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COP26: some progress, yet a long way to go

Updated: Feb 25, 2023

We have long known that immediate action is needed to shift the course of climate change. Yet, world leaders have gathered this month in Glasgow for the 26th time at the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP26) to decide on the next steps to take. And, spoiler alert, there will be a 27th COP in Egypt in 2022. A question thus naturally arises: are these conferences an efficient way to deal with such a global issue that requires decisive rapid action?

Let’s think about it while recapping what happened at COP26. This year 40,000 people among politicians, scientists, activists and researchers were convened in Glasgow for the two-week conference that ran from 31 October to 12 November. A key objective was “to keep 1,5 alive”, the limit to global warming that the parties to the Paris Agreement committed not to overcoming to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Central points of discussion were scaling up adaptation and mitigation efforts, as well as increasing financial support to developing countries. As a matter of fact, wealthy nations have failed to keep their pledge of providing $100 billion per year by 2020, a goal set at COP15 in Copenhagen more than a decade ago. Negotiations at COP26 were lengthy and hardly accessible, highlighting its lack of inclusivity. Yet, on 13 November 2021 the Glasgow Climate Pact was successfully adopted, and it produced mixed feelings. On one hand it was welcomed for the progress made, on the other it left a sour taste in the mouth of many representatives of the Global South.

Starting with the good news, the Pact urges wealthy countries to at least double funding for adaptation to developing countries from 2019 levels by 2025. Concerning mitigation, the parties commit to CO2 emissions reduction by 45% by 2030, compared to 2010 levels, and to net zero “around mid-century”. To speed up mitigation efforts countries are called to strengthen 2030 targets by the end of 2022 instead of in five years’ time. Aiming for a reduction of “unabated coal power”, the coal burnt without carbon capture, and “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” was another big achievement. Indeed, for the first time fossil fuels are mentioned in a climate agreement. Furthermore, during the conference some countries made separate pledges to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2100, end deforestation by 2030, and stop domestic and international investments in new coal power generation. The International Energy Agency estimates that meeting the targets decided at COP26 could mean that 1.8 °C by 2100 is within reach. However, according to the Climate Action Tracker we would actually be aiming for a 2.4 °C temperature increase by the end of the century with current 2030 pledges. Last but not least, the rulebook to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement was finally completed, which means that we can now proceed with the implementation.


Despite this good news, COP26 disappointed many people. First of all, it is quite shocking that in a conference where the phase-out of fossil fuels is being discussed, the fossil fuel industry is better represented than any country, with more than 500 delegates. And it is even more appalling considering that many activists from the Global South were not given access or did not manage to be in Glasgow due to the difficulties encountered in getting there in the midst of a pandemic. This COP was indeed criticized as the least inclusive one.

Concerning emissions reduction, we should not forget that net zero does not mean zero emissions. It refers to a mechanism whereby polluters can continue to pollute while emissions are balanced through the removal of an equal amount of greenhouse gases. Achieving net zero is good as it allows us to reduce emissions. However, setting a net zero goal by around mid-century prevents leaders from taking bold mitigation efforts in the short-term. In addition, it delays a real shift away from the extraction of fossil fuels and prevents a radical change of our economy based on ever growing profits and hyper consumerism. A recent report by the international Monetary Fund (IMF) revealed that the fossil fuel industry benefits from subsidies of $11 million every minute. In the words of US climate envoy John Kerry, “That’s a definition of insanity […] to feed the problem we’re here to cure”. And, although mentioning fossil fuels in the agreement is a step forward, this only refers to coal phase-down and does not concern either natural gas or oil.

What’s more, unlike energy, finance and transport, food systems were not given much attention during the conference, even though they account for more than one third of global GHG emissions. Intensive animal farming is known to be a key driver of deforestation and land degradation, and yet meat was included in the delegates’ menu and excluded from the talks. A recent UN report highlighted how farm subsidies are actually used in a way that destroys biodiversity. These funds should instead support regenerative agriculture practices, which feed the soil instead of degrading it; help create healthy forests, peatlands and wetlands, which are important contributors to carbon sequestration; and fight food waste, which alone accounts for about 8 % of global GHG emissions.

A thorny topic concerned loss and damage, i.e. whether wealthier countries that are historically responsible for rising temperatures should compensate the Global South for the irreversible damage caused by the impacts of global warming. The failure to provide new loss and damage funding was met with disappointment by the Global South. This is a key topic that should be addressed at COP27 since today millions of people risk their lives, lose their houses and are forced to migrate as result of climate change to which they have contributed the least. In a powerful speech urging world leaders at COP26 to take action, Foreign Minister of the Pacific islands of Tuvalu stands knee-deep in the sea as his home country is disappearing under rising sea levels and land erosion. The fight against climate change goes hand in hand with the fight for a more equitable world, in which human rights of all people are respected and protected.

We are in a critical decade for climate action. The Earth is already 1,1 °C warmer compared to pre-industrial levels, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns in its sixth annual report released in August that we will likely reach the 1,5 limit in the next twenty years. This means that extreme weather events such as heat waves and deadly floods will be more frequent and intense.

This takes us to our question: Are COPs efficient in addressing climate change fast and boldly? They are certainly an important element in this collective fight to halt global warming, and progress is being made in finance, adaptation and mitigation. Yet, these conferences, and the Glasgow Climate Pact, clearly lack the urgency which this global crisis should be dealt with. This urgency was instead created and shouted by thousands of activists that took to the streets in Glasgow during the conference to hold leaders accountable and demand climate justice. Furthermore, as long as the voices of the people and communities in the frontline of the climate crisis are not being heard enough, COPs are not as effective as they could be. The climate crisis is a global issue, and ignoring the demands of vulnerable communities undermines the global effort to fight this crisis. Indigenous people for instance are the guardians of 80% of the world’s biodiversity and they should therefore be given a seat at the table, as they know best how to protect and heal our planet. Climate change is more than temperature rise as a result of GHG emissions. Climate change, which exacerbates already existing inequalities, is about millions of people whose life is being severely threatened. It is time for world leaders meeting in Egypt next year to “open their hearts”, as Kenyan activist Elizabeth Wathuti urged at the opening ceremony of COP26, so they can allow themselves “to feel it, the heartbreak and the injustice, is hard to bear”


Author: Analaura Ransdale

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