the Mark Carney-led coalition of international financial companies signed up to tackle climate change – committed up to $130tn of private capital to hit net zero emissions targets by 2050. It is made up of more than 450 banks, insurers and asset managers across 45 countries, and has said it could deliver as much as $100tn of financing to help economies transition to net zero over the next three decades.
- More than 20 countries and financial institutions (including the European Investment Bank) will halt all financing of fossil fuel development overseas and divert the spending to green energy instead from next year. Diverting funding from fossil fuels to low-carbon efforts will generate an estimated $8bn a year around the world for clean energy.
- More than 40 countries have committed to shift away from coal, including major coal-using countries like Poland, Vietnam and Chile. Yet some of the world’s most coal-dependent countries were not on board, notably China and the US. The commitment aims to end all investment in new coal power generation domestically and internationally, and to phase out coal power in the 2030s in high-income economies, and the 2040s for lower-income economies. The commitment notes that coal is the single biggest contributor to climate change.
All of the commitments, pledges and coalitions announced above beg the question, who will be keeping score? The International Energy Agency (IEA) has taken on the role of tracking adherence of countries’ commitments announced during the conference, but does this mean they will walk the talk?
Despite the first pledges coming out of the COP26 summit, there’s been no shortage of criticism both in terms of the announcements made, and the event itself. These are the controversies that made headlines in week one:
- While more than 40 countries have agreed to phase out their use of coal-fired power, controversy about the world’s “dirtiest fuel source” has continued to dominate conversations at this week’s climate talks.
- Speaking at the summit, Boris Johnson has said he is “not in favour of more coal” and does not want a planned new Cumbrian coal mine to go ahead, despite others being in favour of the project due to its promise of hundreds of well-paid jobs.
- Meanwhile, researchers also argued that South Asian nations needed to create more effective plans to be able to utilise new funding to help developing countries speed up their shift from polluting coal to greener energy.
Concerns from developing countries
- The developing world called on richer nations to “deliver on promises” during the first days of this year’s climate talks. From Honduras to India, from Libya to the Seychelles, leaders from developing countries imparted this same message to those from wealthier nations.
- In an emotional speech, Honduras President Juan Hernandez said that in the last half century, 67 of the 82 natural disasters his country has experienced were induced by climate change, resulting in billions of dollars in economic losses, and people suffering from displacements and pollution.
- Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera said that developing nations will be exerting as much pressure as possible on big emitters to up their commitments. He added that poorer countries face an uphill battle to adopt clean energy solutions without financial support from industrialised nations.
- As delegates inside the conference hall this week heard promises of new private-sector funding for climate change, protesters marched in the city in opposition to “greenwashing”. Several hundred protesters, holding signs that read “Act now!” and “Stop Funding Fossil Fuels,” gathered outside a shopping mall to demand that companies take more substantial steps.
- Greenwashing by companies eager to massage their environmental credentials and increase their appeal to ethical investors also came under scrutiny on Wednesday with the launch of The International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) – a standards body that aims to weed out unjustified climate claims. The ISSB will be based in Frankfurt and will publish its first batch of global norms for climate-related company disclosures next year.
- Greta Thunberg meanwhile doubled down on her criticism of COP26, accusing it of “greenwashing” and “business as usual”.
The Say-do Barometer
On a scale of 1-10, how did last week’s events measure up on PN’s say-do barometer?
Our verdict is 5/10.
Coming into COP26, the stakes were high and expectations were, admittedly, low. Compared to previous COPs, it’s clear the language has shifted to one of action and momentum, but whether the commitments made last week will translate into tangible results is less certain.
According to the IEA, if all the pledges made last week were implemented, we’d see a temperature increase of 1.8C. While that’s below the 2.0C threshold, it’s still far off the 1.5C target of the Paris Climate Agreement and relies on countries and companies following through with their promises for decades to come. Factor in the lack of clear or urgent action from some of the world’s biggest emitters – notably China, the US, India and Australia – and it’s easy to be sceptical.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of COP so far has been the sense of elitism and division.
Hearing from those on the ground, PN’s Phil Honour, who was in Glasgow last week, said “The lack of representation, both from next-gen voices and the Global South as a whole is leading to a high level of scepticism around the pledges made last week. People just don’t trust governments to deliver. And when it comes to business, we shouldn’t underestimate how frosty some members of the climate movement are to the business community. It goes far beyond “big oil” and extends to the fact that the private sector is largely misunderstood by the campaigning community. It was great to see some groups, such as One Young World, trying to educate on the role of the private sector but outside of the main event, it felt like campaigning groups wanted to ‘bash’ business rather than bring them along for the ride and collaborate.
“Finally, regardless of the amount of investment or coverage COP26 is getting, there is a real feeling that this year’s conference has been a missed opportunity to educate the broader UK public about why the issues discussed at COP matter to them. Climate action has to go mainstream and that means breaking out of the “green” echo chamber. COP has been a great reminder that we need to take regular opportunities to step outside of our own personal echo-chambers to gut-check whether the counsel we are giving our clients is based on the views of the “many not the few”.
We’re not ones to stand in the way of progress but if world leaders and big business are truly committed to closing the say-do gap on climate change, what comes next will require greater collaboration, accessibility and understanding. Never has the phrase “we’re all in this together” been more important.
Keen to hear more? Here are some of our favourite speeches and articles from the past week:
- Climate Activist Elizabeth Wathuti powerful speech at COP26
- Hear from Elizabeth Wathuti, a 26-year-old from Kenya who founded the Green Generation Initiative, a group that helps young people become environmentally conscious through growing trees. Wathuti delivered a powerful speech in front of leaders at COP26 and said two million of her fellow Kenyans are suffering from climate-related starvation due to drought.
- COP26: ‘You might as well bomb us,’ says president of Palau
- The president of the Pacific island state of Palau told the COP26 summit that parallels could be drawn between the climate crisis and the traditional Palau story of a boy who grew into a giant and ‘wouldn’t stop growing … depleting all the natural resources’.
- Climate depression is real. And it is spreading fast among our youth
- Opinion piece by climate scientist Peter Kalmus that delves into the growing epidemic of climate depression among young people.
- COP26’s worst outcome would be giving the green light to carbon offsetting
- Opinion piece by Greenpeace executive director Jennifer Morgan that explores the problems with carbon offsetting over direct emissions reductions.
Stay tuned for more from us next week as we look at the events of the second and final week of COP as talks continue on key themes such as loss and adaptation, progressing gender equality and zero emission transport.
Karen, Tessa, Charlotte, Nat, Phil and Eleanor.