Far from being a failure, The Glasgow Summit represents a major breakthrough that should serve to accelerate climate action this decade and beyond
I left the Scottish Exhibition Centre and its network of slightly leaky Climate Enormo Tents on Saturday afternoon, just as COP26 President Alok Sharma declared the Summit had culminated in a 'clean' and 'balanced' text. He then implored delegations to let the proceedings move to their close, only to be ignored for two more hours as scores of Ministers alternated between diplomatic verbiage and soaring rhetoric in an attempt to get their views on the strengths and weaknesses of the Glasgow Climate Pact on the record.
It meant I missed the dramatic close, as emerging and established powers arm-wrestled for geopolitical supremacy - the future of coal power plants suddenly acting as a proxy for the tensions that will define the 21st century. I missed the heartfelt apology, the choked back tears, the start of the spin battle to position the Summit as either stirring success or crushing failure. But I'd promised two young boys I'd be home when they woke up and had naively trusted Sharma's insistence the Summit would end at a time vaguely proximate to its scheduled close.
The gavel eventually came down while I was somewhere in the Midlands, wrestling with sketchy train wifi. It felt like a suitably bittersweet, perhaps even appropriately bathetic, moment.
Two days on and the tussle for COP26's legacy is in full swing. In fairness to the government it has resisted the temptation to spin the Summit as an unqualified success. It must have killed Boris Johnson to give the outcome a heavily caveated 6/10, but wise heads have clearly won out and the focus has been firmly on the sobering fact that the Glasgow Climate Pact is at best the thinnest of lifelines, its effectiveness to be determined by whether governments now cling to it or not.
In contrast, critics have dismissed the deal wholesale as a "travesty", "a suicide pact", an exercise in "blah, blah, blah". This criticism is understandable and even necessary. As George Monbiot highlighted, to stand a reasonable chance of meeting the 1.5C temperature goal the world needs to cut emissions seven per cent a year for the foreseeable future - that is more than they fell during the year of coronavirus lockdowns. Or as the Climate Change Committee's Chris Stark put it this morning, there are 98 months to cut emissions by 45 per cent. There is nothing in the Glasgow Climate Pact that suggests this scale of decarbonisation is imminent. If 1.5C is alive but its pulse is week, as Sharma asserted, you'd still be advised to summon the Priest to read the last rites.
The agreement's new commitment to call on countries to strengthen their national climate action plans - NDCs in the jargon - next year, instead of in 2025, represented a remarkable diplomatic coup. But within hours of it being signed the pollution-loving Australian government signalled it had no intention to strengthen its disgracefully weak 2030 emissions targets. Others will no doubt follow their lead, insisting either that they do not need to strengthen their plans or that it would be unfair to ask them to do so. For an exhausted Sharma and his team, the hard work of delivering on the Glasgow Climate Pact begins now.
It is also vital to always remember that 1.5C is not some arbitrary number. At 1.5C of warming there are reasons to think the world's corals will be destroyed, with huge repercussions for marine ecosystems; global food security will come under ever more intense pressure; millions of people could see their homes condemned to the waves. And with every fraction of a degree of warming imposed on the system the risk of catastrophic and irreversible tipping points increases. It is, as many of the representatives of small island states stressed throughout COP26, already a matter of life and death.
And yet, the suggestion COP26 was an unmitigated failure - an accusation being levelled, somewhat strangely, by both climate sceptics and climate activists - feels both inaccurate and counterproductive. COP26 has not solved the climate crisis. That will not happen until true net zero emissions is achieved and a global economy has been built that is resilient to the dangerous new world we have unleashed. But the Glasgow Summit did deliver a critical new platform on which that net zero emission economy can be built. It proved the Paris Agreement is working and significantly strengthened that critical accord.
On two fronts, COP26 increased the chances of the technological, economic, and social tipping points being reached that might just enable an exponential acceleration of decarbonisation efforts.
Firstly, the dense texts agreed in Glasgow contain important breakthroughs.
