COP26 has already delivered a series of big wins for the global net zero transition, as well as some worrying setbacks
The negotiations at COP26 are rumbling towards extra time with fears growing that the talks could yet end in deadlock. But at the same time attention is already turning to how any deal will be regarded and the signals it will send to the public and the business community.
As ever, environmentalists face the inevitable tension between a pragmatic desire to welcome the considerable progress that has been made and the impulse to deplore the continuing failure to push the world onto the rapid decarbonisation pathway that might avert a rolling climate crisis.
However, for those keen to accentuate the positives there have been considerable victories over the past two weeks. Here are five of the big wins that should please green businesses and provide clear signals to investors that the net zero transition is poised to accelerate.
1. The new 'north star' is 1.5C
The UK Presidency's focus on 'keeping 1.5C' alive was an extremely brave move, which could yet come back to bite it if the final deal is not seen to credibly ensure countries will strengthen their decarbonisation plans as early as next year. But it has served to entrench the idea that the world should be aiming to limit temperature increases to 1.5C.
Since the Paris Summit the desired goal for the international community and many businesses has cranked downwards from 2C to 'well below 2C' to 1.5C. That is a meaningful shift that could have huge and positive implications for literally billions of people.
They say that if you are at the wheel of a car that is skidding towards a wall, don't look at the wall, look at where you want to go and you increase the chances of steering yourself there.
The world might not limit temperature increases to 1.5C, but in the effort to do so it drastically reduces the chances of crashing into the wall of more than 2C of warming.
Moreover, this fixation on 1.5C has had real value in the negotiations. Having recognised the desirability of achieving 1.5C the vast majority of countries have had no choice but to accept the logic that they need to strengthen their NDCs sooner rather than later. The previous timetable for updating NDCs would have meant they would only have been improved once or maybe twice before the available carbon budget for 1.5C of warming was completely burned through. Now there is a broad consensus that bolder action is required well before 2030, even if some of the details are still being thrashed out.
And this thinking is already feeding through into corporate and regional net zero targets, with many businesses and cities looking at how they can pull forward their net zero target dates, make their decarbonisation strategies more credible, and accelerate real world action as soon as possible.
The focus on 1.5C has also highlighted how no one is arguing about the science anymore and no one is contesting that the world needs to decarbonise fast and deliver net zero emissions. The only real source of debate is about how to get there.
2. A 2.4C warming trajectory represents progress
Going in to the Paris Summit the world was on track for around 3.5C of warming. The historic deal brokered in the French capital and the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and domestic climate action countries brought forward helped bend the projected warming curve down, first to 3C and then towards 2.7C. The wave of national net zero commitments and fresh NDCs submitted for COP26, including historic new decarbonisation goals from major emerging economies such as China, edged the warming projections down further to 2.4C.
It is also worth noting that many of the NDCs do not capture the decarbonisation plans being pursued by corporates and other actors. There are (admittedly optimistic) reasons to think that if current plans are expanded and translated into near term policy measures the world could soon find itself on a 1.8C trajectory.
How has Cop26 bent the curve on the climate crisis? A visual guide.— jonathanwatts (@jonathanwatts) November 12, 2021
By me, @Ashley_J_Kirk @pablo_gutierrez & Seán Clarke. Data by @climateactiontr pic.twitter.com/Y58seZCCr3
None of this analysis is meant to imply complacency or suggest that COP26 has been an unqualified success. 1.5C of warming is still a tragedy for many and a source of immense geopolitical and economic risk for everyone. Pushing warming projections down towards 1.5C depends on governments doing what they have said they will do, strengthening their plans further, and catalysing the fastest and widest industrial revolution in history.
But what the temperature projections point to is a trend, and a trend that can and should continue. Progress is being made.
3. The real economy action is real
There have been widespread accusations that the tidal wave of announcements detailing how climate action is being accelerated on multiple fronts across the real economy were oversold and contained numerous pledges and commitments that were not as impressive as they first looked. There was definitely some spin and duplication of effort going on, but the vast majority of the announcements point to how decarbonisation efforts can be drastically accelerated.
