As tempting as it might be to write-off COP26 as another abject failure, that would be at best unfair and at worst, extremely lazy. No, Glasgow has not delivered a breakthrough climate deal. But that’s not what it was designed for.
So, what actually happened at Glasgow?
The flurry of dramatic and often contradictory headlines make it quite difficult to assess the actual outcomes of COP26. The bulk of the work that took place over the two-week convention was in fact a lot more technical and dense than one might assume based on media coverage. Much of the agenda centred on finalising the Paris rulebook, i.e. hammering out the final details of the 2015 Paris Agreement. These included devising common emission reporting standards and provisions for carbon markets and bilateral carbon trading, among other shockingly thorny issues that have defied consensus so far. The sheer complexity of making a global climate agreement both diplomatically acceptable and practically actionable is worth reiterating. Details aside, the finalisation of the Paris Agreement is no small win.
We also acknowledge that the Glasgow Climate Pact bears some good news, including a commitment to doubling adaptation finance, along with the speeding up of timelines for the UNFCCC’s pledge and review framework. Notably, the agreement requests Parties to present more ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) by the end of 2022, instead of every five years. This reflects the acknowledgement that current commitments fall deeply short of keeping hopes of a 1.5 degrees future alive — injecting a sense of urgency which departs from business as usual.
Yet COP26 will be leaving a legacy of mixed results, and our goal here is to parse the latter out through a critical lens. To clarify, what follows is not a fully comprehensive and ‘objective’ analysis of the policy outcomes of COP26. Instead, our aim here is to reflect on a few notable themes, plugging these to wider conversations around power relations in climate politics, historical responsibility, equity and justice.
1. An overtly politicised COP: the fossil fuels question
Glasgow stands out for its surprisingly political nature relative to past COPs. The explicit mention of targeted action on fossil fuels was a historic first, and is particularly significant in the context of a global energy crisis, which has recently seen President Biden plead (unsuccessfully) the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and allies (OPEC+) to increase oil-production…
Coal has received particular attention, with world leaders enthusiastically hailing the end of the coal era. When exactly we are not told, and what to make of oil and gas, we are also not told. After significant political wrangling, Paragraph 36 of the decision text called for a ‘phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies’.
See below for a look into the evolution of arguably the most contentious paragraph :
Indeed, much ink has been spilled with regards to last-minute interventions by India and China, which successfully watered down the language from phaseout (i.e. termination) to phase-down (i.e. unspecified diminution) as shown above.
Media has been quick to assign blame, finding comfort in the narrative according to which climate ambition was thwarted by developing nations (see BBC ‘Did India betray vulnerable nations?’, Deutsche Welle ‘COP26 ends in disappointment after India blocks coal phaseout’, etc.).
This narrative fails to account for the real point of contention: equity. What India’s delegation rejected was not the importance of phasing-out fossil fuels in order to safeguard our climate — what was being rejected are the specific terms of the deal, which place a disproportionate burden on developing nations whilst rich, post-industrial nations continue exploiting loopholes. Just as the exploitation of fossil fuels has generated inequalities on a global scale, the same will occur under moves towards decarbonisation — unless climate colonialism is truly reckoned with.
While the narrative shift towards normalising fossil fuel divestment is welcomed, there remains many reasons to exercise caution. As with much of COP outcomes, the treatment of fossil fuels might be more significant symbolically as opposed to materially — more on this below.
2. Lessons in spin: it’s probably too good to be true
Media coverage of COP26 has drowned us in feel-good headlines about ambitious pledges and side deals — one would be forgiven for believing that the days of resistance to climate action are long gone. Yet increased politicisation always opens the door to spin, and Glasgow has served us some spectacular examples.
Environment correspondent at the Guardian UK, Fiona Harvey has dissected a controversial press release from the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (DBEIS) announcing the UK’s role in ending the era of coal.
Unluckily, what was framed as ‘a 190-strong coalition’ agreeing to ‘both phase out coal power and end support for new coal power plants’, in fact points to a very underwhelming reality. In actuality, only 18 countries have committed to phasing out coal entirely. These countries share a commonality: low coal dependence. Moreover, timeframes are blurry at best, with commitments to phase out coal by the 2030s for developed economies and 2040s for ‘the rest of the world’. This has encouraged nations such as Poland to conveniently label themselves as ‘developing economies’ in a bid to extend their deadline.
On the other hand, we have seen the G20 agree to stop overseas financing of coal, including coal-intensive nations such as China and Japan. Unfortunately, there is no mentioning the fact that nothing is preventing the construction of new coal mines domestically. Indeed, China has approved the construction of more coal-fired power plants in the first half of 2020 than in the previous two years.