Most importantly the request that countries update their NDCs next year applies serious and on-going peer pressure on governments to strengthen their decarbonisation plans. It remains to be seen how this gambit plays out. Chesterton's Fence is the principle whereby you should not remove a fence until you know why it was erected. The five year update cycle for NDCs was established so as to give an opportunity for governments and technologies to change, and to avoid the risk that global calls for increased ambition start to experience diminishing returns, or worse still provoke backlash from those interests that feel embattled. This risk will become apparent over the next year, as some countries resist the call to strengthen their plans.
But this potential problem has to be set against the fact that the global carbon budget is being burnt through so quickly that the world may have had just one more cycle of improved NDCs to be submitted in 2025 before 1.5C would be truly dead and buried. Consequently, the Glasgow Climate Pact points to a new approach whereby NDCs become living documents to be updated annually as new policies and targets are adopted - policies and targets that will hopefully reflect the rapid pace at which clean technologies and public engagement is evolving.
The hope has to be that every country - very much including the UK - resists the urge to say 'our plans are already 1.5C compatible', and instead opts to publicly and loudly highlight how they are advancing policies to deliver on their goals. Encouragingly, there are countries, including China, who are confident they can over deliver on their stated goals, as well as many others who are yet to capture all their climate policies in their NDCs. There are reasons to hope significant numbers of NDCs could be strengthened and ever louder market signals sent. As such, the laggards will look ever more isolated and backward-looking in a decarbonising world where soft power and reputational standing is more important than ever.
A similar dynamic is at play in the row over phasing out or down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. India and China may have got their way by watering down the language, but the precedent-setting reference to fossil fuels in a UN climate agreement and Sharma's canny insistence that India and China publicly own their act of late sabotage on the plenary floor means this debate could now dominate the next decade of global climate diplomacy. Phase out or down is semantics, but the recognition is there that fossil fuels are the problem. Future COPs will re-open this debate and seek to extend it to gas and oil. The Paris Agreement was hailed as the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel age. The Glasgow Climate Pact confirms that interpretation was justified and sends the clearest signal yet to investors everywhere that carbon intensive assets are at serious risk of stranding.
The progress on climate finance, adaptation, and loss and damage and the appalling injustice they represent was less pronounced. The moves to allow developing countries to access Special Drawing Rights in response to the climate emergence, increase adaptation funding, and Scotland's landmark contribution to a Loss and Damage fund represented important steps forward. The trail-blazing partnership with South Africa to help fund a transition away from coal power that could provide a template for others to follow. But the failure of the 'Global North' to meet climate finance goals and the flat refusal to set up a formal Loss and Damage facility has yet again left climate vulnerable nations short changed. There may now be a universal recognition that much more needs to be done and new technical workstreams were established to try and break the negotiating deadlocks and challenge the narrow short termism of rich nations that has stymied action on this front for so long, but for those on the front lines of the climate crisis the pace of progress remains disastrously slow.
Crucially, however, what progress there has been was accompanied by the finalisation of the Paris Agreement Rulebook, including reforms to the rules governing carbon markets through Article 6 of the Paris Treaty. The compromises that were brokered after six long years of negotiations were important in and of themselves - they enhance emissions reporting transparency and should provide a more robust framework for ensuring international carbon markets perform as promised - but they also clear the decks for the next phase of the UN climate negotiations, meaning that from COP27 in Egypt onwards the annual talks should be focused on just two things: how to accelerate the transition to net zero emissions, and how to deliver climate justice. A new era has started for the UNFCCC.
Sharma and his team navigated the diplomatic minefield so successfully that they ended up with an agreement that is surely as strong as it could have ever been given the mandates diplomats had from their various national governments. Perhaps a more conducive geopolitical moment and a more assertive full-government push ahead of the Summit to secure concessions from allies - consenting to a trade deal with Australia without demanding much more ambitious action on climate change is a very strange use of diplomatic leverage on the eve of a climate summit you are hosting - could have resulted in better funding pledges and more ambitious NDCs. But once the stage was set, the Presidency played its hand exceptionally well.
