What was achieved at COP26?


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As the dust settles on the international climate negotiations at COP26, 1.5°C may still be alive but it’s on life support and the road from Glasgow remains an uphill climb.

The outcome of COP26 has been exceptionally hard to call the whole way through, and even at the end, it’s difficult to know whether the world’s leaders have done enough to save us from the worst impacts of climate change.

There is progress to celebrate, but there are also worrying loopholes and ‘cop-outs’ and a fundamental failure to safeguard the interests, lives and livelihoods of those most vulnerable to climate change.

Here are my takeaways on the good, the bad and, when it comes to Australia, the downright ugly from COP26.

The good

COP26 was the first conference of the parties since the Paris Agreement took effect in 2020, and so was a test run for whether Paris would work to provide a durable framework for international climate cooperation. The good news is that, largely, it held up.

The beating heart of the Paris Agreement is its system for countries to make, and ratchet up over time, their climate action pledges. In the lead-up to COP26, many countries strengthened their targets for 2030 and made net zero commitments.

While these weren’t enough to meet the Paris temperature limits of staying ‘well below’ 2°C and keeping 1.5°C in reach, they demonstrated the power of the Agreement’s mechanisms, even bringing recalcitrants like Australia to the table with an updated target of net zero emissions by 2050.

There were also some late-breaking announcements. The most consequential was that of India, which undertook to reach net zero by 2070 and to source 50 per cent of its energy from renewable energy by 2030.

The first week of COP26 was filled with new pledges, many on novel issues that hadn’t been addressed before in the negotiations, and offering real potential for progress on bringing down emissions. They included side-agreements on reducing methane, halting deforestation, phasing out coal, stopping coal financing, moving beyond oil and gas and transitioning from petrol cars to electric vehicles.

There were some notable absentees from these commitments – for example, major coal powers including India, China, the US and Australia didn’t sign on to phase out coal. But, as different climate expert analyses highlighted, if these new pledges are met and countries enact policies to give effect to their updated 2030 and net zero targets, we stand a chance of keeping global warming below 2°C (although others give a ‘best estimate’ of a 2.4°C rise).

Further hope was offered by the last-minute joint announcement by the US and China that despite their geopolitical differences they would work cooperatively together on climate over the ‘critical decade’ of the 2020s.

The final outcome was the Glasgow Climate Pact, and there are some important wins here.

A pivotal provision of the Pact ‘requests’ countries, like Australia, to ‘revisit and strengthen the 2030 targets in their nationally determined contributions as necessary to align with the Paris Agreement temperature goal by the end of 2022.’

Starting in 2023, there will also be an annual high-level ministerial roundtable on pre-2030 ambitions. Laggards on emissions reduction, like Australia, will increasingly have few places to hide.

Many commentators also highlighted the language on coal and fossil fuel subsidies in the Pact as historic, however, the language is weak as it refers to ‘unabated coal’ (opening the door for coal-fired power to continue with carbon capture and storage) and ‘inefficient’ fossil fuel subsidies. A last-second intervention by India also saw an earlier reference to phasing out coal watered down to ‘phase down’.

Under the Pact all countries will be required to report against a common framework by 2024, making verification and assessment of progress on pledges a much less complicated task. And in a world-first, the UN Secretary will establish a High-Level Expert Group to scrutinise private-sector pledges, though this is likely to prove challenging given the lack of common corporate reporting approaches.

The bad

Viewed from the perspective of those countries most vulnerable to climate change, it’s hard to see COP26 as anything but an unmitigated failure.

There was some progress on key issues for low-and-middle-income countries (LMICs), like better articulation of the process for defining the Global Goal on Adaptation, an acknowledgement of wealthy countries’ failure to meet the promised $US100 billion in annual climate finance by 2020, and greater prominence being given to the loss and damage that is being caused by climate change.

But many LMIC negotiators will be going home from Glasgow feeling little was achieved. While wealthy countries are required to double climate adaptation finance from a 2019 baseline by 2025, they otherwise got away with just saying ‘sorry’ for not meeting earlier climate finance pledges. Wealthy countries also offered no guarantee that post-2025 climate finance will be significantly strengthened.

With African countries already spending 10 per cent of their GDP on climate adaptation, the adaptation finance question remains a live one and is likely to be an area of intense focus at the next COP27 in Egypt.

Private finance may potentially fill the gap and at Glasgow, there was a lot of fanfare attending announcements of the $US130tn Global Finance Alliance for Net Zero, but most of that money won’t be available for climate action and many of the world’s financiers are still heavily investing in fossil fuels.

Most galling was the resistance of rich countries to offering a financial lifeline on loss and damage. Vulnerable countries like small island states want money from wealthy countries to rebuild and recover as they face wave after wave of extreme events that will take an enormous toll on their communities and GDP.

And the ugly

Much has been written about Australia’s poor showing on climate policy in the lead-up to COP26 and over the course of the conference, this didn’t improve. Indeed, GermanWatch, releasing an update to its Climate Change Performance Index during the COP, ranked Australia dead last on climate policy with a score of zero.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison in his flying visit to the conference, sang the praises of the ‘Australian way’ of ‘technology not taxes’ and pledged a doubling of Australia’s climate finance to $A1 billion.

But few were impressed by the lack of detail on how Australia will get to net zero or how Australia is continuing to shun the international Green Climate Fund as the delivery mechanism for finance to LMICs.

Australia was missing in action on the key pledges made on emissions reduction, including those on methane and coal.

Australia kept bad company at COP, frequently adopting positions aligned with disrupters like Brazil, Russia and Saudi Arabia on key issues like coal phaseout, efforts to ratchet up obligations more quickly, and removing fossil fuel subsidies.

Perhaps the ugliest side of Australia’s participation at the COP26 will prove to be its alliance with the US to resist a new fund for loss and damage to support the most climate-vulnerable countries.

If one clear message emerges from this COP it’s that plenty of work remains to be done: to hold countries and companies to their pledges, to push for a real phaseout of fossil fuels, to ensure sufficient financial and other support for LMICs to transition, and to safeguard the lives, livelihoods and future of the most vulnerable.

The road ahead

At this COP, civil society, including non-governmental organisations, youth groups, First Nations peoples, climate scientists, universities and public campaigners, emerged as a key force pushing governments to do more. They will need to keep the pressure on.

Ultimately, the outcomes of this COP will be judged by generations to come.

As EU Commission veteran negotiator, Frans Timmerman remarked as he showed the conference a photo of his one-year-old grandson, the difference for those alive in 2050 will be between a world ‘fighting with other human beings for water and food’ or a world with a ‘liveable’ future.

Saving the planet is no longer an abstract, long-term challenge, it’s personal and it’s urgent.

By Professor Jacqueline Peel, University of Melbourne

First published on 16 November 2021.

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