After being delayed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, world leaders finally reunited in Scotland last year for the COP26 summit. Many looked on with ambitious expectations five years after the historic COP21, which resulted in the Paris Agreement. As COP27 is set to commence in Sharm El-Sheikh next month, we reflect on the achievements made since the COP26 summit and how commitments have fallen short of what they were meant to achieve. We also explore the expectations of COP27 in a world that is becoming increasingly aware of the devastating consequences of global warming and a changing climate.

Since the first COP meeting in Berlin in 1995, annual conferences have been held in the framework of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to discuss and negotiate climate change policies, strategies, and visions for the future. These gatherings are frequently referred to as COP (Conference of the Parties) meetings and they have been quite influential in the implementation of international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement

Recapping the COP26 Summit

COP26 took place amidst growing global concern about the effects of climate change, with increasing occurrences of extreme heat, ocean warming and acidification, storms, sea level rise, melting glaciers, habitat destruction, and biodiversity loss. This – coupled with the lingering ramifications of the global COVID-19 pandemic that pushed the conference back a year – raised the stakes and expectations for impactful actions and commitments at the conference. 

Over 120 world leaders and 40,000 registered participants gathered in Glasgow to “accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement”, informed by rapidly growing scientific data warning of climate catastrophe. The sentiment that “we must do more” has been a common theme among climate discussions over the past few years, and this was also echoed throughout the conference. 

The main goals and takeaways of the COP26 summit included:

  1. Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5C degrees within reach by advancing the phase-out of unabated coal power – the single largest source of global warming, reducing deforestation, accelerating the switch to electric vehicles, and stimulating investment in the renewable energy market.
  2. Adapt to protect communities and habitats.
  3. Commit to at least $100bn in climate finance per year.
  4. Finalise the Paris Rulebook and accelerate action to tackle the climate crisis through.

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What’s Been Achieved in the Past Year?

After thirteen days of negotiations between almost 200 countries, two main headlines repeatedly emerged: the Glasgow Climate Pact was signed and the Paris Agreement’s Rulebook was delivered. 

The first one has been described as a “series of decisions and resolutions that build on the Paris accord”, but does not hold any particular countries accountable. The latter provides guidelines on how to deliver the Paris Agreement best. At the COP26 summit, attention was placed on the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) of the Agreement’s signatories, which embody a country’s efforts to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Commitments in other areas including methane, car emissions, private finances, and forests were also made. In regards to the latter, over 100 countries signed an ambitious agreement to “halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 while delivering sustainable development and promoting an inclusive rural transformation”.

COP26 summit

Image 1: Map of annual change in forest area (2015). This pattern of deforestation has been cited by many scientists, urging global conferences (like COP26) to discuss the catastrophic effect on the climate. (Source: Our World in Data

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Finally, 22 countries signed the Clydebank Declaration, a plan to decarbonise shared shipping routes. The deal was part of a major discussion about accelerating the transition to 100% electric vehicles by 2040.

Alok Sharma, the COP26 President, addressed the attendees at the end of the conference, re-stressing the importance of keeping the 1.5C commitment alive and asked world leaders to “keep [their] promises and translate commitments into rapid action”. 

What Hasn’t Been Achieved?

Though many declarations were signed and meaningful discussions were encountered, the world still has a long way to go.

The first of COP26’s failures has to do with CO2 emissions. Although the Glasgow Climate Pact’s call for a “phase-down” in coal power was seen as ‘historic’ by some, many coal-reliant nations have no intention to give up fossil fuels anytime soon. The International Energy Agency reported that global energy-related CO2 emissions rose by 6% in 2021, catalysed by unforeseeable situations like the recovery of the world economy from the COVID-19 crisis, the European energy crisis, and ongoing ramifications of climate change forcing some countries – such as India – to go back to coal. 

Second, although the prospects of climate finance were discussed, some have argued that significant progress has not been made. In fact, the funds discussed at the COP26 summit do not reflect the true carbon debt owed by rich countries for accelerating the destruction of the environment worldwide. As Friends of the Earth put it: “Only a fraction of that finance is now on the table”. The article offers an interesting perspective that the human race is in fact funding its own extinction as $1.8tn is spent per year on subsidies for environmentally damaging activities.  

The final point that most critics seem to agree on is that climate targets for 2030 remain weak. The Paris Agreement famously indicates that we must limit global warming to “well below 2C above preindustrial levels” and pursue efforts to limit this to 1.5C. However, even scientists and researchers behind the Climate Action Tracker seem to be among those who argue that “targets for 2030 remain totally inadequate” to tackle climate change in accordance with existing ambitions, and we are in fact on track for a 2.4C temperature increase by the end of the century. As the latest IPCC report rightly stated, limiting global warming is “now or never” if the world wants to avoid catastrophic consequences.

COP26 summit

Image 2: The Climate Action Tracker predicts global warming of well above the 2 C limit with current strategies and actions. (Source: Climate Action Tracker

Reflecting On the Upcoming COP27

Nearly 30 years and 26 COPs later, it is still unclear whether we can limit the catastrophic impacts of climate change despite the establishment of many significant global agreements. 

Following last year’s COP meeting, professor Alexandre Antonelli, the  Director of Science of the Royal Botanic Gardens, suggested that the “devil is in the detail” when discussing strategies for reducing deforestation. He went on to explain that simply ‘planting trees’ is not good enough, and it must follow the best scientific practice – for example, planting the “right tree in the right place”, and starting with the biologically valuable ecosystems. Though commitments by global leaders are a good place to start, past promises have failed to generate effective enough action, and there is undoubtedly still a lot of work to be done.

Accountability also remains a challenge among the global efforts to curtail the impacts of climate change, as issues of environmental justice and responsibility for the warming climate provide an ongoing backdrop among the discussions. As parallel conversations about the importance of transparency when delivering climate pledges are being publicised, notions of accountability continue to contribute to evaluations of the COPs.

It is also important to note that, despite research showing that 80% of those displaced by climate change are women, they seemed to be missing from the top climate table. SHE Changes Climate, a campaign founded in 2020 to call for equal gender representation in climate negotiations, claimed that 10 of the 12 UK leadership team positions were occupied by men. In fact, SHE Changes Climate stated that “only 34% of COP26 committees, and 39% of those leading delegations, were women”. In addition, at the G7 Summit in 2021, there was just one woman among all decision-makers. 

These issues, combined with the frustration of the public at the seemingly unambitious approach in the past to tackle climate change, sparked protests in Glasgow at the site of the COP meetings. The downfalls may even have some people questioning the future of the COP process and its real impact.

cop26 summit

Image 3: Demonstrators gathered outside COP26 in Glasgow. Photo by William Gibson on Unsplash

However, views on climate action and protests were not seemingly all negative – and the leaders seem to acknowledge this. In his closing remarks, UN Secretary-General António Guterres recognised the power of activists in sending messages to leaders and encouraging them to “never give up, never retreat, [and] keep pushing forward”. 

Featured image by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street (Flickr)

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This information can be alarming to those who are worried about the state of the environment and climate change – this article has some tips about how to reflect on anxieties surrounding these issues. As we recognise World Mental Health Day this week, it’s important to make your mental health a priority.