The progress made by the negotiators was aided and amplified by the various bilateral and multilateral, public and private sector initiatives unveiled on the fringes. Again, some of the accusations that the tidal wave of announcements was being over-spun were justified, but overall the tidal wave of national and corporate net zero commitments and pledges to tackle deforestation and methane emissions, move beyond oil and gas, end overseas coal finance, pahse out the internal combustion engine, accelerate clean tech deployment, and decarbonise investment portfolios were hugely welcome and consequential.
There were a few blindspots - diets and agriculture got an easy ride, there was not nearly enough on cities, climate resilience, or public engagement, yet again energy efficiency barely got a look in - but these various commitments amount to billions of dollars being switched from fossil fuels to clean tech. More important still, they are focused on the right areas and asking the right questions. If they do not yet command universal support they are at or close to critical mass. The laggards that declined to sign up to the electric vehicle fleet commitment, for example, are gambling with their competitive advantage by seeking to defend legacy polluting technologies. Even those commitments where credibility is being rightly questioned are welcome. They challenge signatories in government, finance, and business to both deliver what they have promised and establish the standards and best practices that can give observers confidence that net zero goals really can be delivered. If they fail to act in line with their commitments then they only serve to make their hypocrisy more obvious to all.
None of this will win over the many critics of both COP26 and the wider UN process. But as with the attacks on the entire concept of net zero emissions, you have to ask what is the alternative?
If COPs did not exist you would have to invent them. There is no way to tackle a global crisis without global co-operation between countries, each of which have their own national interests and concerns. COP26 managed to transcend an incredibly messy and divided geopolitical landscape to deliver a genuinely impressive series of breakthroughs, and in doing so they sent signals to markets, governments, and people around the world that climate action is only going to accelerate.
You could argue that faith in a process that is not yet working to deliver rapid decarbonisation is born out of a despair that anything else will work. But the alternative models proposed tend to boil down to either an inchoate demand for some form of global awakening/socialist revolution/world government that does not currently seem as if it is about to materialise any time soon, or plans for various new economic models that tend to dance on the head of a pin over definitions, but often amount to a more environmentally aware form of social democracy and/or reformed capitalism, most of which would be aided by the Glasgow Climate Pact.
COP26 delivered a historic global moment that made it crystal clear that climate action is a top priority for governments and businesses almost everywhere. It put polluters everywhere on notice, and offered a ringing endorsement of the clean tech revolution. It built a new framework for decarbonisation efforts that should rapidly accelerate progress throughout the decade that will define how the coming centuries play out.
I left Glasgow more convinced than ever that the goals of the Paris Agreement will be met, and more fearful than ever that the hopes of keeping temperature increases to below 1.5C are more dead than alive.
There is now a path clearly available that could see a net zero emission economy delivered by the 2050s, which sounds like a long way off, but is at around the point when my boys are my age now. The transition can be delivered in a way that delivers massive health and economic benefits for all and addresses the climate injustices that have scarred recent decades and fuelled geopolitical enmities. Temperatures can be kept 'well below 2C', the climate can be stabilised, a better world is possible - it is the stated intention of the world's governments to achieve precisely this.
But it is equally obvious that these efforts have come two decades too late. Kim Stanley Robinson's The Ministry for the Future, with its deadly heatwaves, eco-violence, and remade international order, feels less like science fiction and more like prophecy. We are facing a dangerous and volatile few decades where dangerous heat will be applied to all the planet's stress points and the biosphere will teeter on the brink of catastrophic tipping points.
As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres noted in a sobering response to Saturday night's agreement that cut through any sense of celebration, "our fragile planet is hanging by a thread - we are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe."
Faced with such a threat was COP26 a triumph or a travesty? It was, of course, both and neither. It was a really important and historic step forward on one of the most important journeys human civilisation will ever make. But it was also an inadequate response to a global emergency. The journey ahead remains both thrilling and treacherous.
I managed to make it home so that I was there when the boys woke up on Sunday morning. They, and their millions of peers around the world, will grow up on a planet that will be much more dangerous and volatile than it should be. But there are at least stronger signs than ever before that work is underway to make it safer for them. And because of that COP26 was not a failure. Far from it.