COP26: Did world leaders get their priorities right?

A maxed or missed opportunity

The Glasgow Climate Pact – the final text of the United Nations COP26 negotiations – has been greeted with a mixture of frustration, relief and hope that the ambition to restrict increases in global mean temperatures to within 1.5⁰C of pre-industrial levels remains alive.

One of its most vocal critics, Greta Thunberg, branded COP26 a failure before the first week of talks had finished, accusing politicians of engaging in word-spinning rather than taking real action to curb emissions. 

George Monbiot similarly argues that the Glasgow Pact, for all its diplomatic language, reads like a suicide pact and that survival depends on raising the scale of civil disobedience to the point where it triggers a cascading regime shift in both technology and mainstream politics.

The main target of anger was the last-minute decision to downgrade text committing signatory countries to phasing out coal – the most carbon intensive fossil fuel – to a vague pledge to phase down coal. COP26 president, Alok Sharma, was visibly upset by China and India’s insistence on the change and warned that they would have to explain their decision to the world’s climate-vulnerable countries.

John Kerry, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, also voiced his displeasure at the removal of the draft text’s pledge on coal but struck a determined tone, telling journalists:

“Did I appreciate [the change]? No. But if we hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have a deal. I’ll take ‘phase it down’ and take the fight into next year.”

A changing stance on fossil fuels

Kerry’s comments draw attention to the important reality that, whatever its shortcomings, COP26 broke new ground in the international climate negotiations.

Phasing out coal remained a step too far for some governments, but it is the first time a United Nations climate agreement has included a formal commitment to curtail humanity’s entanglement with fossil fuels.

Having set this course, it would be hugely problematic for governments to try to remove it from future agendas and there are good reasons to believe that policy momentum will grow in this area.

The Glasgow Leaders’ declaration to work collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 similarly represents an important step towards protecting biodiversity and delivering sustainable development, while the pledge by 105 countries to reduce their overall emissions by 30% from 2020 levels by 2030 suggests a growing recognition that nations need to deepen and broaden climate mitigation efforts.

Another potential game changer was the request for signatory countries to revisit and strengthen their 2030 targets by the end of 2022. The 2015 Paris Agreement only committed countries to review their emissions targets every five years.

The decision to bring this forward by three years provides the firmest indication to

date that politicians accept that their current pledges are untenable in the context of the 1.5°C goal and are prepared to do something about it.

Does this mean that national leaders have finally got their priorities right on climate change? The signals remain mixed and there is much to suggest that many are still trying to solve the climate crisis in the context of other national priorities.

Boris Johnson is promising a Green Industrial Revolution in the UK, an approach that may catalyse emissions reductions in some sectors (UK leadership in hydrogen power and electric vehicles) but prove stickier in areas (such as reducing meat consumption) where economic and employment gains are harder to secure.

<p>COP26 Native Americans protest climate change<br></p>
<p>COP26 banner: together for our planet<br></p>
<p>COP26 Alok Sharma addresses journalists<br></p>

Turning commitments into action

Joe Biden has also used green growth and co-benefits to gather support for climate action in the U.S., but his administration’s approach remains dogged by the difficulties of navigating climate policy through the U.S.’s ideologically polarised political system. India and China’s intervention on coal was justified on the grounds that it reflected the “national circumstances of emerging economies” and climate justice, recalling that the world’s rich nations grew their economies on the back of burning fossil fuels. And just two days after the declaration on deforestation, Indonesia’s Environment Minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, distanced her country from it, arguing that committing to zero deforestation by 2030 was inappropriate, unfair and inconsistent with Indonesia’s development priorities.

The real impact of COP26 will only really become apparent as its agreements are translated into national policy actions.

However, the evidence from the negotiations indicates that climate change is still too often being treated as ancillary to other national ambitions, to acted upon where it is advantageous but not where it clashes with other priorities. If COP27 and other future climate summits are to rise to the climate challenge, national delegations will need to show a sharper appreciation that climate change is the context upon which these other aspirations hinge. 

A recent report by Deloitte’s indicated that India’s five most climate-impacted sectors – government and private and private service, manufacturing, retail and tourism, construction, and transport — which together account for more than 80% of India’s GDP could experience annual losses of more than US$1.5 trillion between now and 2070. Jager and Saha from the World Resources Institute argue that, without new policies, the U.S. will face climate-related economic damages equivalent to 1–3% of GDP per year by 2100, or even 3.7–10% in a worst-case scenario.

The cost of events that have already happened are only marginally less alarming. The Australian Tourism Export Council (ATEC) estimated that the Australian tourism sector alone lost AU$4.5 billion in 2020 as a result of the 2019–2020 bushfires, while the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that the costs of weather and climate disaster events across the U.S. during the first nine months of 2021 ($104.8 billion) had already surpassed the 2020 total.

Looking over a longer time horizon, the NOAA estimates that the cost of climate-related events in the U.S. for the last five years ($691.7 billion) was nearly one-third of the damages incurred over the past 42 years. To these must be added the less easily measurable costs of displacement, loss of life, injustice and the potentially irreparable damage caused by climate change to the planet’s biodiversity and life-support systems.

COP26 may have moved climate policy into new territory but rapid further shifts in priorities are needed so that strong climate action is no longer seen as something to be pursued where it aligns with narrow pre-conceptions of national interests. It is the only way to safeguard the social and economic well-being of nations and their peoples. Global leaders are keen to assure their citizens that they accept the climate science but there still seems to be some way to go before they fully understand its implications.


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