From tackling deforestation to curbing methane emissions, the various multilateral commitments are focused on areas where they can have real impact. Meanwhile, the huge clean tech buying signals from coalitions of large corporates focused on electric vehicles, green steel, renewables, green shipping, and sustainable aviation fuels, all point to how these markets could quickly reach tipping points that trigger the rapid adoption that obliterates fossil fuel demand.
Activists may have accused the COP of being captured by business interests and indulging in greenwash, but while some of those concerns are legitimate they risk glossing over the genuine and rapid efforts many businesses are undertaking to transform their operating models and mobilise the trillions of dollars of low carbon investment the world needs.
If the various 'build it and we will buy it' green procurement signals offered on areas as diverse as electric HGVs and direct air capture technologies work as planned they could yet take a huge chunk out of the emissions gap and move the world much closer to a 1.5C trajectory.
4. Discussions on loss and damage, climate finance, and adaptation are all now focused on solutions
It is hard to be too optimistic about the progress on loss and damage, climate finance, and adaptation at COP26. A fundamental injustice is continuing as rich nations steadfastly refuse to provide the level of financial support the developing world needs and deserves. All over the world not nearly enough is being done to enhance climate resilience, leaving communities and economies exposed.
From both and moral and a raw economic perspective, this is self-defeating, short-sightedness of the worst kind, which damages industrialised economies' supply chains, export markets, and geopolitical security, just as much as it threatens the lives and livelihoods of billions of the world's most disadvantaged people.
But at the same time there has been progress. A precedent is being set with a new loss and damage framework taking shape and the first, albeit modest, funding packages being announced. It looks as if adaptation funding will be doubled and will be better channelled to the countries that need it. And crucially there seems to be serious discussions about how to practically bridge the climate finance chasm by better mobilising climate finance and liaising better with multilateral development banks and the IMF, most notably through plans to offer climate focused special drawing rights (SDRs).
5. The fossil fuel problem is being named
It remains to be seen if the references to tackling unabated coal power and inefficiency fossil fuel subsidies make it into the final version of the text, although it is hugely encouraging that both the US and EU are fighting for their retention.
But whether or not the historic reference to fossil fuels is retained, this has been the COP where governments, investors, and businesses made it clearer than ever that the fossil fuel age is slowly drawing to a close.
The Summit started with a crackdown on overseas coal financing that will take a sizeable chunk out of future emissions, progressed through an expanded commitment to accelerate the phase out of coal power, pioneered a detailed and properly funded multi-billion dollar programme to demonstrate how a major emerging economy such as South Africa can switch away from coal, and culminated in the launch of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance.
These various initiatives are a long way from securing the universal backing they need, but they all serve to highlight how fossil fuels are part of the problem, call the fossil fuel industry's bluff to properly demonstrate how it make itself compatible with net zero, and make the defenders of high carbon interests look ever more isolated.
COP26 has clearly underscored how fossil fuels are a 20th century fuel that is set to be replaced, probably much faster than many of its advocates realise.
All of these various measures have served to send an explicit market signal that a rapid net zero transition commands widespread and deep rooted support right across the international community, and as such policies to accelerate decarbonisation and curb high carbon activities are likely to continue regardless of any short term political setbacks.
The counter to all of this is that 1.5C is barely alive. Action has come too late and the transformation that is now required to too big. We are on the cusp of - indeed are already experiencing - an epochal global tragedy. Unless countries and businesses drastically increase the ambition of their net zero plans over the next few years, close the various loopholes that allow them to continue to pollute, and mobilise the trillions of dollars of climate finance that is needed, then 1.5C will surely die. 2C could swiftly follow it.
The decarbonisation plans discussed in Glasgow and the level of ambition contained in the draft negotiating texts are still self-evidently miles short of the action that is required. And even now, certain governments are determined to bury 1.5C once and for all and play Russian roulette with a habitable biosphere. Despite their mealy-mouthed protestations to the contrary, they continue to cling to the polluting economic models of the 20th century, inviting the planet to burn in the process. They intend to read the last rites to a 1.5C world and hang the consequences for their children.
The hope is that COP26 can still light the touchpaper on the global green industrial revolution that remains the last best chance of avoiding disaster. That it can be remembered for the positive and historic steps towards a net zero emission economy and a safer and more prosperous planet for all, rather than the blockers who denied the world its best chance of averting a rolling catastrophe. Which side will be remembered by history? Well, that all depends on what happens next.