Additionally, private investment in coal remains weakly regulated. The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) — supposedly a £96 trillion pact by 450 financial firms to move their portfolios to net zero by 2050 — somehow fails to prevent its members from funding coal projects.
Teasing out truth from spin takes a lot of critical work, along with a solid awareness of the evolution of climate science and politics. This work isn’t always done. On that, Harvey’s piece also provides valuable insights into the difficulty of reporting on COPs from a journo’s perspective, and the challenge of ensuring critical media coverage matches the pace of negotiations:
“Some queries submitted by the Guardian, asking for the full list of countries involved and what exactly they were signing up to, were only answered at 7pm, which is close to our first print deadlines. Further queries were answered at 10pm, just before the embargoed story could go live online, and at 5am the next day there were still more clarifications.”
It is also worth reiterating that not everything announced during COPs is legally binding: soft pledges and empty promises are not new in the world of climate politics. Lastly, pledges do not equate detailed policies. It is apparently perfectly possible to announce unrealistic and physically impossible climate targets (see Australia’s Net Zero Plan and reactions from the scientific community).
3. The money issue
COP26 will also go down history as one of the most financialised climate summits to date. Climate policy is now almost synonymous with ‘green finance’. In this context, it seems that there is no shortage of capital, nor of will to channel the latter towards safeguarding our climate. Yet a major topic of contention in Glasgow has been the dramatic failure of the global community to raise $100 billion in annual climate funding promised to vulnerable countries 11 years ago at COP16. So where exactly is capital flowing?
Limited appetite for funding is perhaps felt most strongly when it comes to the issue of loss and damage. A third pillar after mitigation and adaptation — loss and damage refers to the destructive impacts of climate change that cannot be avoided.
It is known that the communities at the front-lines of climate change are both the least responsible and the most vulnerable. Much of these impacts are already ‘locked-in’ due to the effects of accumulated emissions. In other words — loss and damage is intimately tied to the debate around historical responsibility and ultimately, climate justice.
Whilst the G77 have pitched for a financial mechanism to respond to loss and damage, this was blocked by the US and the EU for the reason that humanitarian aid was perceived to be sufficient in covering these costs. Different narratives constructing climate costs as a matter of ‘compensation’ or of ‘aid’ reveal specific political stances: to resist taking liability and instead reframing aid as an answer to climate damage reflects a loud denial of historical responsibility. See Carbon Brief’s detailed breakdown: ‘Which countries are historically responsible for climate change’?
Despite including a reference to loss and damage for the first time, the Glasgow Climate Pact stopped short of action, instead calling for further ‘dialogue’ on the matter. In that, COP26 was perfectly predictable in its support of the status quo. ‘Acceptable’ climate finance can only take the limited form of ‘green investments’ or ‘carbon trading’ — in other words, money will be poured only where more money can be made.
4. Biggest COP to date — but what about inclusivity?
With almost 40,000 registered delegates, COP26 could be the biggest COP since the first summit was held in Berlin in 1995. But many have referred to Glasgow as the most exclusionary summit to date, raising questions about legitimacy and representation.
The lack of inclusivity was perhaps one of the most under-stated aspects of COP26. A particular cocktail of changing travel rules, indecent travel costs, lack of access to vaccines, etc. have disproportionately affected delegates from the Global South. It is estimated that only one-third of the usual number of participants representing the Global South had been able to attend this year.
Further obstacles significantly affected participants that were able to make it, particularly members of observer organisations. The latter include civil society groups, NGOs, UN agencies, etc. and act as watchdogs, external to the formal international climate regime. Of those in attendance, many have called out measures restricting their ability to fully participate in deliberations (limited access, hours of queuing only to attend virtual meetings, impossibility of face to face contact with negotiators, etc.) and the implications for deliberation outcomes. Meanwhile, Global Witness estimated that 503 fossil fuel lobbyists have been granted access to COP26, representing over 100 fossil fuel companies, 30 trade associations and other membership organisations: concluding that ‘if the fossil fuel lobby were a country delegation it would be the largest’…
Is it easy to feel utter and relentless disappointment, COP after COP. The gap between the gravity of climatic disruption unravelling around us and the lack of genuine political responses is maddening.
The UNFCCC and the wider climate regime rely on consensus politics as their modus operandi. The pace at which the needle can move will always be dictated by the least willing participants. That is a structural reality.
But for the global conversation on climate change to centre around the failures of the international community to be moved to action, year on year, is poor framing. Fortunately, real leadership can be found outside of COP negotiation rooms. Real work is quietly taking place in all corners of the world: we are seeing activism in the streets, non-profits using courts to fight climate injustice, local communities experimenting with alternative ways of organising urban life… All of it is incredibly complex, imperfect and messy — as it should be. To wait for a miracle deal to solve it all is a dangerous illusion. Instead, let’s tune in to what’s actually happening on the ground.